After 9/11 we had a brief infusion of backbone. Afghanistan was liberated, Pakistan tamed, Libya intimidated and al Qaeda scattered. But when Iraq proved difficult, the voices of retreat and failure gained momentum.
President Bush limned the consequences of failure in Iraq -- radical Islamists in command of a key nation in the Middle East with one of the largest oil reserves on the planet, our friends forsaken and our enemies emboldened. But the mood of America today is demoralized. Instead of seeking creative ways to salvage a difficult situation -- the way GIs conquered the hedgerows at Normandy -- the U.S. Congress seems resigned to defeat. The Democrats are voting for a resolution to condemn the "surge" of forces into Iraq, calling it an "escalation" to conjure the ghost of Vietnam.
This defeatism on the part of the Democrats and some Republicans is one of the reasons our task in Iraq is so difficult. Can a divided and demoralized nation win abroad? Don't the Islamists and the communist Chinese and the mullahs of Iran notice America's sunken chest? Is it an accident that China chose this moment to show off its satellite-killing capability?
Drawing the lessons from our 20th-century confrontation with totalitarian menaces, Ronald Reagan counseled that weakness is provocative. That insight is eternal. Today, America has the economic and military capacity to lead the world -- but our psychological fitness for the part is in serious doubt. There is no end to the malevolent forces who will be eager to fill the role if we decline it -- and we will find a world dominated by them far more horrifying than anything we face in Iraq.