Five Lessons From the First Five Years of War

Some days become touchstones for generations and reveal the character of nations. Today we commemorate the fifth anniversary of such a day.

I know that you remember where you were that morning. I was scheduled to meet with two army officers to discuss the importance of land warfare. Army Chief of Staff Jack Keane had recruited me to advise the Army on a difficult peacetime communications problem: People had become so enamored of satellites and airplanes that they had forgotten how much of real warfare is done on the ground.

As I entered my office building in downtown Washington, someone on the elevator told me an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I assumed it was a small plane and an example of wild pilot error or incompetence. But as I walked into the room to meet with the two officers, someone ran in to say a second plane had hit the buildings.

I immediately said, “This is a terrorist attack, and you will not have to worry about explaining the importance of land power for a long time.” They left to go back to the Pentagon but had not reached it when an airplane hit the side of the building their offices were in. Their offices were destroyed, but they were safe.

The Courage and Determination of One Man

Just hours ago, I gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington titled “Lessons From the First Five Years of War: Where Do We Go From Here?”

I began by asking the audience for two moments of silent prayer: One for the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, and another for all those who have given their lives in defense of freedom since that terrible day.

Five years after 9/11, the thing we have most to be grateful for is the fact that we have not suffered another terrorist attack. This is largely because of the courage and determination of one man, President George W. Bush. Faced with the deliberate and horrific attacks on 9/11, President Bush instinctively understood that this was a war.

He demonstrated his courage by taking that war to al Qaeda to protect the American people. That decision was the decisive break with the terrorism-as-a-criminal-act strategy and in direct contrast to the terrorism-as-a-nuisance mindset held by many.

Yet despite the President’s best efforts, we must confront five big facts on this fifth anniversary.

Fact One: The Threat Is Mortal, Direct and Immediate

In the age of nuclear and biological weapons, even a few hateful people can do more damage than Adolph Hitler in the Second World War. The loss of two or three American cities to nuclear weapons is a real threat. The loss of hundreds of thousands — or millions — to a biological attack is a real threat.

This creates a new situation so frightening that most American leaders simply do not want to think through its implications.

Fact Two: The Threat Is Global and Involves Increasing Cooperation Among an Emerging Anti-American Coalition

This is an emerging third world war and any look at the active players and the centers of violence indicates just how worldwide it is. North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons are potential assets for Iran, which is increasingly an ally of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Our enemies have to be seen in this global context.

  • It is fundamentally misleading to try to isolate Afghanistan without understanding the role of sanctuaries in Northwest Pakistan.
  • It is misleading to try to understand Iraq without understanding the role of resources, sanctuaries and leadership in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
  • It is impossible to understand the role of Hezbollah in South Lebanon without examining the resources and support from Iran and Syria.
  • Hugo Chavez has been in more than a dozen countries in the last few months. He is actively seeking an anti-American seat on the UN Security Council.

There is growing collaboration among our enemies and we have to design global responses to defeat that collaboration.

Fact Three: Our Enemies Are Increasingly Confident and Clear in Their Statements of What They Intend to Do to Defeat Us

Consider this recent statement by the Iranian dictator Ahmadinejad: “To those who doubt, to those who ask is it possible, or those who do not believe, I say accomplishment of a world without America and Israel is both possible and feasible.”

What’s more, as our enemies have taken stock of what America and her allies will and will not do they have grown bolder. As they watch the divisive politics in America and the anti-American sentiment in Europe, they have grown bolder. As they have watched the pathetic impotence of the United Nations and the degree to which powerful nations hide behind diplomatic negotiations as an excuse to say a lot but do little, they have grown bolder.

Fact Four: Despite These Clear Facts There Is Great Confusion Among our Elites and in the News Media and, Therefore, Among the American People

It is the understanding and support of the American people that is at the heart of whether or not we can undertake the effort needed for our national security.

But the American people do not yet believe their cities and their own lives are at risk. They do not believe that anything truly horrifying could happen.

For the moment, the terrorist threat has become an “over there” problem that impinges on our lives only when we go through security at an airport. The very success of the Bush Administration in stopping further terrorist attacks after 9/11 has made it possible for people to relax and ignore the threat.

There is no campaign more important than the campaign for the understanding and support of the American people and the people of our democratic allies. This has been a woefully inadequate effort over the last five years. We are now paying the cost of that inadequacy.

Fact Five: If the Threat Is Truly This Great, Then We Have to Confront the Fact That Much More Must be Done if We Are to Win

We must confront the reality that we are not where we wanted to be or where we need to be. We have not captured bin Laden. We have not defeated the Taliban in its sanctuaries in Northwest Pakistan. We have not stopped the recruitment of young fanatics into terrorism. We have not stopped either the Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs. We do not have a stable democratic Pakistan capable of securing its own nuclear weapons. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq is stable and secure. The United Nations is unreformed and we have failed to convince the people of America and of our fellow democracies of the correctness and necessity of what we are doing.

Victory Is Possible: What We Need to Do

My speech was more than simply a recitation of the challenges America faces. I included a series of steps we must take — here at home, and in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea — to learn the lessons of September 11 and secure our freedom. You can read them here.

They are the practical and necessary actions. And they must be accompanied by a rededication to communicating our commitment to win.

The statements of hatred and desire for killing by our enemies have to be driven home everyday. Those who would retreat and withdraw must be made to explain and defend the consequences of their proposals. The full burden of undermining our alliances and strengthening our enemies must be placed on those who would seek peace at the cost of defeat and who would advocate weakness in the face of tyranny and hatred.

The news media have to be held accountable for their biases and easy assumptions. We are entering a period when those who manipulate the press on behalf of tyranny must be held accountable and confronted directly.

Another Anniversary: 400 Years of Unfolding Freedom

I ended my speech by noting another anniversary. Four hundred years ago next May, the first people who spoke English and believed their rights came from God landed in Jamestown.

For 400 years, we have been extending their values and concepts across a continent and to people of every background, speaking every language.

We owe it to those who worked and fought for freedom, safety and prosperity in the past and to our parents and grandparents who did so much for our lives.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren who deserve an even safer, freer and more prosperous American future.

We who love life and revere freedom will defeat those who love death and seek dictatorship.

We have done it before.

We will do it again.
Your friend,

Newt Gingrich