September 11, 2001 was a day history parted into before and after. On March 19, 2003, the day the war to oust Saddam Hussein began, history parted again.
This may sound a bit sweeping. Does not the swift toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan count for anything? Or the steady victories against al Qaeda, culminating in the capture of Osama bin Laden’s #2?
The difference is that nothing in the war on terrorism until now truly broke the mold, the way 9/11 itself broke the mold in the opposite direction. It is sometimes possible to kill as many or more people with conventional weapons (or knives, for that matter, as in Rwanda) as it is with nuclear weapons. But this fact does not eliminate the qualitative, psychological distinction between conventional and non-conventional weapons.
Almost everything done before March 19 in the war against terrorism fell in the “conventional” category. The regime change accomplished in Afghanistan, though edging into the unconventional realm, could have been dismissed as a unique spasm, not a harbinger of a new rules of the game.
For over a year some of us have been convinced that President George W. Bush would oust Saddam, come hell or high water. But the dictators of the region have not exactly been quaking in their boots in response to becoming charter or alternate members of the axis of evil.
Bold rhetoric, even when surrounded by a sense of inevitability that action will follow, has not caused nations to abandon terror and close down their weapons programs. The question has been, what will the West do about it? As Tony Blair put it in his latest brilliant pitch in the House of Commons, “September 11 has changed the psychology of America. It should have changed the psychology of the world. Of course Iraq is not the only part of this threat. But it is the test of whether we treat the threat seriously.”
September 11 and March 19 were both about changing the psychology of the world: the former to pound it into fear and submission, the latter to inculcate the same dread into the terror network itself.
It is, of course, jarring to compare the two actions, as if there is any moral similarity between them. The crowd that views Bush as a greater threat than Saddam would have little compunction in lumping them together as twin acts of aggression.
Pairing the two together, however, would be worse than equating Hitler’s invasion of France and the allied landing at Normandy. They are similar only in the use of force, but in essence, one act was taken to reverse the other.
Indeed, March 19 is a sort of D-Day in the war against terrorism. This comparison is not quite fair to the heroes of that time, who charged beaches on foot under a hail of machine gun and artillery fire. Over 4,000 of them died.
March 19 cannot hold a candle to D-Day in its sheer physical audacity and scope. But D-Day did not break new ground in the order of the world; it was a classic battle in a classic war. The significance of the war in Iraq is not in the formidability of the enemy, but in the groundbreaking justification for bringing him down.
The beach that was stormed on March 19 was the idea that the United States must wait helplessly to be attacked again as its enemies hid behind the skirts of, of all countries, France, the nation so many Americans died to liberate.
Until March 19, the leaders in Baghdad, Teheran, Damascus, and elsewhere knew that Bush wanted to make supporting terrorism a crime punishable by regime change, but they had reason to believe he would be unable to do so. After all, these governments had attacked their neighbors (sometimes through terrorist proxies), oppressed their peoples, and built their arsenals with nary a peep from the Security Council. They could not only violate international law with impunity, but do so knowing the same law would protect them from any consequences.
The meaning of March 19 is that the United States is willing to defy an interpretation of international law that protects rogue regimes at the expense of their victims. Terrorism has been a way for these regimes to go under the radar screen of the international law, with the purpose of overturning the world order. America has just lowered this radar screen and said, not only will we not let overturn our order, but we will overturn yours.
The risk America is taking is to replace one kind of unruliness, one that accepts terror, with another that accepts preemptive attack. There is little alternative, however, in a world in which so many Western nations steadfastly refuse to use effective non-military sanctions against rogue states. Perhaps this will change now if the choice is no longer between economic sanctions and doing nothing, but between military and economic measures.
The American, British, and Australian troops now entering Iraq may not face a war machine as formidable as Nazi Germany’s, but the stakes they are fighting for are as great. Speaking to the troops on D-Day, General Dwight Eisenhower said, “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere are with you.” Amen.
— Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. This piece first appeared in the Post and is reprinted with permission. The original version of this piece referred to “March 20″ not “March 19″ as the day Operation Iraqi Freedom began. We changed that for time-difference reasons.