Thursday, September 11, 2003

Something my brother said to me long ago — not before September 11, but well before a coalition of willing American and British forces liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein — comes back to me from time to time on the ebb and flow of the war on Islamic terrorism. To be precise, his comment comes back to me not so much on the “ebb” of our military and political progress — which, with patience and forbearance Americans will overcome — so much as on the “flow” of the forces arrayed against that progress.

They are legion. That is, the United States’ war on barbarism — for what else are terrorists but barbarians? — that George W. Bush is determined to win is not only a military and intelligence effort against desperate Ba’athist remnants in Iraq, mad jihadist terror cells the world over, and the hostile nation-states that support them. It is also a great political struggle against international and domestic forces — from the United Nations, where plans are afloat to expand the Security Council, to the Democratic Party, which finally found in the president’s $87 billion budget for Iraq a federal spending program too rich for its blood — that act to restrain and limit America’s execution of and, therefore, victory in that war.

In some ways, this political battle may be trickier than the military campaign. It may even be more costly in terms of loss of life — if, that is, we are defeated, or if we defeat ourselves. Which brings me back to what my brother said one crummy political day, maybe when the humanitarians of Europe were giving then-dictator Saddam Hussein something to cheer about by marching behind banners proclaiming “Bush=Hitler” and the like; or maybe during one of those periodic Democratic stabs at the president’s credibility — for instance, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s short-lived What-did-the-president- know-about-September 11-and-when-did-he-know-it? campaign. Or maybe his remark came during a day (a week, a month, two months) of political purgatory at the U.N. Security Council. Whenever it was exactly, the pressure was mounting on the president to “moderate”; to falter; to pull back to a supposedly safer, more sensible position. Only he didn’t. So my brother was moved to note, somewhat dramatically but strictly on the level: “All that stands between us and the abyss is George W. Bush.”

This took me aback at first, the notion that such a man — any man — could stave off the frightening chaos of the void, metaphoric or not. But there’s something about Mr. Bush, something we had little reason to expect on electing him, that is singular: namely, his seemingly unshakeable determination to do what it takes to defeat global terrorism inspired by 21st-century-jihad against the West.

People say his mettle comes of strong faith; a doctor-friend of mine wonders whether his is the stubborn steel of the successfully reformed alcoholic. Whatever fuses his backbone, the fact is, George W. Bush gets it: Freedom is under assault, and it is left to the United States and its few true allies to do what it takes to defend it.

Administration officials sound a similar note. About the president’s request for $87 billion to hold and rebuild Iraq, national security advisor Condoleeza Rice recently said, “Yes, the price tag is very high.” She added: “Freedom is priceless.” And in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, engaged in what The Washington Post described as “an unusual bit of rhetorical escalation” about what is at stake. “You may have to go back to the Civil War to find a time when the values we hold dear have been threatened like they’ve been threatened today,” Gen. Myers said. “We’ve got to have the will to win. This is a battle of wills.”

This is something the president understands. His big-picture perspective is the single most vital asset Mr. Bush has. And it is something no Democratic presidential contender has, as painfully revealed by the latest Democratic debate. There, George W. Bush — not, say, Islamic terrorism — was unanimously identified as the root of all evil. Iraq, it was largely agreed, was a mistake only the United Nations could correct — although why, given the U.N.’s spectacular record in administering Palestinian refugee camps that turn out generation after generation of murder-minded terrorists, no one explained. Not that murder-minded terrorists are a problem. As Democratic front-runner Howard Dean put it, “We need to beat George Bush so we can have peace in the Middle East.”

Bush-obsessed, Democrats don’t see anything besides the president. Bush-obsessed, they have no inkling as to what may lie behind him: the fearful chaos of a prematurely ended war on terrorism. And that may be what is most frightening of all.

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