The Magazine

The End of the Beginning

From the May 12, 2003 issue: The war on terror continues.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

--Winston Churchill, November 10, 1942, after the British defeat of the German Afrika Korps in Egypt

THE WAR ON TERROR is not World War II, and George W. Bush is not Winston Churchill. Still, the war in which we are presently engaged is a fundamental challenge for the United States and the civilized world. It is a defining moment for America and American foreign policy. The victory in what the president called Thursday night "the battle of Iraq" is, perhaps, the end of the beginning of this larger war.

President Bush understands that we are engaged in a larger war. His opponents, on the whole, do not, and this accounts in large measure for the yawning gulf between the supporters and critics of the Bush Doctrine.

It is unclear, to say the least, what actual policies most of Bush's critics would follow. Different opponents would presumably embrace differing combinations of the sporadic use of American force, wishful exercises in appeasement, and endless negotiations at the United Nations and elsewhere. But what Bush's opponents have in common is a refusal to come to grips with the fundamental character of the war on terror: the fact that it is a war, of which Afghanistan and Iraq, as the president said, are merely battles. Thus they refuse to embrace the president's ambitious agenda, eloquently reiterated aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, of targeting all terrorist groups and the states that support them, of confronting outlaw regimes that seek weapons of mass destruction, and of standing with the friends of freedom around the world.

When the president laid out his principles on Thursday, one formulation was particularly interesting: "Anyone in the world, including the Arab world, who works and sacrifices for freedom has a loyal friend in the United States." Why "including the Arab world"? Because that world--or better, perhaps, the Middle East or the Islamic world--is the heart of the problem. North Korea is a danger, to be sure. But it probably can be contained--and the global threat it poses is primarily in proliferating its deadly weapons to terrorists and terrorist states. Almost all of these are in the Middle East.

The liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East. The creation of a free Iraq is now of fundamental importance, and we must do what it takes to make a decent, democratic Iraq a reality. But the next great battle--not, we hope, a military battle--will be for Iran. We are already in a death struggle with Iran over the future of Iraq. The theocrats ruling Iran understand that the stakes are now double or nothing. They can stay in power by disrupting efforts to create a pluralist, non-theocratic, Shia-majority state next door--or they can fall, as success in Iraq sounds the death knell for the Iranian revolution.

So we must help our friends and allies in Iraq block Iranian-backed subversion. And we must also take the fight to Iran, with measures ranging from public diplomacy to covert operations. Iran is the tipping point in the war on proliferation, the war on terror, and the effort to reshape the Middle East. If Iran goes pro-Western and anti-terror, positive changes in Syria and Saudi Arabia will follow much more easily. And the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will greatly improve.

The president said on Thursday night, "Any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups, and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction, is a grave danger to the civilized world, and will be confronted." That is Iran, above all. On the outcome of the confrontation with Tehran, more than any other, rests the future of the Bush Doctrine--and, quite possibly, the Bush presidency--and prospects for a safer world.

As Churchill also said in his speech of November 10, 1942, "We have not entered this war for profit or expansion, but only for honor and to do our duty in defending the right." All honor to Bush for confronting the challenge of our day in the same spirit, and with the same confidence. There will be setbacks and difficulties ahead. But surely we can, as we must, prevail.

--William Kristol