Five Years Later: Lessons Learned

Posted: Sep 11, 2006 9:30 AM

Five years ago today, Americans opened their newspapers to read front page stories in The New York Times with these headlines: "School Dress Codes vs. a Sea of Bare Flesh" and "In a Nation of Early Risers, Morning TV Is a Hot Market." The front page of The Washington Post included stories on the EPA tightening rules on arsenic in water and a poll that focused on tax cuts. And at 8:41 a.m. I sent an e-mail to my colleague Michael J. Gerson, who was then the chief speechwriter to President Bush. I reported to Mike on the senior staff meeting we had earlier in the morning (Mike was working from home and as his deputy, I attended the meeting in his place). The first sentence of my e-mail said this: "Very little of note happened."

Five minutes after that message was sent, America entered a new world, and a new war.

In the half-decade since the September 11 attacks, we and our coalition partners have made significant progress in that war. Terrorist sanctuaries have been removed, terrorist finances have been disrupted, key operatives have been captured and killed, terrorist cells in America and other nations have been broken up, and new attacks have been stopped before they could be carried out. The fact that we have not suffered a single terrorist attack on our homeland since that awful morning in September is a remarkable achievement. But we are still in the early years of an epic struggle. The civilized world will either prevail, or a "long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope."

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During the past five years, we have learned some important things. We have certainly learned about the nature of the enemy. Al Qaeda and its allies are violent, ruthless, and without conscience. Their movement is fueled by deep hatred, anger, and hostility to freedom. They want to control every sphere of human life and crush all expressions of human dignity. We cannot negotiate with them because they cannot be reasoned with. "Anyone who stands in the way of our struggle is our enemy and target of the swords," said Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

These Islamic extremists prey on weakness and revel in watching the innocent suffer and die. Their creed is to kill, and to kill, and to kill. They want to kill Christians, Jews, and Muslims who do not share their twisted faith. They want to kill women and children and the elderly and the innocent. And in their efforts, they have shown cunning, relentlessness, and patience.

Since September 11, 2001, we have also learned a great deal about the nature of this struggle. It is a war being waged on several continents. Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies have killed innocent people in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, in Central Asia, the Far East, and elsewhere. They will try to overthrow governments and seize power where they can - and where they cannot, they will attempt to inflict fear and destruction, and to disrupt settled ways of life. They will employ every weapon they can: assassinations, car bombs, airplanes, and, if they can secure them, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

This struggle is more than a military conflict. It has an enormous ideological dimension as well. Our enemies plan carefully and kill in order to advance a malevolent vision. They are committed to establishing a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two leader of al Qaeda, has spoken about a "jihad for the liberation of Palestine, all Palestine, as well as every land that was a home for Islam, from Andalusia to Iraq. The whole world is an open field for us."

We don't have to speculate about what their Reign of Terror would look like. Their version of political utopia is Afghanistan under the Taliban, a land of unmitigated cruelty and a safe haven and launching pad for terrorists. This is precisely what our enemies want to establish in Iraq, which is why they consider it to be a central front in this war. So should we.

This struggle will be long, difficult, and in some important respects unlike any we have seen. The stakes could not be higher - and the need for focus and resolve on our part could not be greater.

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The Islamic radicals we are fighting know they are far less wealthy and far less advanced in technology and weaponry than the United States and our allies. But they believe they will prevail in this war by wearing us down and breaking our will. They believe America and the West are soft, irresolute, and decadent. "[Americans are] the most cowardly of God's creatures," al-Zarqawi once said.

This is a mistake other enemies of liberty have made in the past. They believed America and the West could not prevail against the ruthlessness and iron discipline of totalitarian enemies. But what our enemies, and sometimes even our own people, forget are the inherent strengths of free societies. Liberty is the design of human nature - and therefore freedom leads to human flourishing and human excellence. It produces men and women who deeply love their country and will rise in defense of it.

Winston Churchill wrote this about the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor:

"Silly people - and there were many, not only in enemy countries - might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend and foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before - that the United States is like 'a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.'"

The fire was lit five Septembers ago. The American people will ride out the storm of this war. Freedom will prevail against militant Islam, just as it did against fascism, Nazism, and Soviet Communism. And in doing so, another honorable chapter will be added to the story of America.

Peter Wehner is deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives.