Combining patience with urgency

Outside editorial

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

The surprisingly swift advance of Northern Alliance soldiers, aided by U.S. bombing and special forces, has once again turned Washington punditry upside down. When the bombing began Oct. 7, many commentators assumed a quick victory and chose to debate which target President Bush should move to next: Baghdad or Damascus? Then the first three weeks of military action brought few visible results, and a new consensus began to gel: Gen. Tommy Franks was a bumbler, and U.S. policy was failing as Ramadan and winter closed in. Now the armchair experts are happy to pocket the fall of Kabul and move on to what the administration is doing wrong in Kandahar.

There's a lesson in all of this, and it has a parallel on the domestic side of the fight against terrorism too. The lesson isn't that the critics are always wrong and the administration always right, though we do think that Secretaries Rumsfeld, Powell & Co. are due some credit for their steadfastness thus far. The real lesson is that the United States has embarked on a long, complex struggle against terrorists operating under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism who are determined to do this country grave harm. The struggle is more difficult now because the United States has often cut and run rather than stay and fight or stay and help: in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Afghanistan the last time around. This fight, as President Bush has said, will take years. It must be fought with urgency, and with patience. To combine those two qualities poses a continuing challenge.

You can see the difficulty of that challenge on the home front, with the at least momentary waning of the anthrax scare and the hope that the latest jetliner crash was due to mechanical failure. It may be that the anthrax murderer will not strike again and that terrorists did not cause the destruction of Flight 587 Monday. But even if both turn out to be true, there can be no relaxation in the face of terrorist threats, no matter how much we all wish life could resume its pre-Sept. 11 rhythms. Stockpiling smallpox vaccine; rebuilding the U.S. public health infrastructure; safeguarding Russia's nuclear arsenal -- these must remain urgent priorities. Yet already we see some members of Congress and some in the administration sliding back toward business as usual, playing politics with airport security, larding spending bills with egregious waste, protecting pet law-enforcement projects that have nothing to do with the fight against terror.

Overseas it will be just as important to maintain a long view while moving swiftly to capitalize on short-term opportunities. The administration has to protect human rights in Northern Alliance-controlled territory even as it pursues the Taliban and al-Qaida. It needs to help shape post-Taliban stability in Afghanistan even as it targets al-Qaida cells in other parts of the world. It can't lose sight of the continuing danger posed by Saddam Hussein, nor of the urgency of restoring calm to Israel and the Palestinian territory. It must restore American commitment to helping the poorest of the developing world.

So, no, we aren't there yet, though the expulsion from Kabul of the repressive Taliban regime is cheering news. There will be good days and bad days, good months and bad months, maybe even good years and bad years. The biggest obstacles on the road to victory may be wishful thinking about what this war will take, and an attention span grown short during years of complacency.

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