It was instantly clear to all sorts of people that we were witnessing the opening struggles of a generational war -- like the Cold War, that started off with the Berlin Wall and the Korean War, and that struggled on into "missile gaps" and spy operations and proxy wars and finally a bidding war that broke the other side, who could not afford to build the weapons we could in order to stay even. But first things first.
First came diplomatic overtures to Pakistan: an ultimatum of sorts. Then followed a call for friends to come to our aid, and then the attack on Afghanistan. The Taliban were thrown out, we hunted them and al Quaeda to the borders, and then worked to install a fairly chosen government to rebuild the country. Even as we were doing these operations, we were strenuously pressing on diplomatic, financial, and intelligence fronts to find and neutralize our enemies.
At this point, we had to figure out what to do with Iraq. People forget, we were already engaged in Iraq. Following the Gulf War, the UN declared two "no-fly" zones in the North and South of that country, and we and the British were flying sorties daily to enforce them. We were also being challenged daily, usually by being "painted" with Iraqi radar, and we responded each time with real weapons. We weren't quite at war, but we weren't at peace, either. And all the time we were doing this -- "keeping Saddam in his box," as preening fools like Joe Biden would say -- Saddam was attempting to re-arm, corrupting the UN (not that that took much to do), and making what trouble he could. His regime wasn't a major player with al Quaeda -- yet -- but a relationship had been established, favors had been exchanged, and so on.
There are a lot of moonbats out there who think that President Bush set out to "get" Saddam out of revenge for Saddam attempting to assassinate the elder Bush on a visit to Kuwait. This is silly. It represents the celebritization of politics, as if the Bushes, Saddam, and other political figures were just interchangeable with millionaires, athletes, entertainers, etc. Sort of like assuming that Bush would play the Donald Trump role in some international Rosie-vs-the-Donald feud, but with real weapons. Such a view trivializes everything it takes notice of.
No, the real problem the Bush administration faced back then was what to do about a conflict we were already engaged in with Iraq. Could we just leave things as they were while we pursued al Quaeda elsewhere? Or would that leave us dangerously exposed? One thing's for sure: we couldn't just leave Saddam to do what he wanted to do.
The Bush view was that, one way or another, the whole Muslim world was involved in what we did. After all, al Quaeda's main focus was not just bashing the West -- fun though they found that to do. No, al Quaeda's main purpose was to subvert the Muslim world -- beginning with the Saudi royal family -- and recreate the supposed glory days of the Caliphate (and then destroy the West). By attacking the West (especially the USA), they managed to gain status among Muslims and support for their brand of Islam. This was important, because there were (and are) many, many violent intra-Muslim feuds; striking at the West finessed those feuds and allowed all radicalized Muslims (Shi'ite, Wahhabi, Baathist, whatever) to feel that something was being done.
To let al Quaeda succeed in further radicalizing of the Muslim world would be a catastrophe. But merely to throw a few bombs around and call things even wouldn't change the vulnerability of the Muslim world to this kind of subversion. And therefore the danger to our civilization would remain -- and grow. So Bush decided to go after Saddam because a) we were already fighting there, and couldn't just leave him to go fight somewhere else, b) Saddam's regime was still a threat and likely to become a bigger threat, especially as al Quaeda fled Afghanistan, and c) if the basic problem was, "what is the future of the Muslim world?" then mere warfare would not be enough to address the root of things.
We had to offer an alternative vision to that of al Quaeda: rather than allowing a movement to create a walled-off and violent Caliphate to become the "coming thing" among Muslims, we would offer something the region had never known -- our own political ideology of natural rights and democratic governments based upon social compacts. No longer would we follow FDR's attitude toward Anastasio Somoza (Sure, he's a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch); instead, we would begin to criticize the repressive regimes of the region and talk about freedom as something given by God, as well as what democracy could do for them.
And that's where we are now. Either we will succeed, and the Muslim world will begin to look to the West -- or at least, the USA -- as a model for the future, or the terrorists will succeed and the Muslim world will descend into violent convulsions that will inevitably wash outward toward the rest of the world. Either they all become a little more like us, or we all become a little more like them; there is no third choice.
Comparisons to Vietnam are inevitable, I suppose. But Vietnam was one of those proxy wars fought on the edges of the greater conflict of the times. It wasn't as near the core as, say, the Berlin Airlift or the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Iraq is now -- if it wasn't at the beginning -- the central front in the War on Terror. If we fail here, we lose it all, on a scale that makes the debacle of Vietnam look like no big deal.
And may I say, that having lived through Vietnam and its aftermath, I don't want to go back there. I particularly do not want to go back to Jane Fonda and all the rest of it. Our abandonment of Vietnam and consequent loss of prestige are not glorious achievements wrought by the Baby Boomers in their youth, but badges of shame this aging Boomer has no desire to share.
It's going to be a long struggle. It will have its violent moments, and its ugly ones. There is no guarantee that we will win it, though I think we have the better cause and the better vision to offer. We certainly have the best of warriors fighting for us, bravely and gladly (they believe in this fight, even if the Dumbocrats back home don't). But one thing is certain: we sure as hell will not win it if we decide to punt in Iraq. The only thing our enemy understands is strength -- not military strength, but strength of resolve. We're going to have to outlast as well as outfight the enemy -- so that our vision will be something the Muslim world sees as of more value than the phantom of some ugly and violent Caliphate.