Al-Qaida has defined its aims and demonstrated its means. In addition to further acts of terror upon the United States, the organization asks that Muslims around the world rise up against America and its allies. World war is what it seeks, although inciting enough violence to topple regimes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Egypt might satisfy its ambitions. To date, however, none of these goals have been achieved, even if the propaganda has been alarming. (As Judith Miller writes in the New York Times: “This use of modern media to make his pitch fits neatly with what has by now become a familiar bin Laden tactic: turning the West’s own modern technology against it.”) For those who find themselves fascinated by and sympathetic to Osama Bin Laden, he may be more legend than political leader.
The goal of the recently launched “war against terrorism” is to topple the Taliban regime and to capture the leaders of al-Qaida—wherever they happen to be hiding. So far, the campaign has consisted of bombing military installations and diplomacy. Some commentators say that such a campaign doesn’t go far enough. Max Boot, for example, proposes an American empire. “The problem,” Boot writes, “has not been excessive American assertiveness [in the Middle East] but rather insufficient assertiveness. The question is whether, having now been attacked, we will act as a great power should.” Yet the notion of empire is entirely antithetical to idea of America: How can a democracy justify imperial rule? Better, surely, to encourage what America does best: democratic institutions and capitalism. Wars as we understand them are only truly won if one ensures that the peace we fight for is better than what came before.