In the early spring of 1940, half a year after Germany invaded Poland, but during a falsely hopeful period called The Phony War that preceded the major Anglo-German hostilities of World War II, Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons. He told them that "I will not make any prophecies about the future, which is doubly veiled by the obscurities and uncertainties of war ... We must not boast, or speak in terms of vain conceit and overconfidence ... (But) we trust in God and in our own arm uplifted in a cause which we devoutly feel carries with it the larger hopes and harmonies of mankind."
As so often is the case, Churchill's words provide sound advice for us today as we attempt to understand the progress of the War on Terrorism. Recent events have been hopeful: Saddam captured, Libya conciliatory, Iran open to nuclear inspection, Saudi Arabia somewhat more helpful, Syria seizing millions of Al Qaeda funds. We have reason to be hopeful. These are measurable successes that weaken the terrorist enemy, strengthen our relative position with them, and begin the process of disconnecting weapons of mass destruction from rogue states and their possible terrorist associates. But the recent question of whether we are safer since Saddam's capture is fundamentally silly. The answer is unknowable, and the current debate is fatuous and self-serving on both sides. As yet we are in but the earliest stages of a war that is likely to go on for decades, perhaps generations. Events that seem useful now may have unknown consequences for good or ill -- both on the enemy and on our own war-fighting judgment.
The history of warfare is replete with all forms of miscalculations made by people who were every bit as smart and cunning as we think we are today. In the Peloponnesian War of the 4th century B.C., Alcibiades, the brilliant and brave Athenian, overplayed his strong hand and brought complete defeat for Athens and the end of her golden age. In the Thirty Years War of the 17th century -- which was in part a war of princely interests, in part a German civil war and in part a religious struggle -- not only were there constant reversals of fortunes, but more to the point, the players had no concept of the historic implications that would flow from their day-to-day strategies and tactics. Out of a hodgepodge of immediate calculations, the continent of Europe was transformed into its modern political shape and nature.
Indeed, the Thirty Years War is endlessly instructive to us today. Then, at the birth of Protestant fervor and Catholic reaction and defense, some European princes acted out of their own religious passion, while others attempted to shrewdly calculate and exploit their subjects' mood to advance their princely interests. Today, cannot the same be said of the princes of the House of Saud? Did Qaddafi act out of fear of American prowess and aggression, or did he see an opportunity to slip off his responsibilities for the downing of Pan Am 103? Has he seen the light or seen his chance?
Three days after Saddam was captured, the committee of Ashrafs -- an Islamic religious group who protect and define the genealogy of Mohammed -- announced that they were taking Saddam off the list of the Prophet's descendants (a list on which they now claim he forced them to include him). It is hard for an occidental mind to understand how this may affect the attitude of the terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere. It might be very good news for us, or it may be inconsequential.
None of the foregoing is meant to deprecate the genuinely good news we have recently gained. The Bush Administration announced, before the war, that they hoped that making an example of Iraq would induce other rogue states to discard their WMDs and modify their belligerent policies. That such events are now unfolding speaks to the soundness of the Administration's war calculations and to the increasing steadiness of their post-war diplomacy. But the war has many fronts. Just as we are having real success in Iraq, intelligence indicates that bands of al Qaeda agents have been dispatched (probably from the Horn of Africa) to slaughter Americans. The two events are probably loosely, if at all, related. We are safe from Saddam's evil mind but continue to be in harm's way from other enemies. So be it. Let us continue to follow Churchill's advice: Don't boast or be overconfident, but "trust in God and in our own arm uplifted ..."