- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

The president gave us a truly remarkable speech last week. He said all the right things about winning the war on terror. And he’s correct: There is no acceptable alternative to total victory in this war. The question is: Can he do it? His legacy seems to depend on it now.

To make fair comparisons, a historical perspective helps: One could argue the last century produced only four truly great American presidents.

In the national security category are Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan: Truman had the courage and very good sense to end the Pacific war without sacrificing a million U.S. servicemen. Reagan directly caused the Soviet Union, which he accurately termed an “evil empire,” to crumble and disintegrate.

One was a shooting war and one wasn’t, but both taught the same basic lessons on dealing with fundamental threats from overseas:

(1) We must never let up until the enemy is routed.

(2) When dealing with fanatics who also hate us, traditional foreign-relations approaches (based on gradualism and appeasement) do not work.

In short, both Truman and Reagan knew you don’t deal with fanatics by talking to them — you must beat them. The president’s speech last week made this point very clearly.

In the “great domestic presidents” category are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Roosevelt built the American social and physical infrastructure in the 1930s. Eisenhower built the Interstate highway system, which involved a major adjustment of the federal-state relationship.

The other presidents we remember — all good men in their own right — fall into a much larger category: those who may have seen many significant events as president but did not cause them or whose presidencies little affected events of the time. For example, the extended post-World War II and post-Cold War prosperities had nothing to do with who was president.

John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter all had the same basic challenge and opportunity for greatness, as did Reagan. They just lacked the vision and tenacity to know what to do and then do it, as Reagan did.

Then we had George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton’s first two terms and the first term of George W. Bush — none of whom were in the Truman and Reagan category because they did not end the one great evil in the world on their watch. This evil is far more dangerous, hateful and fanatical than the Soviet Union and Japan ever were, even at their very worst.

It’s really quite simple — and since at least the first President Bush, here’s what had to be done: Go after terrorist-extremists worldwide and get them. If we don’t, they’ll keep attacking us until they finally hit us with a nuclear or biological weapon, which they’ve sworn to get and use on us.

It’s coming. In fact, we’ve even been told: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” — not very comforting. And, can you just imagine such an attack in our country? And you think Hurricane Katrina was a mess?

However, in the days before September 11, 2001, we were resigned to the inevitable defeat by the Taliban of our man Masood’s forces in northern Afghanistan. As a longer-term proposition, we knew Pakistan was doomed to follow that sad example of extremism in a very few years, if not months.

The great irony here: Think how the world would look today had we not been attacked September 11. Even worse, we would have tried to deal with the situation diplomatically. And, as we already knew from our past failed experiences in dealing diplomatically with fanatics, diplomacy just doesn’t work.

But we were attacked, and the second President Bush showed great leadership by taking the fight to the enemy — and fighting them on their ground, not ours. In fact, Afghanistan was saved from a total takeover by Muslim extremists as a direct result of our response to the September 11 attacks, and Pakistan now seems able to withstand extremist influence.

After September 11, we went into Iraq because worldwide intelligence saw Saddam as bent on acquiring more weapons of mass destruction, which Mr. Bush was unwilling to risk.

All these things demonstrated the kind of leadership needed to defeat terrorist-extremists worldwide — and almost earns George W. Bush a spot with Truman and Reagan.

However, we haven’t won yet — not by a long shot — and the political heat has increased to cut and run. We now hear of plans to extract ourselves from the “war in Iraq” — a war that offers us the tremendous advantage of killing the bad guys in their part of the world, not ours. The real advantage — of course — is that killing them over there prevents them from coming here and killing us, which they want to do again.

And now the president has conditioned his legacy on winning the war on terror. While George W. Bush still has a very good chance to be remembered as the American president who did it, he hasn’t yet closed the deal. This has little to do with party politics: As with the great presidents who ended the Second World War and the Cold War, it will be done by applying history’s lessons and leadership qualities of vision and tenacity.

So… great speech. Now, Mister President, let’s get on with it.

Daniel Gallington writes on national security issues and is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.

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