Monday, November 01, 2004


What's At Stake

by Brendan Miniter, Opinion Journal

In a tight electoral race it's possible to imagine that there really isn't much of a difference between the two candidates. One may be liberal and the other conservative, but it's easy to assume that because each man speaks to a sizable portion of the electorate, either is just as likely to deliver peace and prosperity. It's easy to imagine that after all the hot air is expended in Washington, life for average Americans outside the Beltway isn't really going to change that much.

It would be a mistake to draw such a conclusion this year. Tomorrow's election is the most consequential since Ronald Reagan sought re-election in 1984 and perhaps on par with the Gipper's run in 1980. The reason for this is simple: Sept. 11. On that day this nation suffered the most devastating attack on its soil since World War II and was jarred into the hard reality of confronting the threat of our time. This confrontation has been long in coming, and now the electorate will weigh in on it.

It's tempting to think that al Qaeda is a localized problem and, although a concern, not something that can seriously undermine our way of life. After all, if Israel can survive in the face of daily terrorist attacks, why can't this nation as well? That, apparently, is what the Spanish electorate decided earlier this year. And it is one of the arguments of Michael Moore's propaganda film "Fahrenheit 9/11." But the truth is that America does not have such a "luxury." America stands as a symbol to the world that a society based on liberty is indeed possible and, yes, preferable. Because of that, the threat we face goes far beyond the few attacks a collection of thugs could pull off. This is a battle over the future of liberty at home and abroad.

This is something Osama bin Laden fully understands. In a video released Friday afternoon, bin Laden said that Americans would be free from terrorists attacks only once "our security" is assured. But America's very existence is a threat to his own security and the security of all those who perpetuate a culture of hate, oppression and death.

The reason for this isn't that America is culturally imperialistic. Far from it. The power of "cultural relativism" in the West has been steering our foreign policy for decades. The U.S. gives billions to Egypt each year with little more than a single caveat--that it not launch a military attack on Israel. In Saudi Arabia American GIs spent a decade guarding the kingdom against Saddam Hussein, while limiting their own church services--among other things--on U.S. military bases so as not to offend Saudi sensibilities. Bin Laden recognizes America as a threat not for what it does on the world's stage, but for what it stands for. And he knows America must be destroyed as a symbol if he is to succeed with his vision for the Muslim world.

The issue here goes far beyond foreign policy. This struggle will have a fundamental impact here at home as well. Confronting Islamic terrorism is forcing this nation to decide which tenets of its own society it is willing to fight to preserve. From the depths of his filthy cave, Osama bin Laden has forced America to confront its own slide toward indifference and ignorance of the daily functioning of a free society. That slide began decades ago and was a driving force behind the anti-Vietnam War movement. Although President Reagan restored America's pride in its role as a symbol of liberty, the slide has continued to be evident in our schools and public debates. So on the day terrorists toppled two towers in New York, Americans stood in danger of forgetting why it is that their nation towers over the world.

It is here that John Kerry has made his most significant contribution to American culture. It has been his persistent belief for more than 30 years that American military power is not a force for good. Rather he believes that by fighting for the freedom of the South Vietnamese people and for liberty in Iraq today, America has surrendered its moral authority. That's what he argued upon returning from Vietnam, and it is the message of his campaign today when calls Iraq the "wrong war at the wrong time" and chides America for having gone it "alone."

At bottom, Mr. Kerry's objection to the war in Iraq and the anti-Bush animus he has tapped into have nothing to do with protecting our troops, conserving resources to go after terrorists elsewhere, or even making nice with Germany and France. The objection is over whether there are fundamental moral values worth fighting for in the world. In his 1971 Senate testimony Mr. Kerry said that such values are not universal: "We found most people [in Vietnam] didn't know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them." And he articulated a remarkably consistent view this year when he indicated democracy was optional in Iraq and perhaps imposing a strongman there was preferable.

This has not been George W. Bush's position. First in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, he has fought two wars of liberation. To fight these wars Mr. Bush first had to believe in the greatness of this nation; before he could export it to places that have known little more than tyranny, he had to believe the fundamental American value of liberty for all was also a universal value. With that belief comes the understanding that liberty abroad can serve as a bulwark against terrorism. But in fighting these wars, the president had to know that America would also look anew at the principles of liberty at home. From a terrorist's right to free speech and free association, to pressing the international community to confront terrorism and to the values we wish to impart to the next generation to ensure they remain resolute in defending this nation, this war is forcing a great re-examination in America.

Mr. Kerry gets blamed for inserting the Vietnam War into this campaign, but the conclusion drawn during that conflict that using American forces abroad is almost never morally justifiable has needed to be reconsidered for more than a generation. Faced with the threat of international terrorism and a president willing to use both military force and American values to confront it, that reconsideration is now well under way. Mr. Kerry loves this country, but what's at stake in this election is whether we will continue to confront terrorism with liberty or conclude that freedom isn't universal after all.

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