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September 11, 2003 -- TWO years after the 9/11 attacks marked the true beginning of the 21st century, the United States has altered the global strategic landscape. We have taken the fight to our enemies, and now those enemies must fear us far more than we need fear them.

In the War Against Terror, no other power or organization can defeat America.

But America remains dangerously capable of defeating itself.

Our strength is without precedent in the social, cultural, economic, military and moral spheres. But, when faced with determined enemies whose capabilities are no more than the smallest fraction of our own, we reveal two dangerous weaknesses: Impatience, and the profoundly mistaken notion that the absence of a clear-cut victory means that we have been defeated.

There are few flawless victories. Even the Second World War, while incontestably an American and Allied triumph, left Eastern Europe in thrall to the Soviet Union, our Chinese Nationalist allies nearing collapse, and Europe's colonial empires in deadly tumult.

Does any of this mean that WWII wasn't worth fighting? Or that we lost?

The imperfect results of our own Civil War still awaited resolution a century later, in the 1960s. Does that suggest that a Union defeat, leaving slavery intact and our nation permanently divided, would have been a more desirable outcome?

IF the men and women of the 19th century committed the sin of romanticizing war, then we 21st-century Americans are in danger of embracing a new sin, that of rejecting war's complex realities in favor of a reality-TV approach to combat and its aftermath. We seem, at times, to expect war to conform not only to election requirements, but to television broadcasting schedules.

And we'd like a nicely wrapped-up Hollywood ending, thanks. When the battle doesn't end at the top of the hour, or war's aftermath conflicts with the kick-off of the NFL season, our pundits and politicians tell us our efforts have been in vain, our sacrifices misguided.

This intellectual frivolity poses a serious danger. It discounts war's many-layered consequences, while imposing naive and impossible measures of success. The truth is that many aspects of a war's outcome remain obscure for years. Instant judgments of failure - or claims of enduring success - are no more than long-shot bets in the casino of history.

Wars do not necessarily conform to the victor's desires. Outcomes surprise. Results can never be fully anticipated - and imperfect results are the norm. If the winning side achieves most of its goals, it often must compromise on others.

The Second World War in Europe began in defense of Poland's freedom against Nazi tyranny. It ended in a tremendous Allied victory, but left Poland subject to an alternate despotism.

Aims change even in the course of war, as well as in war's aftermath. No one can fully foresee which conditions will prevail at the conclusion of general combat. War is risk - not only the risk faced by the soldier, but the risk of unintended consequences. If every outcome could be foreseen, one side or the other would simply surrender at the outset. Or neither would go to war.

THE impatience and unreasonable expectations of our "opinion-makers" are exacerbated by our "Gotcha!" culture, in which no critic or candidate admits that vast gray areas exist between the extremes of unconditional victory and abject defeat. Indeed, while the Iraqi people had the good fortune to be freed from the Ba'athist regime by American troops, they now suffer the misfortune of liberation in the run-up to a U.S. presidential election.

At present, election politics, both Democratic and Republican, pose a greater danger to a long-term favorable outcome in Iraq than do regime die-hards or international terrorists.

We are in danger of talking ourselves into politically expedient actions, artificial deadlines and an unmerited sense of failure - when we have, in fact, achieved a notable triumph, the immediate results of which are overwhelmingly positive and whose ultimate results, though still undetermined, could have the most positive influence on the Middle East of any events in the last several centuries.

Democratic presidential aspirants insist that our success is really failure, clinging perversely to each bit of bad news and belittling all signs of progress. The Republican administration, too, has begun to appear more concerned about the coming election than about Iraq's real needs, anxious to achieve the appearance of success and of costs contained, even if the penalty is to undercut the progress we have thus far achieved.

IF Democrats and Republicans alike fail to recognize the stakes in Iraq, we may, indeed, maneuver ourselves into failure. If our problems, at home and abroad, seem larger and larger, it's merely an optical illusion created because our political leaders, on both sides of the aisle, have grown smaller and smaller.

We need to return to our bipartisan tradition of supporting the president's foreign policy initiatives in wartime. And make no mistake: We are, and will remain, at war. Our enemies are not Democrats or Republicans, but terrorists and butchers. It would serve us well were our political leaders to remember that.

