OK, I take it back. The world has changed since Sept. 11 – at least many things have changed for America, probably permanently.
We had already begun to shift our foreign policy thinking following the Cold War. But until 9-11, I don't think many of us realized just how radically different our new world would be. On that day, as a nation, we crossed the threshold from the unthinkable to the thinkable. Bin Laden and his disciples opened the door to further acts of terrorism, emboldening all comers with successes they probably had scarcely before imagined. Hereafter, we will live with the real threat of terrorism within our shores.
Don't misunderstand – we still face potential threats from major sovereign states, mainly Red China. But we also confront a new kind of menace, one that is not necessarily tied directly to nation states, but supported by them in more indirect and less visible ways.
The new enemy is united by an extreme strain of the Muslim religion, but transcends national boundaries and exists throughout the world, including in the United States. It lurks in the shadows and is always poised to strike without warning. Consequently, unlike with our earlier enemies, it will be more difficult to observe changes in its behavior that may alert us to an impending attack.
These factors, combined with the enemy's unconventional combat techniques, make it an especially challenging adversary. And to make matters worse, each time we defeat the enemy, new recruits will be born in sympathy with their conquered brethren.
This is not to say that we cannot achieve a decisive victory over the terrorists – because we can and will – but we must recognize the likelihood that our victory will not be permanent. We will always have to be vigilant, perhaps even on high alert, and to that extent, our world has forever changed.
I am convinced that President Bush is on the right track toward substantially crippling the most dangerous terrorist threats to the United States presently: Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, the Taliban and Iraq. But that's just a start. What must we do thereafter – actually, beginning now?
The answer is many different things on many different fronts. Happily, President Bush had the wisdom to place a forward-thinking leader at the helm of our defense establishment, Donald Rumsfeld. Even before Sept. 11, he was recommending a new defense paradigm that would reorient our military into a flexible, rapid response force that could react to both domestic and foreign threats. You can see Rumsfeld's hand in our approach in Afghanistan. His military has, in part, become a stealth fighting machine, bettering the terrorists at their own game in ways we may never fully be told – as well we shouldn't.
We must continue to prosecute this perennial war on multiple levels, with technology and intelligence (as in spying) leading the way. Our heightened awareness of the possibility of the unthinkable should motivate us to develop nuclear missile defense, understanding that domestic and foreign threats are not mutually exclusive. But, I don't believe we should agree to Russia's demand that we drastically reduce our arsenal of missiles. China will shortly have many missiles, too, as will numerous rogue nations. Deterrence is still vital against nation states.
Sept. 11 ushered in some new imperatives that even many liberals are reluctantly embracing. Now we surely know that we must spend more and ever smarter on defense to reverse what Rumsfeld describes as "a decade of overuse and under-funding." The increased strains on the military should force us to abandon this '90s notion of using our troops as an international meals on wheels.
Sept. 11 also hopefully helped to strengthen the collective American stomach. We may need to make preemptive attacks against some nations in the future, those rogue and terrorist-sponsoring nations who are developing weapons of mass destruction. As George Will presciently observed, this may sometimes require unilateral action by the United States, just as Israel took out Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in 1981.
We must also make inroads against the society-threatening nostrums of political correctness, which balkanize America into multicultural factions and drain the national spirit, which must be maintained if we are to prevail. A prudent first step would be to deny visas to suspicious characters whom political correctness may otherwise dictate that we coddle.
Today we face a new beast, in some ways more evil and insidious than any we've encountered before. But that beast awaits a transformed America, whose ferociousness he awakened with an explosive vengeance.