Is it Worth it?

Media headline readers yesterday told us that a majority of Americans don’t think the war in Iraq is “worth it.” We have to ask, “What is ‘it’?”

Media headline readers yesterday told us that a majority of Americans don’t think the war in Iraq is “worth it.” We have to ask, “What is ‘it’?”

An ABC News/Washington Post poll (19 Dec.) framed the goals of the Iraq war as “ousting Saddam and establishing democracy,” and 70 percent of respondents said it wasn’t worth “the cost in U.S. lives.” That is a perhaps true, but extremely limited, point. It may not be “worth it” to lose brave and precious American men and women in a quest to help the citizens of Ramadi and Najaf obtain what we won’t help the people of Havana, Beijing or Harare obtain. To be blunt, nothing in that frame of reference makes the Iraqi, or any other people, “worth it.”

But the frame of reference is wrong. The war in Iraq cannot be uncoupled from the fact that for 30 years – since the Munich Olympic massacre – terrorists have chosen the time and place to wage their war. Israelis have been fighting for a long time, but only after September 11th did America and a few of our allies join in. This war is against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them. And this war – even with its terrible losses, even yesterday’s losses, even with all the mistakes and all the blown chances – is “worth it” because we simply have no choice if we are to preserve our way of life as free people.

For decades, terrorists and their state sponsors have rewritten the rules to say that a legitimate target is whatever they say it is: New York secretaries; Jews on a bus in Jerusalem, in a hotel in Egypt or a synagogue in Istanbul; Spanish commuters; Australian partiers in Bali; an American journalist in Pakistan; children in Beslan; contractors in Fallujah. They’ve rewritten the rules to say that a legitimate tactic is whatever they say it is: bombs in schools; airplanes full of people and jet fuel; suicide belts; ambulances filled with fighters or explosives; hanging bodies from bridges; beheadings; taking money from charities for the helpless and spending it to encourage the hopeless to blow themselves up. Those are their choices.

Our choice is not “war or no war.” Ours is military and political resolution in this war or another 30 years of them making the rules. Our choice is not the sacrifice of our soldiers or no sacrifice. Ours is between the sacrifice of our soldiers and the continuing slaughter of civilians. And even as we fight, the last two will overlap.

The military battle for control of Iraq, and the political struggle for a stable, consensual government there are tactical stages in the strategic effort to break the link between states with powerful assets and terrorists who need those assets to continue their war. Choosing a time and place to deal with the Ba’athists in Syria and the mullahs in Iran are tactical stages. Ending Arab incitement against Israel is a tactic. Economic and political liberalization in the Arab/Muslim world are tactics. Reconstruction in Afghanistan is a tactic. Supporting voices of modernization in the Arab world is a tactic.

All to advance a strategic goal that is, indeed, “worth it.”