Iraq is only one campaign in the greater War Against Terror - although it is, indeed, an important stage in that war. Those who insist on seeing Islamic terrorism as a limited problem to be dealt with in detail, rather than as the most dangerous contemporary threat in a long struggle between freedom and oppression, are engaged in wishful thinking.

9/11 wasn't so much a matter of Osama bin Laden's success as of the failure of Middle Eastern civilization.

ISLAMIC terrorism isn't a problem that can be isolated from its welcoming environment. By default, we have become the wardens of a strategic madhouse, the decayed domains of Middle Eastern Islam. The terror that we face isn't merely the product of a few misguided souls, but of a miscreant civilization. Of course, our enemies insist, as madmen will, that we, not they, are criminally insane.

If that dying civilization cannot heal itself - with or without our help - there will be no end to terror. In the meantime, we have no choice but to deal with the terrorists confronting us. In Iraq. Or wherever else we may find them.

With the over-reported rush of events in Iraq, a substantial but vocal minority of Americans have lost their perspective, focusing on tactical problems, rather than on our strategic advances. But the challenges that seem so great in Iraq today are transient in nature, requiring only strength of will and adequate resources to be overcome.

The overarching War Against Terror is another matter. Far greater dangers lie ahead than a few car bombs in Baghdad.

Although we will win on many battlefields, we shall never see a final victory over terror in our lifetimes. It isn't in the nature of this war.

No matter how effectively we fight terror, a few terrorists will slip through to harm Americans. Inevitably, there will be additional terrorist attacks on American soil. When those attacks occur, we will be told that the War Against Terror has failed - as we are now told that the war in Iraq has failed.

Such claims will be nonsense. If our government stops 499 terrorists, but number 500 gets through, it doesn't mean there was no value in stopping all the others. In this fight, we will win the overwhelming majority of victories, large and small. But the enemy will manage, sooner or later, to get in a few more blows of his own.

THE War Against Terror is much closer in nature to fighting crime, if on an unprecedented scale, than to traditional wars - although such wars will continue to be necessary to eliminate terrorist havens and sources of support.

No reader expects crime to be eliminated entirely - our goal is and has always been to reduce crime to a minimum. Terrorism - the ultimate criminal endeavor - will never be fully vanquished, either. Our purpose must be to limit its impact on our freedom and well-being to the greatest degree possible.

And as with criminals, it is always better to fight the terrorists on their home ground, rather than in law-abiding neighborhoods. The terrorist attacks we face in Iraq today are preferable to attacks in Manhattan or Miami. We have not created new enemies, but only drawn out those whose existence had been hidden from us.

Far from a provocation, the presence of our troops in the Middle East is an indispensable manifestation of our strength and resolve - as well as our most effective tool for killing terrorists.

Instead of imposing artificial time limits on ourselves, we need to recognize the timeless nature of our enemies.

On this second anniversary of 9/11, we should set aside our partisan bickering, our personal resentments and prejudices, and recognize that our government has done a remarkable job since that tragic day. We have been kept safe, despite the fury of the terrorists at the damage we have, repeatedly, inflicted upon them.

Every day without a terrorist attack on our country or its citizens is a triumph, but the struggle must be renewed each day, one second after midnight. If we insist on setting unrealistic goals, we will defeat ourselves. You cannot fight terrorism with a stopwatch, and you can't fight it on the cheap.

Iraq will never become Iowa - our goal should be a better, if still imperfect, Iraq. Afghanistan will always remain Afghanistan. It is enough if it is a somewhat-improved country, less dangerous to us and less oppressive to its citizens. By such rational measures, we already have achieved notable victories.

DESPAIR is the preferred narcotic of the intellectual classes. The rest of us must stand up for what we know in our hearts and souls to be right and true. Our cause is just. Our efforts in this great, global war have been admirably successful. Our soldiers have kept us safe and made us proud. We owe them unity, not divisiveness.

No power on this earth can defeat us, unless we defeat ourselves.

Ralph Peters' next book, "Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace," will be released Oct. 1.

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