A painful question will eventually form the core of foreign-policy debate in the U.S. presidential campaign: Are the Americans now involved in a long-term war, a war that (as Condoleezza Rice suggested in her televised testimony on Thursday) could last for a generation or longer?
This matters more than the Iraq war and its aftermath, and much more than the pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failure that Rice discussed with such clarity. The war-or-not-war question goes to the heart of everything the Americans are doing or will do.
George W. Bush has a forthright answer. "I'm a war president," he says. He believes that Sept. 11, and scores of similar atrocities elsewhere, are radical Islam's declaration of war against the United States and its friends. John Kerry, so far, believes the opposite. He says the word "war" is an exaggeration; he thinks the situation calls for "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation." And he believes the Bush administration's thinking has produced "the most arrogant, inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy in modern history."
During the campaign, Bush won't be able to budge from his war-president position and shouldn't. Kerry, however, may have to alter course. For months he's been playing, with considerable success, to bitter Bush-haters who believe the Iraq war was a mistake, that it was justified through deceit by an ignorant president under the control of his advisers, and that Bush has manipulated the terrorism threat to enhance his own status.
But as Kerry considers the strong possibility of becoming president, he and his supporters must deal with a more complex reality. Bush's first term has produced a radical change in both the goals and methods of American power.
Anyone hoping to replace his policy must, like Bush, bring to the issues a clear eye and no delusions.
It's now becoming clear that his strategy is the most creative and appropriate since the containment doctrine developed by Harry S. Truman in the 1940s. Like Truman, Bush acted out of necessity. Because containment won't work against an enemy that may strike from anywhere, the United States must make pre-emptive war. It must go to the terrorists before they come to America. (Canada, of course, is not at war. We have chosen, once again, to be spectators at the drama of history; we are to the early 21st century what the Swedes were to the 20th.)
While making this change, Bush has also articulated a bold and coherent political strategy and a new basis for American idealism. Bush's government, unlike most great powers in the past, does not accept that large sections of humanity will live for the foreseeable future, maybe forever, under despotism. He believes American power should be used to spread democracy, which he believes everyone wants. As his report on National Security Strategy said in 2002, "No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, aspire to servitude ...."
He doesn't believe that Arabs, for example, happily embrace dictatorship, as their leaders claim. He imagines the United States can speed the growth of freedom, above all in the Middle East. As Rice said on Thursday, "Over the long run we will change the nature of the Middle East."
Though Bush has faced the most virulent criticism endured by a president since Lyndon Johnson, his policy shows signs of success. Libya has decided not to be a nuclear power after all, the Syrian government appears to be terrified, Iran and Saudia Arabia are showing hopeful signs. If Bush's plans work, he will deliver to the West its first foreign-policy success since the Soviet empire was pushed toward the grave by Ronald Reagan, the last president who was accused of a low IQ and a passive dependence on Machiavellian advisers.
Linking American power with the expansion of democracy serves practical as well as idealistic purposes. So far as we know, the world didn't yearn for American hegemony and no doubt other political arrangements will one day emerge. But for now American hegemony looks far better than anything else that's imaginable, which may be why no alternative has emerged. Many predicted that the European Union would organize itself as a rival power, but it hasn't happened.
Interestingly, Europeans are now adopting Bush's pre-emptive style, at least in dealing with potential terrorists on European soil. Since the Madrid bombing, police across Europe have been breaking up networks of Islamic militants, even those who have committed no known crimes. The French, who were watching a cluster of Moroccan-born militants for some time, arrested 13 of them on Monday.
A French official acknowledged to The New York Times that there was no evidence they were preparing an imminent attack in France; still, they had travelled to Afghanistan and learned the use of weapons and explosives.
They were, for sure, terrorists in waiting. So France applied a new rule: "Every time we discover a cell, we eliminate it as a pre-emptive measure."
The British, the Belgians and of course the Spaniards have been following the same policy. While disdainful of Bush, the Europeans increasingly sound like him. Perhaps they, too, are learning that they are at war.