For more than a generation, a war was fought against the United States. Most Americans, however, didn't know it. And even those who did may have been puzzled about whom it was we were fighting.
The war began in 1979, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran and his followers, chanting “Death to America,” seized our embassy in Tehran and took our diplomats prisoner. But we did not interpret that to mean we were at war with Iran.
In 1983, members of the same movement bombed our embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, killing hundreds. But we did not consider ourselves to be at war with Hezbollah or its sponsors.
In the 1990s, adherents of the same ideology – totalitarian, supremacist, anti-democratic -- attacked Americans repeatedly: office workers in New York City, diplomats at embassies in Africa, military personnel serving in the Middle East. And in 1996, a wealthy Saudi living in exile published what he called a “Declaration of War Against the Americans.”
But even as we suffered these attacks, we did not acknowledge that a war was being waged. In fact, most Americans believed they were living in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. There was even a “peace dividend” to be spent.
The horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 were a wake-up call – but the nation remained groggy. Since hijacking planes and crashing them into in the World Trade Center was an act of terrorism, we set about to fight a “war on terrorism” – as though there were no movement driving terrorism and no ideology justifying the violating of the age-old taboo against intentionally murdering women and children.
The label persisted from that time until last week when President George W. Bush, in an address to the National Endowment for Democracy, made a conceptual leap. Linking attacks against civilians from New York to Casablanca, Sharm el-Sheik to Netanya, Mombasa to London, Istanbul to Beslan, Beirut to Bali, he argued that such massacres “serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane.”
He added: "Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism."
Bush was careful to distinguish this ideology “from the religion of Islam,” adding that it both “exploits Islam” and targets Muslims who aspire to live in freedom, choose their own leaders and embrace pluralism. He noted that “most of the victims claimed by the militants are fellow Muslims.”
Osama bin Laden and other militants murder in pursuit of a dream -- of conquest and domination. It is a vision, Bush said, that is openly stated “in videos, and audiotapes, and letters, and declarations, and websites.”
To achieve it, requires ending “American and Western influence in the broader Middle East …Second, the militant network wants to use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against non-radical Muslim governments.”
Deprived of their base in Afghanistan after 9/11, “they've set their sights on Iraq. Bin Laden has stated: ‘The whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries. It's either victory and glory, or misery and humiliation.'”
The President also quoted bin Laden's commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi: "We will either achieve victory over the human race or we will pass to the eternal life."
Does the United States have both the will and a way to stop such ruthless and determined ideologues? Bush revealed more than he has before about the progress made to date by the U.S. and its allies against Islamo-fascism: “We've killed or captured nearly all of those directly responsible for the September the 11th attacks; as well as some of bin Laden's most senior deputies; al-Qaeda managers and operatives in more than 24 countries; the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, who was chief of al-Qaeda operations in the Persian Gulf; the mastermind of the Jakarta and the first Bali bombings; a senior Zarqawi terrorist planner, who was planning attacks in Turkey; and many of al-Qaeda's senior leaders in Saudi Arabia.
“Overall, the United States and our partners have disrupted at least ten serious al-Qaeda terrorist plots since September the 11th, including three al-Qaeda plots to attack inside the United States.”
Toward the end of the speech, Bush posed a question to those who argue that America should settle for less than the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. “Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe,” he asked, “with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources?”
And he offered his answer: “Having removed a dictator who hated free peoples,” he said, “we will not stand by as a new set of killers, dedicated to the destruction of our own country, seizes control of Iraq by violence.”
Surely, that is a point on which there ought to be broad and bipartisan consensus.