Did we prevail?

Here is President George Bush addressing the nation to announce the beginning of the Iraq war on March 19, 2003.

Note that Bush did not soft-pedal the challenges ahead, or portray the problem as something that could be solved with “modest” effort:

In this conflict, America faces an enemy who has no regard for conventions of war or rules of morality. Saddam Hussein has placed Iraqi troops and equipment in civilian areas, attempting to use innocent men, women and children as shields for his own military; a final atrocity against his people.

I want Americans and all the world to know that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm. A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict. And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.

He took full responsibility as Commander-in-Chief for issuing the orders, but he didn’t refer to American forces as “my” military.  His words to them on the eve of battle were inspiring:

To all of the men and women of the United States armed forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you.

That trust is well placed.

The enemies you confront will come to know your skill and bravery. The people you liberate will witness the honorable and decent spirit of the American military.

He was certainly right about that.  General George Washington would have been honored to review the troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We have not yet taken a full inventory of the incidents of gallantry and courage performed on those fields of battle.

Bush concluded with a vow he often repeated in the wake of 9/11: We will prevail.

My fellow citizens, the dangers to our country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others. And we will prevail.  May God bless our country and all who defend her.

Did we prevail?  It’s a tough question to answer in full on a short timeline.  Today is only the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  That’s not a tall historical vantage point, when surveying a shadowy global conflict that continues to this day.  And it does continue to this day.  The attack on our consulate in Benghazi one year ago is proof of that.  The enemy persists, and still views this day as a bloody symbol of his murderous ambitions.

Saddam Hussein – who murdered a hundred times as many people with chemical weapons as Bashar Assad is alleged to have killed – is gone, as are his equally twisted sons.  The rape rooms are closed.  Iraq is different, quite possibly forever… which is not the same thing as saying it’s perfect.  The regional impact of Iraq’s transformation is still difficult to judge, although for better or worse, it’s worth noting that Iraqi democracy was often mentioned in the early days of the “Arab Spring.”  And that’s still playing out, as anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could tell you.

Afghanistan will soon fall back into Taliban hands, but perhaps they’ll think twice about supporting another massive attack on American soil.  It’s simply too early to say for certain.  Al-Qaeda was weakened by the past decade of war, but not nearly as much as the unserious men and women of the Obama Administration claimed.  They’ve tried to pull off more big, splashy attacks on U.S. soil, but they couldn’t.  Jihad volunteers in Boston and London have spread more terror lately.

The last few years have eroded American influence in the Middle East to the point that Russia has been able to roll the current U.S, president out of the joint in a wheelchair.  (Hopefully the new hegemony will be something we can do business with, if they keep the oil flowing.)  The enemy has learned that the current Administration will let them get away with murdering an American ambassador and destroying a U.S. consulate, if the political conditions are right.  That will cause lingering damage to our national security interests and global credibility, far more than backing down from a blustery threat to blow up a few buildings in Syria.  One year on from the Benghazi attacks, Libya still matters more than Syria.  If anyone inside the Obama Administration understands this, they have been instructed to keep quiet about it.

The long-term end game in the War on Terror is something the previous Administration thought seriously about, even if some of their conclusions may not have been implemented well.  It was never about American domination, as can be seen from Bush’s announcement of war.  It was an effort to rally all the forces of democracy, and show the people trapped in a squalid corner of the world that peace and freedom are prizes worth having.  They don’t seem to be rushing forward to claim that prize, at least not as broadly as we might have hoped.  But we should still hold it high, and make it easy for them to see.  A thousand years of hatred and lust for power don’t melt away in a single decade.

The worst thing about the bumble to war in Syria is the appalling lack of confidence the Obama Administration displays in the American system.  Even last night, the President made sure to claim he’s got the authority to disregard Congress and start shooting any time he feels like it.  That is not what George Bush did.  A compelling case for war, made with patience and due respect for our system of government, shouldn’t have too much trouble gaining congressional support and attracting an international coalition.

How can we expect others to emulate our principles if we clearly don’t believe in them ourselves?  How can a nation of diminishing liberty market liberty to the oppressed people of the world?  Much of our current political rhetoric is based on convincing Americans that they are oppressed by greed and inequality, and only maternal government can rescue them.  That’s not exactly an inspiring signal to send to the victims of totalitarianism around the globe.  We’re not transmitting a heartfelt respect for the freedom of religion these days, either, and that’s something the Middle East really needs to hear.

We will prevail… but only if we are true to ourselves.  That means electing leaders who show due respect to all of the American people, including those who strenuously disagree with them.  It means a government that respects citizens enough to let them make their own decisions, and take responsibility for the consequences.  It will require the type of cultural and economic strength that flows only from liberty… a garden whose radiant blossoms we are still counting, two and a half centuries after they were planted.

We must be a nation that can bend a knee in prayer, then stand tall and speak in a voice that all the world can hear:

They heard us.  They’re still listening.