Ralph Peters sounds a particularly cheery note in a New York Post editorial which begins with the rather bold statement,

EVEN if terrorists attack our homeland before the stroke of midnight, 2003 will still have been a year of remarkable progress on every front in the global War on Terror – and the greatest year for freedom since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

While one could quibble about the further erosion of freedom domestically, it’s certainly true that removing Saddam made the world a better place. Whether Iraq will be “free” in a Western sense five or ten years from now is not something I’d want to bet on, but it’s almost inconceivable that its people won’t be far better off than they were a year ago. And, as Peters notes, the effects are being felt outside Iraq as well:

* Our president’s courageous decision to target Saddam himself while sparing innocent Iraqis upset the traditional rules of warfare, according to which the draftees die while the ruler survives by signing a peace treaty.

Even though our attempted “decapitation strikes” failed, the message sent to the world’s dictators and sponsors of terror had far more force than Western pundits yet realize. And our ultimate, humiliating capture of Saddam left every remaining tyrant worried that he might topple next.

* As a result, Libya has opened its nuclear facilities for inspection, while Iran hastened to strike a no-nukes deal with European governments anxious to save face after their support of Saddam backfired disastrously. North Korea has grown remarkably subdued. Syria treads cautiously. No tyrant wants G.I. Joe as his houseguest.

* Even Saudi Arabia, the great incubator of terror, has become newly cooperative, both because the terrorists – predictably – bit the many hands that fed them and because Riyadh’s relative importance has declined precipitously with G.I. Jane in Baghdad.

* We’ve continued to kill and capture terrorists by the thousands, dismantling their networks, seizing their assets and destroying their bases. Terrorism won’t disappear in our lifetimes, but its reach and capabilities have been powerfully reduced.

I largely agree with this assessment, although I’m less sanguine that terrorism as a political tool has been seriously hampered. As Peters notes, this war proved once again that the United States is simply unstoppable in traditional combat operations. Thus, terrorism or other asymmetric means are the only options for those who want to fight back. But Peters’ larger point is right: by attacking the infrastructure of the large terrorist networks, we render them less potent. And by demonstrating our resolve by fighting back as aggressively as we have (although I believe much less aggressively than we should have) we have proven that our enemies will not achieve their goals with terrorism.

And this is worth noting as well:

Whether facing down Taliban remnants in Afghanistan or shaming the rest of the world into providing more assistance to Africa’s struggle against AIDS, we’ve made an epochal break with the tradition of wealthy states embracing easy short-term solutions instead of engaging long-term problems. Future historians will regard 2003 as one of the dates when history made a great turn, as a global 1776.

I’m not going to predict how historians will view this from a distance; my guess is September 11, 2001 will be seen as the turning point if indeed it looks like a sea change actually occured. It’s not like the United States hasn’t given humanitarian assistance in the past, but it may well be that the AIDS fund is the most emblematic harbinger of a new era. This is a problem that we’ve largely ignored for two decades. That we’ve suddenly gotten involved in a massive way at a time when it would have been easy not to–given huge budget deficits, a weak economy, and a multi-front war–does seem to indicate a reassessment of our global priorities.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.