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What we've lost

In the years since 2001, the guiding light of U.S. liberties and values has been dimmed at home and abroad.

September 11, 2007

America's "war on terror," which enters its sixth year today, now seems destined to redefine our nation for a generation or more to come.

The war goes on in Afghanistan, which has endured more than 100 suicide bombings this year, including a horrific attack Monday that killed at least 28 people. It goes on and on in Iraq, where Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker recommended to Congress on Monday that U.S. troops should stay, albeit in slightly declining numbers, until that fractious nation stabilizes. And it appears to be expanding to a third front, an undeclared but worsening conflict with Iran.

In the years since terrorists struck New York and Washington, we can point to one significant achievement: We have avoided another attack on American soil. Given the ferocity and cunning of Al Qaeda, that is no small feat. For this, we give thanks and credit to the diligence of U.S. and foreign intelligence services, homeland security and law enforcement officials, brave counter-terrorist fighters and wily strategists in every branch of the U.S. military, and alert citizens who have helped authorities foil attacks by would-be mass murderers.

By contrast, the decision to invade Iraq has proved, in our view, a distraction from the struggle against radical Islamist terrorism, and it has cost us dearly. More than 3,700 American soldiers have lost their lives on foreign sands. Another 27,000 have returned home with injuries, many of them life-altering. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed or wounded and about 4 million forced to flee, half of them to uncertain foreign refuge. Their scars will mar the future as anger over the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and its injustices at Guantanamo Bay breeds new enemies.

Those are harrowing consequences of a war waged by an administration that has misunderstood its enemy and its place in history. But the price of this president's military and domestic overreach has been highest in the loss of faith in America itself, in the values and institutions that have historically defined this nation.

Those values have survived other struggles, notably those against fascism and communism -- powerful, hostile ideologies backed by military might. In fighting those wars, the United States did not always trust its defining liberties; witness the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But while zealots imposed loyalty oaths and demanded police-state protections, those who better understood this nation's strength ended racial segregation, expanded privacy, supplied defendants with lawyers, required that suspects be told of their rights and insisted on warrants for conducting searches. Far from compromising security, those and other freedoms bolstered it. They made America a model, a nation that led not just by force but by example.

No matter how much he insists otherwise, President Bush lacks that fundamental belief in American freedom. As a result, his war has not only subverted U.S. military interests but has undermined the liberties that make this a nation worthy of emulation. That is the tragic and true cost of these past six years.

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