When President Bush admitted to Matt Lauer last week that the war on terror may not be winnable, it was this kind of random murder he had in mind. Bush was being realistic. You can protect iconic landmarks and signature events, kill Al Qaeda leaders, depose dictators, garrison troops in the Middle East, trade condolences and intelligence with your counterparts in Russia (or France, two of whose reporters were kidnapped in Iraq last week by armed Muslims demanding that Paris alter its school dress code). But no matter what precautions you take, you can never stop every fanatic.
If doing that is your definition of victory in this war, then victory is, indeed, impossible.
You’re not supposed to say “impossible” in an election year, so Bush rushed to Nashville to tell the American Legion convention that he can, too, win the war on terror (the next day, John Kerry made the same empty claim). The problem is, you’re not supposed to say “Islam” either.
But America’s enemy is not “terrorism.” It is international Islamist imperialism. Chechnya, Israel, India. The jihadists’ dream is a return to empire Kashmir, the Balkans, parts of Spain “” these are all lands claimed by Islam for reasons of history or theology. The Philippines, Nigeria, Thailand and a dozen other far-flung places are new fronts in the same expansionist war.
It is simpleminded to imagine the jihadists intend to conquer America or, in this generation, any other Western power. Their goal is to establish (they would say reestablish) a sphere of dominance “” financed by oil, armed with nuclear weapons, governed under the laws of Islam “” that includes as much of Ottoman Europe as possible, most of Africa and a good part of Asia. America has to be fought because it stands against this goal “” a goal that unites Shiites and Sunnis, Wahhabis and Baathists, Nasserites and fundamentalists.
Americans often wonder how the Muslim masses can be so indifferent to the savage murder of Russian schoolchildren or the beheading of Nepalese workers; how they can cheer for church-burners in Pakistan, bus bombers in Israel or suicide pilots in Manhattan.
The answer lies in human nature. The Muslim world knows that it is engaged in what it regards as a just war “” and in war you kill your enemies, including the civilians. The slaughtered schoolchildren of Beslan are merely collateral damage on the Chechnyan front in the Great Islamic War of Restoration.
This is a war in which the U.S. can prevail. The Islamic imperialists are no more formidable than their Soviet and Nazi predecessors. But it can’t be won until it is defined. That means honestly telling the American people who and what is at war with them.
“Terrorism” is not the enemy, and getting through a political convention with Madison Square Garden still standing is not victory.