The Magazine

A War to Win

Sep 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 02 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The first thing that must be said is this: The nation has reacted magnificently to the horrific events of September 11. True, there has been some of the usual hand-wringing, on editorial pages and in Congress. To listen to some commentators, you’d think the Bush administration was about to embark on a mad orgy of international bloodletting, spraying bombs in all directions without rhyme or reason, save the lust for vengeance. Retired general Charles G. Boyd, for example, expressed his concern that the desire to "strike out in revenge" could "put us on the same moral footing" as the men who killed several thousand Americans this past Tuesday. Some in Congress were reluctant this week to give President Bush full authority for the use of force, lest he abuse the privilege and do something unthinkable.

In fact, such fears are entirely misplaced. The danger that the United States will lose its soul in the coming fight against terrorism is virtually nonexistent. But there is another, far more real danger: that we will return to complacency, that with the passage of time, and perhaps after a few, bloody skirmishes in this new war, the nation and its political leaders will gradually lose interest.

This may seem inconceivable at the moment. Right now, Americans and their political leaders seem prepared for the difficult struggle ahead. The administration appears to be embarking on a long, intensive, and purposeful offensive against terrorism. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz emphasized this past week, the administration is planning "a campaign, not a single action." The campaign will consist of "removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism." That will mean diplomatic pressure, and military action, against states found to be supporting terrorism—and perhaps sooner rather than later.

All this is encouraging. Right now, the United States appears to be girding itself for a protracted, dangerous, costly, but unavoidable conflict. But what about a month from now, when the networks have gone back to regular programming, the baseball playoff season begins, and the inevitable and appropriate partisanship returns? What about if some part of a military action goes wrong? What about a year from now? One of the great things about Americans is precisely how resilient we are. In time we will pick up the pieces and try to resume life as normal, and so we should. But the danger is that in returning to our normal lives, we may gradually forget this week’s horrible lesson. Today Americans know we are at war. The question is, will we still remember why we must be at war—and why we must accept the price of war—tomorrow?

We raise this concern not because we believe America’s present determination to make war on international terrorism must inevitably fade. The American people have in the past proven themselves capable of a sustained commitment. But the key to sustaining their commitment will be clear, steady, and vigorous political leadership, the kind provided by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, by Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan during the difficult years of the Cold War, and by George Herbert Walker Bush during the Gulf War and, perhaps more important, during the long, difficult months leading up to the launching of Desert Storm. We trust George W. Bush will rise to the occasion. But he shouldn’t have to do it alone. Members of Congress have a job to do, too. Whether they remain intently focused on the new war against terror will send a clear signal to the American people—not to mention America’s bloody-minded enemies—of how serious we are about sustaining this war, and about paying the price for it.

The price will be substantial—not just in dollars, of course, but to start with, in dollars. If the administration intends seriously to pursue the strategy outlined this past week, we may soon find ourselves at war in one or more parts of the world. The possibility of engaging in some form of conflict in Afghanistan is now fairly high. Should evidence reveal some Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, or other state support for last week’s attack, the president will be confronted with the choice of taking military action or backing down. And if he does decide to go to war in the Middle East, he will still have to preserve American interests and defend American allies in Asia. Remember the two-war strategy the Pentagon just abandoned? Now it looks rather more realistic.