History is so much wet cement for presidents and presidencies. You are stamping a footprint on immortality one minute, stuck firmly and ignobly the next if you don't move quickly enough.
George W. Bush has reached that point in his global war on terrorism. His initial use of the phrase and the concept rallied a dazed nation against a movement of killers who had been picking off Americans and others without retribution. Bush's inspirational abilities, and the ineptness of his opponents, won him reelection.
But the terrorist assault in London last week -- and the composed manner in which the British capital responded -- helps paradoxically to demonstrate that Bush needs to adjust strategy to the changed global conditions his policies have produced. So does the course of the continuing war in Iraq.
An American contemplating the consummately professional reaction of London's emergency response personnel to that devastating human tragedy has to ask: Where are our drills involving the public? What visible, constant civil defense preparations have to be made for the same inevitable attacks on our people? Can we do nearly as well with the minimal preparations that have been made, apparently to avoid "worrying" the public?
The only case of panic coming out of the London bombings seems to have been a knee-jerk Pentagon warning to U.S. Air Force personnel to stay out of London for their own safety. The order was quickly rescinded, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld owes the people of London a lot more, beginning with an official apology.
Britain's citizens, its financial markets and political leaders quickly absorbed the gruesome shock and simply carried on. Wall Street and the rest of the world followed that cue, providing proof that those waging this al Qaeda-style war on our confidence in ourselves and in our institutions are not winning.
The specific links -- if any -- of the particular criminals in London to Osama bin Laden's band of Islamic fanatics are not clear. But it is safe to assume that these bombers come from a point on a jihadist spectrum that begins at the blood-feud level and runs to bin Laden's delusional aspirations of "regaining" all lands ever claimed by Islamic warriors.
By destroying our trust in each other -- at individual and national levels -- bin Laden would presume to bankrupt Europe and the United States morally and financially. This "strategy," laid out in bin Laden's noxious declarations, envisions episodic terror attacks over a long period without there ever being climactic battles in a "war."
But his ultimate aim is to encircle and dominate the Muslims who do not submit to the Salafist ideology of the Sunni extremists. Muslim moderates, Shiites of all political persuasions and other "nonbelievers" -- especially Jews -- are the physical targets of destruction, not Western freedoms or armies. The long-term struggle is within Islam, for Islam, and will be won or lost by Muslims -- with crucial outside support.
The war in Iraq cannot at this point be solely or even largely about fighting terrorists there so that we don't have to fight them here, as Bush continues to repeat on every occasion. It has to be about empowering a responsible, tolerant government of Muslims to overcome murderous subversives who want power there.
Iraq must in fact be increasingly detached from the war on terrorism, at least in the terms that Bush has been using. In any event, the war against terrorism must be converted into a long-term struggle for something -- a struggle for tolerance in which ideas, resources and inclusion rank in importance with U.S. military bases in Central Asia.
Such bases were needed to break the joint control of al Qaeda and the Taliban over Afghanistan. But they will be difficult to sustain, as will the war on terrorism in the overwhelmingly military form it took immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. One sign of this came in a communique issued by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last week. Signed by Russia, China and Central Asian nations, the document asked for a timetable for closing foreign bases in Central Asia.
Why has the United States not been attacked since Sept. 11? It's not simply because we are fighting terrorists in Iraq. The terrorists cannot have found the water -- the Muslim American community -- easy to swim in or to use for their malignant long-term purposes.
The continuing patriotism and tolerant nature of American Muslims need to be spotlighted more by Bush and given a leading voice in the U.S. effort to overcoming Islamic extremism abroad. That one step would help immediately to transform the "war" into a more sustainable struggle for common human values.