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There is no exit strategy to avoid a long fight against terror

Whenever I see some talking-points-mouthing congressman or catchphrase-spouting think tank dweller insistently telling a cable news host that America needs an “exit strategy,” I think to myself, “Dream on, sucker.” Obviously, it’s good to look before leaping into the next foreign cesspool, but the exit strategy concept is an illusion heaped on a delusion when it comes to the war on terror.

The fight against radical Islamists isn’t the Mexican War or the Spanish American War in which the opponent was a government with an army, land to grab and an interest in ending it all when the going got too rough. The enemy in this war is a hydra-headed beast that regenerates each time it gets cut down. Unlike the Mexicans and the Spaniards – or the Germans and Japanese and Russians – the forces Americans face today seem more interested in dying for their god than living for another day, which means the fight will not end easily and the exits will just be doorways to more dusty battlefields.

So, those who are now saying the Obama administration needs to know how to get out of the fight with Islamic State before we get in are either asking to be lied to or are looking for a benchmark to be used against the president when the next exit door turns out to be locked. The reality of this struggle – as in Afghanistan – is you go in when you need to and you leave when you have to and you claim “mission accomplished,” even when it is not.

Last Thursday was the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. That night, watching NBC’s two-part recounting of that day’s events, I was vividly reminded of how this all began. Part one showed excerpts from the network’s real-time coverage of that terrible morning. Part two featured very personal reminiscences from the team that covered every shocking minute of the attack – Tom Brokaw, Matt Lauer, Andrea Mitchell and Jim Miklaszewski. The collapse of first one and then the other of the twin towers is a sight as horrific now as it was then. In some ways, seeing those images today is even more searing, intensified by the knowledge of all that has come after. Spikes of sorrow and anger hit me as hard as they had 13 years before.

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At the moment the second tower fell on that bright sunny morning in New York, Brokaw said, “The terrorists have declared war on the United States.” We keep wishing that war would end, but it is not going to go away any time soon. Instead, this is how it will go:

We will be drawn back into the fight over and over because the terrorists will not stop taunting us and because the things they represent are an affront to modern civilization and its finest attributes – freedom of thought, equality for women, religious tolerance.

Terrorists are likely to hit us hard and close to home again. If they do so thinking they can make Americans cower and withdraw, they will prove they have no comprehension of the nature of this country. As a nation made by war from our earliest days, we have rarely backed down from a fight, even at those times when fighting was a self-destructive choice. We always strike back. As happened with the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq, the vengeful exercise of our power will bring both swift victories and big miscalculations. The history we make in the coming years will be no more tidy and morally pure than the history we have already written.

And there will be no final exit strategy. We will leave one fight and then find another because this will not be about clear-cut victory, as in World War II, this will be about containment, as in the Cold War. The end will come only when, like communism in the Soviet Union, totalitarian extremism in the Islamic world is a spent force.

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Barack Obama hoped his legacy would be that he ended two wars. Now, tragically, he is learning that those were merely two phases of a struggle that is not close to ending. It may have only just begun.


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