The Bush administration should stop repeating that it is fighting the war on terror for truth, justice and the American way. Instead, the president and his staff should be blunt and explain that, since Sept. 11, it has had to choose between options that are bad or far worse.
By all means, the administration should invite critics to suggest constructive alternatives to the way it's handled this war. But it should also point out that those who have honed in on flaws in current U.S. anti-terror policies have so far been bereft of other workable ideas.
Take the uniform-less and stateless terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay. To be sure, there are alternatives to the current U.S. policy, but are they any better? Should we try hundreds of them in American courts like Zacarias Moussaoui or in international tribunals as the Europeans attempted with Slobodan Milosevic? Or send them home to face torture in autocracies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Or do we ship the terrorists back to countries that would simply declare them heroes and let them go?
And can the critics offer better ways to track terrorists than through wiretapping and surveillance? How, otherwise, would one have learned in time about those in Miami who plotted to take down the Sears Tower, or the Lebanese cadre who planned to blow up the Holland Tunnel?
The Bush administration can also use history to show that, despite what detractors say, its techniques aren't so unreasonable. It's worth reminding the American public that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and shut down newspapers; that Woodrow Wilson imprisoned prominent dissenters like Eugene Debs; and that Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-American citizens and secret military tribunals for German saboteurs (six of whom were executed) and allowed for the cover-up of military catastrophes (such as the hundreds killed during training exercises for the Normandy landings).
In other words, there's an advantage to providing historical perspective by engaging one's critics and answering their charges. The public, for example, should be informed that the accusation that the U.S. went into Iraq for oil ("no blood for oil," as the slogan goes) is not merely inaccurate, but crazy. For starters, gas prices skyrocketed once we induced risky change in the Middle East. How does that benefit the American people? Meanwhile, because of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's energy sector has been purged of corruption (such as the U.N.'s scandal-plagued oil-for-food program).
In Europe, a poll recently showed that people there view the U.S. as a greater threat than Iran. If this is the case, is it not time to politely suggest to our "allies" that many of our half-century-old military bases in prosperous Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain have outlived their usefulness?
The Arab world's perennial grievances against the United States don't hold up either, given that America has saved Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait and Somalia, and provided billions in aid to Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians.
The Bush administration would also be in the right to wonder aloud whether its domestic critics wish to go back to bombing away without consulting the U.S. Congress or the United Nations as we did in the Balkans. And when Americans are butchered, are we to skedaddle, as both Presidents Reagan and Clinton did, from Lebanon and Somalia respectively?
Our present muscular policy and we also hear this all too infrequently grew out of just such past bipartisan inaction that led to 3,000 murdered Americans. The truth is that the old way of doing business, rightly or wrongly, was seen by jihadists as encouragement to up the ante with Sept. 11.
Ultimately, the Bush administration needs to do a better job of presenting this current war in a far larger context. Jihadists of the Arab world for decades have been at war not with George Bush alone, but with modernity itself. The radical Middle East street may be fascinated by the Internet, satellite television, ATMs and cell phones but not by the foreign anathema of democracies, religious tolerance, free markets and gender equality that ultimately accounts for such goodies.
Here at home, we are witnessing the end of the multicultural dogma. Yes, there are really evil people who wish to kill us for who we are, not what we do and they embrace cultural assumptions that are not just different from our own, but, let us be honest enough to admit it, far worse.
So, there are many fronts in our struggle against Islamic terrorists from the 7th century. The American people must be reminded of our challenges constantly in lieu of platitudes about the inevitable triumph of freedom and democracy. In short, our government should provide much more explanation of this complex war and far less simple declarations about it.