October 07, 2003,
Okay, it's time to say out loud what a lot of us who support the war on terrorism have been saying among ourselves: President Bush is doing a great job fighting the war but a lousy job explaining it. And his inability to explain this war in a convincing, persuasive way is starting to erode support among Republicans and, worse, starting to give Democrats and foreigners who want us to lose this war yes, that really is what they want the kind of ammunition they need to gain traction.
Actually, there is nothing wrong with what the president says. If you sit quietly and read the text of his various speeches they all make perfect sense. The problem is that President Bush keeps shifting his explanations one day focusing on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as the reason we knocked over Saddam Hussein, the next day saying we did it to liberate the Iraqis. That makes it sound like he's improvising, like he's concocting whatever explanation he thinks will work for whatever audience he's talking to. Listeners pick up on that supporters as well as opponents and they don't like it. Moreover, the president's delivery isn't always effective. For instance, on his recent Sunday evening talk-to-the-nation he sounded tired and woefully unconvincing.
So be it. Very few of our wartime presidents have had the combination of skills to both fight a war successfully and also explain it clearly and, alas, President Bush doesn't seem to be among them. Personally, I love the guy and would crawl through machine-gun fire for him. But to put it bluntly, there is a difference between landing on the Abraham Lincoln and being Abraham Lincoln.
In the last few months I've been traveling around the country talking to groups of business executives, college students, and just plain Americans. To be sure, some oppose the war; their minds are made up and there is nothing anyone can say, let alone the president, that will win their support. But the overwhelming majority of Americans I meet want an explanation of what this war is about that they can understand, that makes sense to them, that they can explain to others, and that they can hold on to as events unfold.
Here's my best shot at it, and it seems to work with the audiences I talk to. If you can improve on my way of explaining what this war is about, by all means go ahead. (And send your text to me, please.) Otherwise, try this out on your audiences, or perhaps just your family and friends, and see if it doesn't help them understand:
WHY INSTABILITY IS DANGEROUSThis war is about stability, and the point we all need to keep in mind is this: When the world becomes unstable, sooner or later a lot of Americans get hurt. So our national objective is the restoration of global stability.
Let's get beyond today's partisanship by looking at an earlier episode in our history. World War II actually began overseas. Japan had invaded Manchuria, Italy had attacked Ethiopia, and Germany had unleashed its blitzkrieg against Poland. In short, the world had become very unstable, very quickly. All we wanted was to stay out of it. But on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. We had no choice but to get involved. And what we said, in effect, was this: "Look, what all these Axis powers have in common is that they are destabilizing the world. And they will keep destabilizing the world until they are removed from power and stability restored. Perhaps we should have acted sooner to stop the rot. But we didn't, and now we've paid the price. What's the difference which one of the Axis powers hit us? They all want to see us destroyed. Okay, so it was Japan that carried out the first attack on our homeland, not Italy or Germany. But it would be foolish to go to war against Japan, win it, and then come home and wait for Germany or Italy to strike. So, since we've got to gear up and go into action, let's do it right and get 'em all."
What we did not do in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack was start arguing like a bunch of talking heads on cable television. We didn't waste our time trying to prove whether the Italian ambassador in Tokyo knew about the attack before it happened, or whether the Luftwaffe provided any training to Japan's bomber pilots. It didn't matter. We understood the Axis powers all shared the same objective to destroy Western Civilization, including us so the only sensible thing to do was to go after them all. And we did. In the event Italy fell first, Germany second and Japan which actually hit us fell last. So what. When the shooting stopped, all three murderous regimes were gone. And we then spent years and literally a fortune helping to rebuild those countries indeed, to restructure their societies to assure that instability would be unlikely to return.
Now let's fast forward, past the Cold War, to the 1990s. During this decade the world once again became unstable. Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and Iran under the mullahs started causing trouble wherever they could, and giving refuge and support to terrorist groups including al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. These groups, and others like them, grew stronger and bolder every year. North Korea began literally starving its population to fund a nuclear-weapons program. Yasser Arafat's PLO strapped bombs to children and launched its Intifada against Israel.
A HOLIDAY FROM HISTORYWe let it all go on, and on. Indeed, during the 1990s we Americans took a holiday from history. We prospered as the economic boom, ignited by the 1980s tax cuts, took hold; we played with our new electronic toys; we twice elected as president a man who saw the Oval Office as a chick magnet and all the while we blithely ignored the key lesson of World War II: that global instability spreads unless checked by military force, and that unchecked instability sooner or later, in one way or another, hits us at home.
Our holiday from history ended catastrophically on 9/11. We had no choice but to gear up and get going. Just as in World War II, it doesn't matter which of the creeps actually hit us, or whether those creeps were acting alone that day or working with the other creeps. We need to "get 'em all" because they all share the same objective which is to destroy Western civilization, including us. And just as we did in World War II, we will need not only to remove these regimes, but also to work towards restructuring their societies so they are likely to be stable in the future.
It isn't possible to know how long this will take, or how much it will cost in terms of lives and money. It took four years to defeat the fascists and Nazis in World War II, and more than 40 years to win the Cold War. And by the way, after World War II ended it took five years to organize elections in Germany and six years in Japan both of which were more stable societies than today's Iraq. Moreover, the course of war is never predictable, and history teaches that the costs escalate as victory looms; rising casualties, and rising taxes, more often are signs of progress rather than setbacks.
No one is suggesting a wartime moratorium on politics. By all means let the Democrats tell us how they propose to restore global stability more quickly and at a lower cost, in terms of lives and money, than the president is doing. Indeed, since the Democrats pride themselves on their expertise at government, surely they ought to have some useful suggestions for instance, on how Iraq's new civil society should be shaped, or how Afghanistan's President Karzai can get a grip on things beyond the city limits of Kabul. (Indeed, if any Democrat or any Frenchman, for that matter has made a useful suggestion along these lines, I sure haven't heard it.) By all means make the president defend his approach versus theirs. And let next year's election turn on which candidate the voters judge will restore global stability sooner and at a lower cost.
But as we move into the 2004 election cycle (and the next UN General Assembly session) let's agree that in a world with weapons of mass destruction that can fit into a briefcase or a cruise-missile warhead, and be delivered anywhere on earth in minutes, our tolerance for global instability must be very, very low. And that, should we ignore this lesson of history a third time, it may well be our last.