On September 1, 1939, Hitler's armies rolled across the western border of Poland. On September 3, England and France declared war on Germany. But the two great powers, unable to intervene in strength in Poland, did not take action right away. A lull–"prolonged and oppressive," in Churchill's words—followed. The "phony war," as many called it, had begun. (Churchill called it the "twilight war.") England promptly sent bombers over Germany—but only to drop millions of propaganda leaflets. And so the time was also called "the confetti war." Everyone knew, however, that the die had been cast, that real war would come. And it did come, of course, at a cost of some 46 million lives.
On September 20, 2001, war was once again declared—this time by an American President, supported by Congress. But once again there was a lull, a kind of phony war. The President's words before the joint session of Congress were clear enough. Either the Taliban government of Afghanistan must yield up the Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden and other accused terrorists or it would "share in their fate." And yet over the next several days, in perhaps the swiftest climb-down from an ultimatum in American history, this clear commitment appeared to melt away. It was a welcome change to dovish analysts, but vexing to hawks and confusing to all. Did the United States really mean to unseat the Taliban? The President's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, didn't see it that way. When Bush, using much politer language than he had before Congress, suggested that the best way to bring to justice those responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks was "to ask for the cooperation of citizens within Afghanistan who may be tired of having the Taliban in place," Fleischer rushed out to assure the world that American action "is not designed to replace one regime with another regime." Two days after the attack, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that US policy should be "ending states who sponsor terrorism," but four days after that Secretary of State Colin Powell said he'd prefer to say that "ending terrorism is where I would like to leave it and let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself." At the end of September, Wolfowitz himself said, "I think it can't be stressed enough that everybody who is waiting for military action…needs to rethink this thing." It was as if, after their declaration of war on Germany in 1939, France and England had announced the next week that they hadn't exactly meant Germany, maybe hadn't even meant war. Had the President been bluffing? After reflection, was he moving to a more sober policy, without being able to say so?
At the beginning of October, the winds seemed to shift again. Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, declared that the Taliban's choice was "to surrender the terrorists or surrender power," and Bush said that this had been "exactly" his message to Congress. Bush had said that the United States was not "into nation-building," but now an 86-year-old former Afghan monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was rolled forward as the possible leader of a regime to replace the Taliban. Government counsel to the American public was as changeable as policy. Ari Fleischer wanted Americans to get on with a "normal" existence, and President Bush wanted them to "get on board" airplanes again, but Attorney General John Ashcroft warned, "We think that there is a very serious threat of additional problems now," and added, "and, frankly, as the United States responds, that threat may escalate."
The confusion was deeper still. In 1939, England and France did not know when war would come or what form it would take, but they knew without doubt that they were at war, and, what is more important, they knew what a war was. In the phony war of 2001, there was no agreement on either point. Many observers agreed with the Times's Tom Friedman that "the equivalent of World War III" was upon us. But was this true? Are we embarked on a path of horror equivalent to–or greater than–that taken by the world after 1914 and 1939? That was the question that, above all others, has hung terrifyingly in the air in this grief-stricken, nervous, uncertain interval between the injury to the United States andthe response, between the attack and the counterattack.
It was not easy to answer. On the one hand, the world of 2001 did not present an array of great hostile powers, ready to wage total war on one another, as the world of 1939 had done. The United States was indeed such a power, but its immediate attackers had been a force of nineteen men armed with box cutters. Years of battle among great alliances of nations was not in the cards. On the other hand, as the attack had shown, the world of 2001 was stocked with technical instruments of destruction that enabled a very few people, or a feeble state, to wreak almost incalculable devastation. It was with good reason that the United States was awakening in shock to the danger of attacks with weapons of mass destruction. In "hot pursuit" (as Bush put it) of the terrorists, the United States had already seriously destabilized one weak yet nuclear-armed power: Pakistan. If Islamist extremists took over that nation, would the United States launch a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear arsenal? If it did, would it succeed, and would the extremist government, or its terrorist allies, find a way to retaliate upon American soil? Would someone else? After September 11, do we still imagine that we are invulnerable?
Some voices were calling for major conventional war. The columnist Charles Krauthammer demanded that the United States overthrow the governments of four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran. According to some news reports, there was support in the Administration for such a program. If a campaign on this scale is launched, the prediction that World War III is upon us will become more likely. Is the world of 2001 set on a course that will cost tens of millions of lives, or more? The men with the box cutters cannot by themselves bring it off. But an enraged, blind superpower could manage it. Krauthammer's four wars could do it. They could transform the local catastrophe in New York and Washington into a global one. Yet it remains equally true that a wise, restrained superpower can head off such a fate. Which will it be? The attack of September 11 did not decide. What the United States does now will decide.