Not a year has elapsed since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed 3,000 Americans. Yet the national consensus behind the war on terror has begun to fray. And the fault lies with the president and his War Cabinet.
The war's first phase – assembling the anti-Taliban alliance, deploying U.S. forces and striking with decisive impact – was done brilliantly. But beginning with the president's "axis-of-evil" speech last winter, the focus has been lost.
Pentagon generals confide to the Washington Post that an invasion of Iraq is not needed to contain Saddam. Our European and Arab allies have peeled off. Domestic dissent is rising. On the populist Right, there is a growing suspicion of a hidden agenda.
We are told the "war on terrorism" may last our entire lives and we must prepare to sacrifice freedom for security. In recent weeks, we have read of plans to use the army to make arrests in the event of a catastrophe, to train postal workers and others with access to homes as spies to inform on suspicious activities, and to create a new domestic intelligence service.
War is the health of the state, it has been said. Our Civil War, the two World Wars and the Cold War all brought vast expansions of state power. While the government receded after each war, it never returned to prewar size and now eats up 20 percent of our gross domestic product and intrudes in all aspects of our daily lives.
Some of us had thought that the $350 billion we turn over to the Pentagon each year was for homeland defense. Apparently not. For we are now about to create a new 170,000-person Department of Homeland Security. But if it is Tom Ridge's job to defend the homeland, what is Rumsfeld's? To defend the empire?
And should this war on terrorism last decades, many freedoms we enjoy today will be gone tomorrow. Which raises a question: What are we fighting for? If we are, as the president contends, fighting to retain freedom, what is the greater threat to that freedom – Islamic fanatics or Big Brother?
True, surveys have found large deposits of hatred of America from Morocco to Indonesia and broad support for Osama bin Laden. But the 22 Arab nations together have a combined gross domestic product about the size of Spain's. Oil aside, their total exports are comparable to Finland's. None manufactures the modern weapons we produce in abundance. The only way they can kill us is by terrorist attacks. But even a dirty bomb in a U.S. city is not going to defeat or destroy the United States. Look at what Japan survived.
But if the Islamic fanatics cannot defeat us, why do they attack us? Bin Laden gave us the answer. Al-Qaida's warriors and their allies want us to get out of their region, as the British got out. And tens of millions of Muslims share their view of America as a decadent empire, trampling on sacred Saudi soil, propping up puppet regimes and looting resources given to Islam by Allah himself.
As for the terrorist tactics used by Islamic fanatics – the bombing of Khobar Towers and of the USS Cole – they are the same tactics used by the IRA and Irgun to drive out the British, by the Viet Minh and FLN to drive out the French, by Mandela's ANC to dump over the apartheid in South Africa and by Hezbollah to expel the Israelis from Lebanon. It is difficult to think of a "war of national liberation" in the 20th century that did not use terror tactics.
While terrorism – the killing of the innocent for political ends – is morally abhorrent, declaring war on terror is like declaring war on weapons of mass destruction. It is an open-ended commitment.
Many have urged Congress to debate and declare war not only to meet the commands of the Constitution, but to end the moral confusion. To avoid an endless war for an unattainable end, we need to know who our enemy is, what we are fighting for, how long the war will last, how many casualties to expect and what our goals are.
And, to be candid, if suicide-warriors of Islam are willing to die in great numbers to drive us out of the Islamic world, we are one day going to be driven out, as the British and French were. When the French and British went home, the terror ended. And the sooner all imperial powers go home – including Americans – the sooner the anti-colonial wars, and the terror that goes with them, comes to an end.
The Islamic world is caught up in a great civil-religious war over its future. Let them fight it out themselves, as did we. There is nothing over there worth risking an atom bomb on U.S. soil. Having won in Afghanistan, let's declare victory and bring the troops home.