‘The Decisive Struggle’

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The New York Sun

As we went to press last night, it was still too soon to say how the tumult surrounding an upcoming “docudrama” on ABC was going to play itself out. But it’s not to soon to suggest that the controversy is missing the point. What steps President Clinton took — or, more pertinently, failed to take — to address the threat of Islamist terrorism is one thing. But the threat escalated throughout the 1990s, and we got our judgment on whether Mr. Clinton had done enough on September 11, 2001. With all the back-and-forth about how the ABC film will depict Mr. Clinton, the real question is whether America’s leaders have learned from recent history.

President Bush, in a series of stunning speeches, is racing, in advance of the coming elections, to place this question in the sharpest possible relief. On Tuesday, he definitively identified the enemy against which America is fighting as a faction preaching a totalitarian form of Islam. On Wednesday, he detailed the steps necessary to fight individual terrorists and foil their plots. Yesterday he placed the struggle against those individual terrorists and terror plots in a broader political and military context, which together adds up to what he called “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

The former speaker, Newton Gingrich, may be deriding Mr. Bush’s foreign policy these days. But, by our lights, the president’s three recent speeches, taken together and bundled on top of Mr. Bush’s previous words and deeds, add up to an approach to the strategic questions facing this country that will be remembered for generations. They underline the fact that this administration has moved miles beyond the intellectual and moral confusion of the Clinton years. Mr. Bush’s speeches also pose an implicit question: Have other American politicians made the same progress?

The first answers will come this month when Congress starts to deal with the president’s legislative plan to address the concerns the Supreme Court outlined in June, when it handed down its Hamdan opinion. Mr. Bush’s critics have attempted to bludgeon him with the Geneva Convention’s Common Article 3, which prohibits inflicting “outrages upon personal dignity” and “humiliating and degrading treatment” on prisoners of war. Mr. Bush has put the ball in the Congress’s court, asking it to specify exactly what it considers to be outrages upon the personal dignity of terrorists.

The Pentagon revised its field manual to outlaw some of the most coercive interrogation techniques such as “waterboarding.” How much further are Mr. Bush’s critics willing to go? How much potential intelligence are they willing to forego, to protect the “personal dignity” of dangerous terrorists? Now the American public will find out.

As to why the policy of spreading democracy is so key to our national defense, Mr. Bush noted that the September 11 attacks were born abroad and that the plot “showed that by allowing states to give safe haven to terrorist networks that we made a grave mistake.” Mr. Bush spoke of the need for the pressure on the enemy to be “unrelenting.” His most strategic point was to assert that denying the enemy safe haven means more than propping up any despotic regime that is anti-terror. “To win this struggle, we have to defeat the ideology of the terrorists with a more hopeful vision.” Hence the centrality of Mr. Bush’s “freedom agenda.”

What the drama over the ABC drama makes so clear is that the Clinton administration was intellectually, temperamentally, or politically incapable thinking in such strategic terms. The Clinton years witnessed the first World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole. None of these events was greeted with anything resembling an actual strategy for combating Islamist terrorism, though there were newspaper editorialists writing their hearts out on the question. Will Mr. Bush’s critics will be able to offer a plan of attack as compelling as that laid out by Mr. Bush this week? The voters will be all ears.

The New York Sun

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