"He worked on the conclusion for days," Gerson told me. "It very much embodied a vow on his part. He wanted to finish with a statement of moral confidence in ... in the makeup of the universe. Which is appropriate. He did not feel the outcome was up in the air. He wanted to do so not in a sectarian way but with a broad confidence in Providence, which is the way that American Presidents have often talked."
Read on the page, the speech may seem unexceptional—the units of thought are too short and choppy, the "Americans are asking" structure is too obvious. But it was meant to be seen and heard, which is something different, and as a performance it was tremendous.
The speech did wonders, of course, for Bush's personal standing and plausibility. It also did something less obvious but quite important: it resolved, or at least deferred, a fundamental disagreement within his Administration about war aims. The disagreement will reappear, but it did not hamper the decisions of the first month.
This disagreement, widely discussed in the press, could be described as "maximalist" versus "minimalist," or "big enemy" versus "big coalition." The maximalist, big-enemy view, most clearly expressed by the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, is that a serious war on terrorism means attacking and overthrowing the regimes that harbor terrorists.
Although Wolfowitz had a major policy job during the first Bush Administration, as an undersecretary of defense, intellectually and spiritually he is a figure from the days of Ronald Reagan. (Under Reagan he was a State Department official and then the ambassador to Indonesia.) His tone is that of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, or the old Commentary magazine. He loves highlighting rather than papering over differences, and pushing arguments to their logical extreme. (I should say that I know and like Wolfowitz.) His current boss, Donald Rumsfeld, has a variant of the same approach. Rumsfeld, a former fighter pilot and CEO, makes the corporate big man's assumption that he'll get his way in an argument; Wolfowitz, a former professor and defense intellectual, makes the scholar's assumption that he'll win on debating points.
In the early Reagan years Wolfowitz honed his technique by arguing over the big issues of the day—nuclear weapons and arms-control strategies. Nice, normal attempts to limit the arms race, through treaties, made the world more dangerous, he said; they actually gave each side an incentive to build threatening first-strike weapons. The safest thing the United States could do for itself and the world was simply to forget about arms-control talks and build a self-defense system. This was Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, better known (and by some still loved) as Star Wars.
His current maximalist case about terrorism rests on the contention that without friendly governments to harbor them, groups like al Qaeda will no longer be major threats. Sophisticated terrorist networks can't just live like bandits in the hills. They need a haven in which to use stores and banks, buy weapons, get some rest, and feel safe from capture. Changing the regimes in sponsoring countries—principally Iraq but also Sudan, Libya, and, of course, Afghanistan—is necessary, because otherwise new terrorist networks will spring up to replace those that are eliminated. A nation as big and open as the United States can never adequately protect itself by "playing defense" against terrorist attacks—guarding every bridge and building, keeping watch on every suspicious character. So it must play an effective game of offense: that is, as Wolfowitz memorably put it at a press conference just after the attacks, it must "end states that sponsor terrorism." From the maximalist perspective, the sign of a serious military campaign would be dropping bombs on Baghdad at the same time they fell on Kabul. And we'd know the war was won when Saddam Hussein was overthrown.