Are we safe? Are we safer now than we were before September 11, 2001? Are we safer than we would have been had we not toppled Saddam Hussein?
Media types, candidates, partisans – all appear to believe these are meaningful questions. They are not. They miss this point: Wars cannot be won by pursuing safety. They can be won only by accepting risks. A little history may help to illustrate.
In 1940, the future of freedom looked bleak. The Nazi military machine had easily and swiftly cut down the armed forces of France and Belgium. British troops had to be evacuated from the continent at Dunkirk.
Key advisors to Winston Churchill counseled him to “seek terms” from Hitler. And, uncharacteristically, Churchill considered that option. Finding an “exit strategy” certainly would have made Britain safer.
But, Churchill decided against safety. He decided instead to fight an all-out war against totalitarian extremism. He understood how perilous that would be.
“If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” he said, “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
No one could accuse Churchill of sugar-coating the truth.
Sixty-four years later, it may appear that the future of freedom is again bleak. In Iraq, in particular, the ouster of Saddam did not lead to the flourishing of Rotary clubs and political party conventions where everyone wears funny hats. Instead, Saddam loyalists – Iraq's former ruling class -- went underground where they re-grouped, re-armed and are now on a killing spree.
They have been joined by such international Jihadi terrorists as Abu Musab Zarqawi, responsible this week for the gruesome ritual slaughter of two more Americans.
In addition, the dictatorships of Iran and Syria are doing everything they can to spread chaos in Iraq, in the belief that Iraq's losses will be their gains.
Would we be safer today had we left Saddam alone yesterday? We can't know for sure but we ought to have learned something from the fact that we failed to enhance America's safety by leaving Osama bin Laden and the Taliban alone in Afghanistan during the 1990s.
As for Zarqawi, we fought him in Afghanistan after 9/11. When we wounded him there, he sought refuge under Saddam's wing. From that Iraqi base, he masterminded a series of terrorist attacks against Americans and others. (So please don't say there was no terrorism coming out of Iraq while Saddam was in power. Saddam's Iraq was as congenial to terrorists as Las Vegas is to gamblers.) If we don't finish Zarqawi off in Fallujah or Tikrit, where will we have to fight him next?
Would we be safer tomorrow if we got out of Iraq today? Those who believe we would, see Vietnam, rather than World War II, as the model. Our exit strategy from Vietnam was to pretend we had cut a deal when the truth was we had only cut and run. That meant terrible suffering for millions of people in Indochina, but Americans were able to get on with their lives and, eventually, we even won the Cold War.
Still, Ho Chi Min – awful as he may have been – never sought to slaughter Americans on American soil. Our enemies in Iraq intend to do precisely that. Murdering Americans in Iraq and other corners of the world is their second choice. But they would be thrilled were Americans to leave the fate -- and resources -- of Iraq in their blood-stained hands.
Such a defeat, even if dressed up as an “exit strategy” would reverberate throughout the Middle East and beyond. What nation would not “seek terms” with the terrorists who had forced the American giant to turn tail and run?
Throughout 1940 and most of 1941, Churchill and the British people stood alone against totalitarianism and nihilism. You might even say the British fought a unilateral war.
Even then, Churchill didn't look for an exit strategy. He famously said: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
He less famously added: “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war … This is our policy.”
Eventually of course, Hitler would break his pact with Stalin and attack the Soviet Union. Japan would bomb Pearl Harbor demonstrating – at least for a while – that isolationism is not an effective American policy.
The years that followed were not safe, but eventually several of freedom's most vicious enemies were defeated. And then the Cold War began. Nearly half a century later, the totalitarians would lose that conflict as well.
So no, if the question has to be asked, the answer must be that we are not safe today. But we may be better off than we were before 9/11, when we waited in blithe ignorance for our enemies to attack us – as they had told us they would.
In a war against a shadowy enemy that breaks all the rules, we really don't know when we will be safe again. But in the long run, avoiding fights with those determined to destroy you is the least safe policy of all.