The Magazine

The Right War

Oct 1, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 03 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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President Bush’s speech before Congress Thursday night conveyed both the determination and the reassurance the American people needed. But what gave the president’s address historic significance was the courageous and visionary mission he set for his administration and for the nation. For Bush pledged not only to find and destroy Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan, and not only to attack and vanquish the brutal Taliban regime that has given bin Laden aid and sanctuary. The president declared that while America’s "war on terror" begins with Al Qaeda, "it does not end there." The war, he insisted, will require that "every terrorist group of global reach" be "found, stopped, and defeated," and our enemies, he declared, will include not just those groups but also "every government that supports them."

We trust these words will reverberate far beyond Kabul, in Tehran, Damascus, Khartoum, and above all, in Baghdad, where sits the man whom Secretary of State Colin Powell recently called "one of the leading terrorists on the face of the Earth." Evidence that Iraq may have aided in the horrific attacks of September 11 is beginning to accumulate. American intelligence officials have learned that one of the men who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center, Mohammed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Germany several months ago. Other bits of evidence of Iraqi complicity may emerge in the future. If Attorney General John Ashcroft’s investigation does begin to piece together a puzzle that includes Iraq, the American public will demand that the kind of forceful response now being assembled against the Taliban be turned with even greater fury against Saddam and his regime. And they will be right.

But Bush’s Thursday speech was significant because the president made clear that taking decisive action against Saddam does not require absolute proof linking Iraq to last week’s attack. A few days before, Secretary Powell was even more explicit in saying that the United States should target those "groups out there that mean us no good" and "that have conducted attacks previously against U.S. personnel, U.S. interests, and our allies." That means the war on anti-American terrorism must target Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran and Syria, as well as the Taliban. And it must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power, by supporting the Iraqi opposition and, if necessary, by using American military force to complete the tragically unfinished task begun in Operation Desert Storm a decade ago.

The president revealed in his speech a deep understanding of an important point: that the "war on terrorism" is not merely a war on terrorists. It is also, and perhaps even more significantly, a war against the kinds of regimes that support and employ terrorism as a deadly weapon in their war against us. Saddam Hussein, because of his strategic position in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, surely represents a more potent challenge to the United States and its interests and principles than the weak, isolated, and we trust, soon-to-be crushed Taliban. And unlike the Taliban, Saddam Hussein may soon have at his disposal not only terrorist networks, but biological, chemical, and even nuclear weapons. Is it conceivable that the United States would destroy the Taliban but leave the Iraqi regime untouched? Could the war the president so eloquently rallied us to Thursday night be considered won if Saddam were still in power three years from now, aiding our enemies and developing weapons of mass destruction?

As both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported this past week, there has been an argument within the Bush administration over how centrally to target Iraq. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Pentagon and in Vice President Cheney’s office have argued that no war on terrorism can possibly succeed if there is not a change of regime in Iraq—which is what Wolfowitz meant when he said a week ago that it was necessary to "end states that support terrorism." The president made clear in his speech that the war on terrorism must bring about a change of regime in Afghanistan. He surely knows that a change of regime in Iraq may take longer, but is every bit as important.