The acrimonious quibbling over which presidential candidate could "win" the war against terrorism strikes me as the most absurd discussion of the 2004 campaign. No matter what President George W. Bush and Democratic contender John Kerry say, neither can deliver a conclusive "win."
Bush should have held to the position that he outlined in a now-famous Today show interview with Matt Lauer. In response to a question about whether the United States could win the war against terrorism within the next four years, Bush said no. And a follow-up question about winning the war in general elicited a similarly sensible opinion by Bush: "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
He was correct. Moreover, he should have repeated and elaborated on his statement instead of answering those who suggested that he may have doubts about his ability to triumph against terrorism.
Now the president has taken to emphasizing that the United States is winning the war after all. The effort includes his hard-charging message to the Republican National Convention about fighting and prevailing against terrorists across the Earth. Kerry, for his part, has said, "This is a war we can win, this is a war we must win, and this is a war we will win."
Well, I have news for both Bush and Kerry. Terrorism is not known as one of the world's oldest professions for nothing. It has surged and receded with consistent regularity throughout human history but has never entirely disappeared. The likelihood that the United States will totally defeat terrorism is nil.
Even if this nation rounded up or killed every terrorist, resolved known global conflicts and eliminated the familiar social, political and economic roots of modern political violence, someone or some group would find a reason to assume an opposing stance, pick up a weapon and lash out.
The best that the United States and its allies can hope for is to reduce the terrorist threat by waging a steady, comprehensive, creative, proactive and long-term campaign against terrorism that focuses on global cooperation, consultation and communication. In time -- decades, not years -- significant progress should emerge. That would be my definition of gaining the upper hand in this conflict.
The international community started off in the right direction after Sept. 11, 2001, primarily in its decision to intervene in Afghanistan. Then came the divisive war in Iraq, which strained alliances and added to the ranks of U.S. enemies.
Still, the collective effort against terrorism persists. American allies have played a key role in thwarting dozens of terrorist plots against U.S. interests since 9-11.
During that same period, unfortunately, terrorists also have claimed successes. More could follow. In light of the lingering, open-ended danger, a clear strategy to reduce opportunities for terrorists would benefit Americans much more than pointless debates about absolute victory.
-- John C. Bersia won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000.