The cost of our war on terror is clear. It amounts to hundreds of American combat deaths and hundreds of billions of American dollars. So it's reasonable to wonder whether we can sustain the global war on terrorism. The Bush administration sees no immediate light at the end of the tunnel, only a long, hard slog, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it. That method of warfare may seem particularly wasteful to people like Richard Clarke and John Kerry. They see the struggle narrowly as the fight against al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations. 'What did Saddam Hussein have to do with 9/11?' they asked. But their idea of the war is divorced from politics, and that makes no sense.
The war on terrorism properly understood is an effort to remake the unremittingly violent, illegitimate and increasingly dangerous political order in the Middle East. It's about ending deficits of freedom for people who resented us when we looked the other way. That's why it's also a war about states like Afghanistan under the Taliban and Iraq under Saddam as well as so-called non-state actors like al-Qaeda and Hamas.
Transforming the Middle East is a goal of vaulting ambition. President Bush has made a commitment that will take decades to discharge, a "generational commitment," in Condoleeza Rice's words. But the reward of democracy is surely worth the cost. That's because the prosperity it brings will snuff out disaffection and the terrorism spawned by poverty. This is not really a war of choice. The problems of the Middle East can no longer be safely contained in the box, as President Clinton used to say. We cannot return to the shortsighted, dictatorial stability of the past. Afghanistan and Iraq are campaigns, themselves not yet complete, in this larger war. But they have put us on a path toward victory.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.