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.
Or maybe not everyone. No, definitely not everyone. The Democratic primaries showed us where John Kerry and most Democrats are on the war against terror. They oppose it. They believe, as Malachi McCourt opined a few days after the Madrid bombings, that our presence in Iraq has "stirred them up." The failure to find WMDs in Iraq has emboldened Democrats to say that the whole project of American self-defense against the Islamist killers is misbegotten. The war on terror, Kerry and his allies now argue, should properly be limited to Afghanistan and a few clerks in the Treasury, FBI and the CIA.
As Vice President Cheney has pointed out, if Kerry had had his way, Saddam would still be in power. In fact, he would still own Kuwait. If he were to win in November, Kerry would certainly pull in America's horns. It wouldn't be quite as dramatic, but if America elected John Kerry in November, would it not be a signal of retreat similar to that which the Spanish people delivered?
President Bush is often painfully inarticulate, but he sometimes displays a knack for getting at the heart of the matter. Referring to the latest bombing in Iraq, he observed simply, "They're trying to break our will."
Instead, we are making great strides toward breaking theirs. The letter written by terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda operative in Iraq, evidences their rage and frustration. "Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. By God, this is suffocation!"
Would Zarqawi be feeling so desperate if President Kerry were in power? Muammar al Qaddafi decided to fold his nuclear hand after observing coalition forces descend on his old friend Saddam. Would he have felt pressure to concede under Kerry's "golden age of diplomacy"?
In the 1984 campaign, Ronald Reagan had a wonderful ad. "There's a bear in the woods," said the voiceover. "Some can see it clearly. Others can't see it at all. Some say it's tame. Others say it's vicious. Since we can't know for sure, isn't it a good idea to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear." The same question applies in 2004. On the matter of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, isn't it a good idea to err on the side of strength?