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Between Wisdom & War
9/17/01

America will go forward from September 11, but we will move out into a changed world. The summer of easy peace has turned cold, and the trappings of superpower status are stripped away. We remain unrivaled in material wealth and military dominance, but these are no longer the components of might.

Last Tuesday, by trading 19 for 6,000, a zealot in a cave shook a superpower. Our instinct is the strongman's impulse: hit back, harder. But like British Lobsterbacks dropped in a colonial wilderness, we don't know this battle, and the weapons within our reach are blunt. When the U.S. engaged in last century's conflicts, we dictated terms. This time, bin Laden beat us to the ugly era and mastered its terrain before we know where to land. He has secured the heights and commands the superior weapon - legions ready to die beneath the banner: "Those who are slain in the way of Godů.He will admit to Paradise."

Verdict from the punditocracy's council of war: level all sanctuary states. Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. "Ending a few recalcitrant terrorist-friendly regimes in the Middle East - or at least setting them back economically and militarily three or four decades - is the necessary adjunct to American diplomacy, if we are not to appear blustery and weak," writes National Review editor Rich Lowry. But plunging headlong into this ancient caldron risks fulfilling the terrorists' fantasy: a clash of civilizations in which America will have few allies. Western nations were eager to sign sympathy cards, but few are volunteering to suit up. Just this weekend, Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino said Italian troops would not take part in any U.S. action and cautioned that using the term "war" was inappropriate. Likewise, CNN reports that German President Johannes Rau "does not expect the German army will take part in a military response to the terror attacks in the U.S." and thinks the terrorists should be tried in court.

Thus 'us' versus 'them' becomes America alone in a part of the world where cabbies crowed "Bullseye!" and children chanted, "Beloved bin Laden" when news of the attack reached the Arab street. The handful not yet moved to animus will learn the language of anti-Americanism the day we begin raining bombs, and our Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- cannot turn a region bent on revenge.

The blood of our fallen cries out for justice, and we cannot allow this attack on our homeland to go unpunished. But the delusion that we can neatly "end a few recalcitrant ů regimes," brush the soil of bin Laden from our soles, and return to business as usual is na´ve in the extreme. We avenge nothing by allowing terrorists to draw us into a Middle Eastern war with no exit and no motive other than demolition. Neither do we satisfy national interest on any count. Yet we cannot remain silent.

Sun Tsu wrote in his oft-quoted Art of War, "The enemy stalks you for a year to prevail in a day." While we cannot afford the terrorists' patience, we cannot be precipitous. America must respond -- forcefully, decisively, with a long view of history and a new view of conflict. And then we must remove ourselves. Anything less dishonors our dead; anything more will exact the fearsome price of empire.

The world is changed, and America must change with it.

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