Will the Next Attack Get Our Attention?

What will our politics look like the day after the next time jihad comes home to America?

Ever since September 11, 2001 political leaders of every stripe have been telling us that another catastrophic attack is inevitable. Consensus regarding terrorism begins and ends with the cliché "when not if."

Our leaders speak as if they can avoid responsibility for the next attack by predicting it. They don't seem aware that a grieving and enraged public isn't likely to get much satisfaction from a chorus of "I told you so."

Let's suppose that conventional wisdom is uncharacteristically correct about the prospects for more terrorism in the United States. How will the American public deal with the political class that saw attacks coming years ahead and frittered away the opportunity to deter them?

The whole relevant political spectrum from Nancy Pelosi to George W. Bush has misled the American public about our enemies. Nobody who matters has been willing to identify the people we need to fight, describe their motivations accurately and explain how we can defeat them.

Instead we remain embroiled in a sterile debate about how to control the violence in Iraq. President Bush has just unveiled his "new way forward" which involves more troops and more aggressive and tenacious tactics in trouble spots. He hasn't announced any plans to engineer regime change in either Syria or Iran.

Democrats are gearing up to make a lot of noise in support of ignominious withdrawal from Iraq before gracelessly accepting the inevitable reality that the Commander in Chief calls the shots in wartime. This way they hope to appease their defeatist constituency without having to take the fall for yet another surrender and the blood bath that would certainly ensue.

The entire discussion is surreal.

The public debate gives very little indication that our troubles in Iraq are just one part of a much larger strategic problem. It is as if the allies, having conquered Sicily in August 1943, agreed that the troops should all come home without bothering to invade the mainland of Europe, either in Italy or France.

Try to imagine Franklin Roosevelt reduced to arguing with congressional critics over whether American forces should leave the Sicilian quagmire immediately or stick around long enough to eradicate the Mafia and teach the Sicilians to rise above traditional vendettas. When a war leader has to engage in that sort of debate, things aren't going well.

Pacifying Iraq is not now and never has been an important end in its own right. A peaceful and cooperative Iraq might be useful in our ongoing struggle against the terror masters in Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran. But, apart from George Bush's insubstantial notion that Iraq can be a democratic inspiration to the rest of the Arab world, our leaders don't seem to have any idea how we can use the conquest of Iraq to undermine our enemies in the surrounding countries. They have no apparent intention of doing so.

President Bush doesn't talk about using the conquest of Iraq as a weapon against Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead he never misses an opportunity to claim that our goal in Iraq is to create the conditions that will make it possible to bring our forces home. But the idea that we have a job to do in Iraq that will come to an end any time in the foreseeable future is absurd.

We may establish a political equilibrium in Iraq that looks very much like peace but that equilibrium will last only as long as we have significant forces there to maintain it. When we insisted on a democratic Iraq we ensured that Iraq would remain dependent on American troops indefinitely. Apparently, the Bush administration either forgot or never learned that most "democracies" look a lot like two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner.

Without our supervision any elected Iraqi government will rapidly degenerate into an extraordinarily well-equipped sectarian militia serving the interests of the Shiite majority. Sunnis, with the support of friendly neighboring governments, will fight to resist Shiite domination. Kurds will seize whatever advantage they can from the resulting chaos as will Iraq's neighbors, in particular Iran.

The result will be a humanitarian disaster. It will also be a fatal blow to our war against militant Islam. It doesn't matter whether we leave Iraq in chaos or leave after order is established and then watch it lapse back into chaos. Either way we will suffer a catastrophic defeat.

We have taken on an imperial role in Iraq and Great Britain's imperial history is instructive. When you assume the task of running a foreign country there is no tidy way to disengage. The British East India Company conquered India starting in 1757. After the Sepoy Mutiny a hundred years later, the British Government took over and ran India for 89 years. It began trying to establish Indian home rule in the 1890's.

Nonetheless, when the British left India in 1947, their former colony dissolved in an orgy of sectarian cleansing and divided into warring nations which now threaten each other with nuclear weapons.

If we decamp for North America and let the house of cards we constructed in Iraq collapse we will be utterly discredited in the Middle East and around the world. Then we can hunker down and wait for the next terrorist attack to give us yet another opportunity to demonstrate our impotence.

Very few politicians of any party will ever be willing to take responsibility for this result. At some level they all know that any person or party that gets blamed for defeat in Iraq will also get blamed for the next terrorist attack. President Bush will talk about bringing troops home and, with luck, he may preside over some troop reductions. But he will bequeath a substantial American presence in Iraq to his successor.

Democrats may get some short term political advantage from arguing that we should turn or backs on Iraq and disengage from the effort to detoxify the Middle East. Dogs get a short term kick out of chasing cars, but the smart ones know enough to avoid catching one. Every time the issue of our commitments in Iraq comes up Democrats will huff and puff and point fingers. Then they will participate in perpetuating those commitments. That's what the new Democrat majority in Congress is about to do. That's what the next Democrat president will do. World without end, amen.

The surreal debate about Iraq is a thin veil covering the real political preoccupation of our time - the competition to assign blame for the next terrorist attack to somebody else. Democrats are setting themselves up to argue that the Republican administration is at fault because it hasn't been diligent enough about homeland security and because it has fanned the flames of Islamofascism by fighting in Iraq. Republicans are setting themselves up to argue that Democrats are at fault for refusing to take militant Islam seriously and working to frustrate our every effort to confront it.

Who wins this cat fight? Probably nobody.

The next terrorist attack should give us a relatively lucid moment. It will strike us like a bolt of lightening and illuminate the geopolitical landscape. Even without leadership the American people might see Iraq in context, if only for a moment They may suddenly see that our entire political class has been indulging itself in meaningless partisan disputes when it should have been teaching our Arab and Persian enemies a bitter lesson about the consequences of messing with the eagle.

It isn't a forgone conclusion that any attack, no matter how savage, would make most Americans understand that we are fighting for our lives and doing so blindfolded with our hands in our pockets. Many, perhaps most, of us would react to another assault by redoubling their already heroic efforts to ignore unpleasant realities. But it is also possible that most of us might suddenly see just how feckless and irresponsible America's politicians have been since 9/11.

If we wake up one morning to find that one of our great cities is a smoking ruin or that our children are dying by the million from some mysterious disease, the odds are that America's contempt for its leaders of both parties will know no bounds.

What then?

Something similar happened to Britain at the outset of World War II when the people woke up to discover that their leaders had blundered into a war which they were utterly unprepared to fight. Most of Britain's leaders were thoroughly discredited by the events leading up to the war, but there was one important exception. Winston Churchill had spent a decade warning that war was coming and urging his country to head it off or, failing that, to be ready. When war came, he was the logical person to lead the government.

Where is our Churchill?