A Cold War-Style Conflict

How united is the country? President Bush's job-approval rating in the Gallup Poll has hit 90 percent, the highest ever recorded for any President. He's even got the support of 84 percent of Democrats.

Public support for military retaliation is nearly unanimous. In the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars—as in the conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo—nobody attacked the United States. This time, they did. Americans say they are willing to endure losses and setbacks. But are they willing to endure politics? Americans think that wars should have a clear military objective: winning. They have little patience for policies that get us involved in other countries' politics.

That was the problem in Vietnam, where the United States was fighting to win the "hearts and minds" of the North Vietnamese people. And that was the problem in Somalia, where the cause of that country's famine turned out to be politics.

How does the United States avoid politics when its objective is not to defeat other countries militarily but to persuade them to share our values and cooperate with us? In last year's presidential campaign, George W. Bush complained that the Clinton Administration was too quick to involve the U.S. military in foreign conflicts with no exit strategy and no clear-cut definition of victory. Well, guess what? In the new war on terrorism, there i s no exit strategy and no clear-cut definition of victory. For Americans to accept that kind of open-ended political strategy will be the toughest test of all.

Do Americans have the stomach for a costly, long-term conflict with no definitive outcome in the foreseeable future? They've done it before.

The closest analogy is not the Gulf War, as the President made clear in his September 20 address to Congress: "This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion." In other words, this is not my father's war.

Pearl Harbor isn't quite analogous, either. That was an attack on a U.S. military target by a hostile foreign power on the eve of a truly world war. One popular analogy compares the new war on terrorism to the war on drugs. But the war on drugs is something that America has been waging mostly on itself.

The closest analogy is the Cold War. In March 1947, President Truman addressed a joint session of Congress and declared that the United States was willing to assume the burden of leading the free world in the struggle against Communism. His declaration launched an open-ended conflict with no definitive outcome in the foreseeable future.

In both cases, the enemy was an "ism": then Communism, now terrorism. And the United States divided the world into our side and their side. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," Bush has declared.

Now the United States is obsessed with the threat of terrorism. Then, we were obsessed with the threat of nuclear missiles. Americans are pursuing airport security with the same zeal that they once built fallout shelters and practiced "duck-and-cover" exercises. The closest parallel to the fear Americans have felt over the past three weeks was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

The Cold War was intensely political. The United States was trying to persuade other countries to share our values, not the Communists'. The conflict became controversial only when actual shooting broke out, first in Korea and later in Vietnam, and Americans expressed a deep distaste for fighting wars with limited political objectives. But the Cold War was always bipartisan. It originated with Harry Truman and was sustained by Dwight Eisenhower, who repudiated his party's isolationist tradition.

The Cold War taught the United States valuable lessons, some of which are being applied to "America's New War." In the early days of the Cold War, Americans were obsessed with "the enemy within."

It took a long time for the United States to figure out that Communism was not monolithic. We had to learn to make distinctions. Bush is already doing that in the war on terrorism. He defined the enemy as "every terrorist group of global reach." He defined as hostile "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism."

The early years of the Cold War were marked by the unsubtle and inflexible diplomacy of John Foster Dulles ("brinkmanship"). But Bush seems to understand that the war on terrorism will be fought in a world of shifting allegiances. Notice how quickly the United States lifted its anti-nuclear sanctions on Pakistan. We are even contemplating an opening to Iran, if that regime will help us.

The Cold War lasted 45 years. It was costly, difficult, and controversial. When the Cold War began, there was considerable doubt that the American people would have the stomach for a massive, open-ended, global struggle. But through it all, the country sacrificed and endured. In the end, Communism collapsed, owing in no small measure to the relentlessness of U.S. opposition.

For President Bush, the war on terrorism is his generation's call to arms. "We have found our mission and our moment," he said. "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."