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How to Proceed With the War on Terror, Now and Post-Bush

June 21, 2007 By:
Saul Singer
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 Anyone who watched the two most recent intra-party debates in New Hampshire could not miss the result: The Democrats competed over who was more against the war in Iraq; the Republicans over who would more vigorously prosecute the war against Islamofascism.

There is a compelling political logic to this outcome. Consciously or not, both parties seem to understand that if the election is about who will get out of Iraq, the Democrats will win; if it is about whether America is at war, the Republicans will win. This is not posturing -- the two parties believe in their respective stances.

The parties are aiming at real but contradictory impulses in the American psyche. Most Americans agree with the Democrats that the war in Iraq was mismanaged, but it's not clear that they would support withdrawal at any cost. At the same time, most Americans likely disagree with Democratic candidate John Edwards, who called the war against terror just "a bumper sticker."

Still, The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum might be right that the West has entered a "post-post-9/11" era. She noticed that the German, central European and British press covered the recent G-8 summit differently. From this, "it's pretty clear that that brief moment of consensus -- those very few years when the world's most powerful governments all believed that the world's worst problem was international terrorism -- has passed."

Indeed, the focus was on global warming, Africa, globalization, missile defenses in Europe -- anything but the rising Islamist menace. This is striking since, there have been many more "9/11's" since the original incident almost six years ago, including in London and Madrid.

Why the apathy, the silence? Why the resignation?

One explanation is that President Bush has failed to persuade Americans, let alone Europeans, that the West is at war. The truth is probably slightly different: It's not that Westerners don't feel threatened, it's that they don't see how they can win.

Psychologically, it's only natural to respond to a threat you think you can't do anything about by trying to ignore it. Israelis went through this at the height of the Palestinian suicide-bombing campaign, when they hunkered down and tried to fight terrorism by continuing to lead normal lives.

This is not entirely unhealthy. There is an element of defiance in ignoring terror, since terrorists are determined not to be ignored. Ultimately, however, Israel fought back. Between Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, the security fence, and targeted killings of terrorists and their leaders, the Palestinian assault lost steam -- not from a change of heart or for lack of trying.

On a global level and even in the Israeli case, however, it's not enough to defeat terrorism militarily. As we have seen, when suicide bombers became less effective they were replaced by missiles. Other countries have a more difficult problem defeating terrorism because their societies are not protected the way almost every kindergarten, mall, movie theater and cafe still is in Israel.

Bush is right that the West is at war, that terrorism cannot be beaten with defensive measures, and that defeating terrorist regimes is the key to victory. Where he has foundered badly is in the implementation.

By tying America down in Iraq, and keeping the pot boiling in Lebanon and against Israel, Iran has stopped Bush's regime change bandwagon in its tracks. There are even reports that Bush won't take military action because his administration believes it must cut a deal with Iran in order to succeed in Iraq.

Bush could still present Europe with a simple choice: Join us in imposing draconian sanctions to force Iran to back down, or accept that there will be no alternative to military action.

The question is whether the Iran crisis will come to a head under Bush's watch. The mullahs seemed to have learned Saddam Hussein's mistake, which was to invade Kuwait just a year or so before he could have built a nuclear bomb, as was discovered after the first Gulf war. Iran is trying to walk a fine line of causing enough trouble to intimidate the West into inaction, but not so much as to trigger massive sanctions or military might.

Iran, in short, is counting on not awakening Americans from their sleep, at least until Bush is out of office. If a Democrat were elected president, this Iranian restraint would quickly end, on the assumption that the United States would find a way to live with a nuclear Iran. But even if a Republican were elected and inherited the problem, the new president would have the tough job of succeeding where Bush failed -- convincing the world both that there is a war, and that it can be won.

Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of The Jerusalem Post.

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