Put terror war in perspective


The Bush administration should stop repeating that it is fighting the war on terror for truth, justice and the American way. Instead, the president and his staff should be blunt and explain that, since 9/11, it has had to choose between options that are bad or far worse.

By all means, the administration should invite critics to suggest constructive alternatives to the way it's handled this war. But it should also point out that those who have homed in on flaws in current U.S. anti-terror policies have so far been bereft of other workable ideas.

Can the critics offer better ways to track terrorists than through wiretapping and surveillance? How, otherwise, would one have learned in time about those in Miami who plotted to take down the Sears Tower, or the Lebanese cadre that planned to blow up the Holland Tunnel?

The Bush administration can also use history to show that despite what detractors say, its techniques aren't so unreasonable.

It's worth reminding the American public that President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and shut down newspapers; Woodrow Wilson imprisoned prominent dissenters, such as Eugene V. Debs; and Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-American citizens and secret military tribunals for German saboteurs (six of whom were executed) and allowed for the cover-up of military catastrophes (such as the hundreds killed during training exercises for the Normandy landings).

In other words, there's an advantage to providing historical perspective by engaging one's critics and answering their charges. The public, for example, should be informed that the accusation that the U.S. went into Iraq for oil is not merely inaccurate but also crazy. For starters, gas prices skyrocketed once we induced risky change in the Middle East.

In Europe, a poll recently showed that people there view the United States as a greater threat than Iran. If this is the case, is it not time to politely suggest to our "allies" that many of our half-century-old military bases in prosperous Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain have outlived their usefulness?

The Arab world's perennial grievances against the United States don't hold up, either, given that America has saved Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait and Somalia, and provided billions in aid to Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians.

The Bush administration would also be in the right to wonder aloud whether its domestic critics wish to go back to bombing away without consulting Congress or the United Nations, as we did in the Balkans. And when Americans are butchered, are we to skedaddle, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did from Lebanon and Somalia, respectively? Our present muscular policy - and we also hear this all too infrequently - grew out of just such past bipartisan inaction, which led to 3,000 murdered Americans. The truth is that the old way of doing business, rightly or wrongly, was seen by jihadists as encouragement to up the ante with 9/11.

Ultimately, the Bush administration needs to do a better job of presenting this current war in a far larger context. Jihadists of the Arab world for decades have been at war not with George W. Bush alone but with modernity. The radical Middle East street may be fascinated by the Internet, satellite television, ATMs and cell phones, but not by the foreign anathema of democracies, religious tolerance, free markets and gender equality that ultimately accounts for such goodies.

Here at home, we are witnessing the end of the multicultural dogma. Yes, there are really evil people who wish to kill us for who we are, not what we do - and they embrace cultural assumptions that are not just different from our own, but, let us be honest enough to admit it, far worse.

So there are many fronts in our struggle against Islamic terrorists. The American people must be reminded of our challenges constantly in lieu of platitudes about the inevitable triumph of freedom and democracy. In short, our government should provide much more explanation of this complex war and far fewer simple declarations about it.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His e-mail is author@victorhanson.com.

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