The Magazine

September 11, 2001 - April 9, 2003

From the April 28, 2003 issue: The era of American weakness and doubt in response to terrorism is over.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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AMERICA WAS ATTACKED a little over a year and a half ago. This assault was the product of two decades of American weakness in the face of terror and three decades of American fecklessness in the Middle East. From the barely-responded-to bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 to the host of subsequent, little-noticed or quickly forgotten attacks in the later 1980s and in the 1990s, we came to be seen as a "weak horse." That characterization was Osama bin Laden's, and he made it with reason.

Similarly, from the oil embargo of 1973 through the destruction of a free and democratic Lebanon in the mid-1970s by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Syrians, to the Khomeini revolution in Iran, the accelerated Saudi export of violent Wahhabi Islam to America and the world, and Saddam Hussein's brutalities in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States rolled with the punches. Saddam, to cite an egregious example, was allowed to stay in power after being routed in the Gulf War, then held accountable only on rare occasions for continually violating the ceasefire he signed. Along the way, the United States decided its proper response to Middle East tyranny and brutality should be not to punish our enemies and stand up for our principles, but rather to focus on a "peace process" between democratic Israel and the master-terrorist Yasser Arafat.

But that era--in which the American stance was one of doubt, weakness, and retreat, in which we failed to affirm our most cherished principles or even stand up for ourselves--came to an end on September 11, 2001. The United States committed itself to defeating terror around the world. We committed ourselves to reshaping the Middle East, so the region would no longer be a hotbed of terrorism, extremism, anti-Americanism, and weapons of mass destruction. The first two battles of this new era are now over. The battles of Afghanistan and Iraq have been won decisively and honorably. But these are only two battles. We are only at the end of the beginning in the war on terror and terrorist states.

The Taliban regime that provided safe haven and support for al Qaeda has been removed, and up to two million Afghan refugees have gone home. One of the two dangerous rogue regimes that have dominated the Persian Gulf--the political heart of the volatile and crucial Middle East--has been overthrown. Some 50 million Muslims, liberated from brutal governments, now have a chance to live decent and normal lives. The war on terror, meanwhile, has gone extraordinarily well. Though the threat of another serious terrorist strike on America has not vanished, there has been none since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11. Law enforcement authorities have uprooted al Qaeda sleeper cells at home, and friendly governments have cracked down on anti-American terrorists abroad.

We are a strong nation. But a successful response to the challenges that culminated in September 11 was by no means inevitable. Let's be honest, and let's even run the risk of being denounced for partisanship: If Bill Clinton had still been president on September 11, and were still president now, the Taliban might be gone, but Saddam would still be in power, and we would still be considering P.C.-acceptable ways to fight the war on terror at home and U.N.-acceptable ways to do so abroad.

Leadership matters. President Bush, above all, but also Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, among others, have risen to the challenge of September 11. The American military has risen to the challenge with two brilliant and innovative campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The American people, too, have risen to the challenge. Many battles remain to be fought, both military and political, many tests of America's resolve. But the war on terror and terrorist states--the defining challenge of this moment--is well-begun.

--William Kristol