George W. Bush has staked his presidency on his administration's conduct of the war on terrorism. His reelection is imperiled by two considerations: Many Americans do not believe we are at war. And among those who do, an increasing number doubt that we are winning.
Wrong as they are, the voters who believe that "war" is rather too strong or too hyped a term have a point. To begin with, it's hard to make war against an abstract noun like terrorism. Even conservatives are uneasy on this score, recalling that the "war on poverty" was not a war and that it resulted in more poverty, not less.
Nonetheless, we do have real enemies in the world who seek, in all-too-concrete terms, our humiliation and destruction. In response, America has not noticeably increased the size of the armed forces, relying instead on Reserves and National Guard troops to fill the gap. In Iraq, our soldiers have gone from victorious liberators to uncertain occupiers, compelled to start and stop operations on the say-so of various shadowy authorities. We seem to be engaged not in war but in a vast and depressing exercise in modern child-rearing: with lots of warnings but no real discipline, and with plenty of time-outs for parents as well as children.
In our patience with half-measures, the situation recalls Vietnam, which Americans would rather not recall, except for Senator John Kerry and his spokesmen. He and the Democrats exalt the principle of "service." It is enough for them that Kerry served his country honorably. But how could he have served honorably in a war that he, and most of his party, considered dishonorable?
Was the Vietnam War a just war, a noble cause, or not? If not, why is Lieutenant Kerry so proud to have chosen to be a part of it? Truly, even for so talented a politician as Senator Kerry, it is hard to be a war hero, a war protestor, and a war criminal at the same time. His fallback is to claim that the Vietnam War was a "mistake." Like Iraq, it turned out to be a different war from the one he signed up for. But this is an evasion of his dilemma, not an answer to it. Was the war—whether in Vietnam or Iraq—a well-intentioned or an ill-intentioned mistake? Are America's purposes in the world basically good, or bad?
The truth is that Kerry and his party are not sure; or rather, they are sure that the country's motives are very much to be distrusted, unless American citizens are under the supervision of ethical people like themselves. Call them what you will—capitalist, bourgeois, self-interested, selfish—the American people need liberal exemplars to conduct them to higher ethical understanding, lest they end up talking and thinking like George W. Bush. That's why Kerry and his band of brothers and sisters love international law and organizations, not to mention the enlightened nations of Old Europe. These function as checks or correctives to Americans' low moral I.Q., elevating and purifying our selfish will.
Kerry and company think that the U.S. now is at war in Iraq, but that it shouldn't be. The war, properly speaking, ended in Afghanistan; the rest has been at best overreaction, at worst imperialism. All that's needed now is some international police work and some serious nation-building. No wonder he wants to replace U.S. troops in Iraq as quickly as possible with international forces. What would Americans know about building a real democracy? Bring on the Syrians and the Germans!
Americans who, unlike the Democrats, recognize that we're in a just and necessary war still worry that we are losing it, that our forces are sinking into Iraqi quicksand. To win reelection, President Bush needs to restore confidence that the administration will do everything necessary to win the war. In his great speech to the U.S. Congress several weeks after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill marveled at the temerity of Imperial Japan. "What kind of a people do they think we are?" he asked. "Is it possible they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?"
This should be America's object. Already, we have inflicted terrible retribution upon our enemies: the Taliban is exiled and dispersed, Saddam's sons are dead, Saddam himself shackled and destined for the gallows, his regime smashed beyond repair. But President Bush must announce that this is only a shadow of what will happen to Iran, Syria, or to any regime that sponsors or permits any future attack on America and its interests.
And then, as the earnest of his pledge, Mr. Bush must wage war with new vigor, larger forces, and a farseeing strategy for victory.