The Next President's Biggest Challenge

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the American invasion in Iraq. Much has been accomplished, at great cost. And, as Gen. David Petraeus told me in an interview two weeks ago, our progress there is both tenuous and reversible.

Last weekend, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Enough with the slaughters. Enough with the violence. Enough with the hatred in Iraq!" The pontiff is a man of peace, his outcry a fundamental expression of his faith. But it is as natural for him to plead that man be at peace with man as it is unnatural for the terrorist nations who propel the slaughter to end it.

The Pope has the power of faith to achieve his goal. But an American president’s powers are only temporal. When George W. Bush leaves office in ten months, his successor will have to deal not only with Iraq but with the wider war. He — or she — will have to do more than rely on liberal nostrums of Vietnam and just pull American troops out of Iraq. 

The next president will have to face the fact that the enemy’s definition of the war is as different from President Bush’s as the Pope’s cry for an end to violence is different from radical Islam’s ideology that requires the violence to impose its version of Islam on the world. 

President Bush defined the end of the war as an Iraq that can sustain, govern and defend itself and become an ally in the larger war. But the enemy defines victory differently. Consider this principal example. On January 26, 2005, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei defined the war from the enemy’s standpoint. 

Khamenei spoke as the head of the government that is the principal sponsor of terrorism. He talked of a great “Islamic awakening” that portends the fall of the West:

"The U.S. and the western imperialists have finally concluded that Muslim countries and nations, especially those of the Middle East, form the core of this awakening and resistance to their plans for global domination. they foresee that if they fail to control or suppress this Islamic awakening in the next few years with political and economic measures, through propaganda, and as a last resort through military aggression, all their plans for absolute global hegemony and control of the most vital oil and gas resources, which constitute the sole powerhouse of their industrial machinery and [the sole] cause of their material edge over the rest of humanity, will come to nothing…If that happens, the big Western and Zionist capitalists, who are the real backstage players in all imperialist governments, will fall from the height of their power and their domination over the nations."

The contrast between the President’s definition of victory and Khamenei’s is comprehensive: they bear no relationship to each other. The next president’s principal challenge will be to resolve the difference into a new strategy to both defeat the enemy and unite our nation around the necessity to do so. 


The cliché that this war is like no other we have fought grew from a seed of truth. From the Revolution through World War 2, American wars were against enemies whose stated goal was the control of land. The Cold War was just as new to us as the current war because the Soviet Union tried to conceal its goal of conquest under the ideology that communism was inevitable. 

The Soviets chose to fight not only by violent means — as in Hungary in 1956 — but also by subversion. They fought an ideological war relentlessly with lies and myths that permeated everything they did. The radical Islamist nations have successfully modernized that strategy. They, too, insist that the imposition of their ideology — radical Islam — is inevitable. And they fight everywhere from the streets of Spain to the courts of the United States.

But by adopting the Soviet strategy, they have made themselves vulnerable to a modernized version of the strategy that defeated the Soviet Union.

Sens. Obama and Clinton plan to withdraw from Iraq, the former more quickly than the latter. But their view is limited by the liberal blinders they wear. They evidence no understanding of the wider war being waged by the nations that sponsor terrorism or how to win it. They do not understand that the wider war cannot be won in Iraq.

John McCain has said many times that he is committed to winning in Iraq, regardless of how long it takes. But that is not enough. The Democrats’ inability to see beyond withdrawal from Iraq presents him with an opportunity he needs to seize during the campaign.

Sen. McCain can improve upon what President Bush has done without abandoning his previous expressions of support. To do so, he should borrow heavily from Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was the first president to recognize that defeat of communism was possible: he acted accordingly and brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. McCain needs to be the first candidate to say that the nations that sponsor terrorism must be compelled to cease that support, which likely means more than that those regimes must be toppled.  Their ideology must first be defeated.

Just as Reagan spoke of communist ideology, McCain should speak of the radical Islamist ideology. He must do what President Bush has never done: say that while Islam is a religion, radical Islam is an ideology more like communism and fascism than anything else. And to the extent that Islamic fascism controls nations, they can no more “peacefully coexist” with Western democracy than the hegemonist Soviets could.

And he can also borrow from Reagan by attacking the Islamofascist ideology. Reagan spoke, with warmth and even humor, about the contrasts. In the Soviet Union, basic human rights never existed. The Soviet promise was the misery of slavery. The Islamofascisti promise the same, and worse. 

What is wrong with comparing fundamental American rights — freedoms of religion, the press, due process and all the rest — to the Iranian, Syrian and Saudi promises of oppression, slavery and glory only in death? Nothing at all is wrong. That is how ideological wars are fought. Our enemy is fighting that war but we are not.

The latest polls show that more than 40% of Americans believe that victory in Iraq is still possible. But even if that were possible — which it is not as long as Iraq’s neighbors interfere in its affairs and Iraqis’ loyalties continue to be more to their religions and sects than to a nation of Iraq — it is not up to us to stay there so long as Iraqis want us to. It is up to us — up to the next president — to resolve the differences between our definition of the war and the enemy’s definition. 

And then to act on our new definition to accomplish victory in accordance with a better definition than President Bush has ever offered. Which must mean the end of state sponsorship of Islamist terrorism, and wrestling Islamofascist ideology into the trash bin of history.