Now there can be no doubt. President Bush, with the plain-spoken force that would have made Harry Truman proud, sent out a call to the Congress, the American people and the world that the United States will exact a price for the murder of its citizens. It was a message that needed to be sent. Now comes the real test as the president moves to match action to words.
But the words Thursday night were good ones. In a speech that reflected the patience and confidence of a president who was clear about his responsibility, Bush not only named the terrorist network al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden as the primary suspects in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he laid out a list of demands for the Taliban government of Afghanistan that he clearly knows won't be met, thus requiring a military response. Among those demands are that the Taliban hand over to the United States all of the leaders of al-Qaida hiding in Afghanistan, close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and give the United States full access to terrorist training camps, so America can make sure they are no longer operating.
"By raising the bar this high, the president is saying that he won't accept half-measures," said Edward Turzanski, a national security analyst at La Salle University who has held several posts with the federal government. "His purpose is clear."
Indeed. This was a speech that left no questions. And it shouldn't have. Five thousand of our citizens are dead and our economy has suffered a serious blow. Bush needed to make clear that the Taliban has to side with the civilized world or pay the consequences.
Bush laid out a campaign that will set the tone for the rest of his administration when he said, "We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism," and that every nation in every region now has a decision to make: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
That is a very different story than going after a desperately poor country like Afghanistan, especially now that it is being abandoned by its major benefactor, Pakistan. By singling out countries that aid terrorists, he is giving notice to Iran, Iraq and Syria, among others, which leaves the possibility of a major conflict between major Islamic countries and the West.
Which is why Bush wisely emphasized so clearly that this was a struggle between terrorism and civilization, not Islam and the West. Over time, separating Islam from terrorism will resonate in the Arab world, Turzanski said. "Bush made clear our respect for Arabic people and Islam," he said. "Calling the Taliban a "perversion of Islam,' that is powerful."
The president laid out the challenge confronting this country, and he did it in a way that reflected a steely determination rather than a thoughtless demagoguery. Forget the recounts in Florida and the Supreme Court decision. When historians look back on the administration of George W. Bush, they will find that he became president, in the truest sense of the word, on Sept. 20, 2001.