As President Clinton might say: "It depends on what the meaning of 'win' is."
By now, you've no doubt read all about it: President Bush told NBC's Matt Lauer that he didn't think America could win the War on Terrorism. Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards accused Bush of declaring defeat.
Bush then told Rush Limbaugh that what he meant to say was that the current global conflict is not like World War II. No enemy general is going to hand over his weapons in ceremonial surrender.
But that's not how the last great international struggle ended either. The Cold War - which some historians now call World War III - concluded when the Soviet Union collapsed and ordinary citizens smashed the Berlin Wall into paper weights.
In the War on Terrorism -- or World War IV -- the Free World is battling totalitarian ideologies that have borrowed freely from both Communism and Nazism, but which stake their claim to legitimacy on a radical interpretation of Islam and Islam's doctrine of jihad, or holy war.
Terrorism - the deliberate slaughter of civilians by combatants disguising themselves as civilians – is simply the means by which the Jihadis believe they can defeat decadent, infidel democracies.
And terrorism is a weapon the Jihadis believe they have all to themselves – infidels, they are confident, will not indiscriminately slaughter them and their families. Our reluctance to use this weapon is, in their view, a symptom of our weakness.
Terrorism is not a new weapon. But on 9/11, terrorists armed with hijacked passenger jets wreaked havoc on an unprecedented scale. Terrorists armed with nuclear, chemical or biological Weapons of Mass Destruction would escalate such crimes to apocalyptic levels.
Some analysts believe that such an attack in all but inevitable. The only hope of preventing it is to aggressively – and preemptively -- hunt down terrorists cell by cell, individual by individual, and target dictators who support terrorists and might supply them with WMDs.
That, by the way, is the link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. After that atrocity, Saddam had to be viewed through a sharper lens, his menace measured by a different yardstick. So, too, North Korea's Kim Jung Il and the mullahs of Iran. This seems a simple proposition yet many otherwise intelligent people fail to grasp it.
Winning World War IV also requires de-legitimizing terrorism. Terrorism today is a thriving enterprise because for at least three decades terrorists have been rewarded. Republicans and Democrats alike have been responsible for this error. Europeans even more so.
Almost exactly 32 years ago, Palestinian terrorists entered the Olympic Village in Munich and massacred 11 innocent Israeli athletes. That act of mass murder was not considered sufficiently serious to merit canceling the Olympics -- or even postponing it for a day.
The group responsible for the killings, the Palestine Liberation Organization, received more encouragement than condemnation. Two years later, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was invited to address the UN. The PLO was received in the General Assembly and “the question of Palestine” was introduced on the agenda.
A few years later, Arafat won a Nobel Peace Prize. Abu Daoud – the unrepentant terrorist who planned the 1972 massacres -- received the Palestinian Prize for Culture.
And everyone else in the world with grievances and complaints learned the rules: Terrorism is acceptable. Terrorism works. Terrorism succeeds -- like nothing else. So why not employ it?
Why not indeed? Over the years that followed, to the extent terrorists were pursued, it was less by soldiers, commandos and spies than by lawyers armed with subpoenas. Terrorists and their masters were seldom punished. There is a name for such policies: Appeasement.
Clearly, we need new and better policies. Surely, the United States needs to develop intelligence and clandestine services capable of ferreting out terrorists wherever they hide, train and plot.
There must be expansion of our now-tiny Special Forces, the component of the military machine best equipped to fight 21st century warfare.
A War of Ideas must be fought as well. It must stop being socially acceptable to excuse terrorism (e.g.: “One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter;” “They must be so desperate!”). Yes, in the past, terrorism has been condoned many times in many places. But morality evolves. Not so long ago, genocide, slavery and piracy also were common practices. Should that mean that we tolerate those evils forever, too?
Terrorism must come to be seen as not just a crime but also a blunder. It must be demonstrated repeatedly that terrorism sets back the cause in whose name it is committed – no matter how righteous some people may believe that cause to be.
Eventually, the extremist, supremacist, totalitarian ideologies championed by Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Iranian mullahs and others must be regarded as a dead end, figuratively and literally.
Bin Laden famously said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they naturally choose the strong horse.” He understands the dynamics of public persuasion better than many State Department officials. It falls to America to lead the effort to demonstrate that freedom and democracy are the strongest horses on the track.
In the 20th century, America and its friends defeated both Communism and Nazism. There are still Communists and Nazis in the world but their movements are weak and unappealing to all but a lunatic fringe.
Memo to the candidates: This is what “win” means. Tell us you understand. Tell us you'll do what it takes.