Mona Charen

The vice president suggested in a recent speech that the election of 2004 will be the most significant in 20 years. He's right. In 1984, we were engaged in a worldwide struggle that one party was committed to winning and the other party did not even want to fight. If Walter Mondale had been elected, there is every likelihood that the Soviet Union would still be standing -- and lest we forget the nature of that enemy, consider what Soviet backing would have meant to a group like Al Qaeda.

In 1984, the American people chose, by a rather large margin, to let Sen. Mondale return to Minnesota. Today's challenge is similar. We are facing a profound decision. On one side is President Bush, who defines himself as a war president and who has pursued a courageous and bold policy to take the fight to the enemy. On the other side is Sen. Kerry, who promises to handle terrorism by inaugurating a "golden age of American diplomacy." Kerry has said, "The War on terror is less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering and law enforcement operation."

That, of course, was the Clinton administration's approach -- and as much as we can look back with the advantage of the retrospectoscope and see that Clinton erred, we can nevertheless understand it. Clinton was not the first American president to treat terrorism as a nuisance rather than a deadly threat. Such attacks as we suffered were all (with the exception of the first assault on the World Trade Center) far from home and limited in number. This is not to excuse Clinton -- he let bin Laden slip away twice and shrank from confronting Saddam -- but Clinton was acting in a different world.

Sept. 11 slapped us into sobriety. All at once, terrorism showed its true scope. With the image of those buildings in flames, everyone belatedly understood that the alarmists who'd been worrying about crazed Islamists getting their hands on nuclear bombs were exactly right. Thereafter, this was no longer a police matter. It was war.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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