As Americans pick a president, one key criterion is how the war on terror is going. Is George W. Bush correct in his positive view or John Kerry in his negative one?

This same debate, interestingly, is also taking place within conservative circles, where analysts sharing the same basic outlook – that Americans are fighting for their very existence – come to dramatically different conclusions. Consider the contrasting views of two important voices on the right, Mark Helprin and Tod Lindberg.

Helprin, author of such powerful novels as A Soldier of the Great War and Winter’s Tale, writes a despairing analysis in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books, where he finds America’s failure today to understand the threat it faces “comparable to the deepest sleep that England slept in the decade of the 1930s,” when it failed to perceive the Nazi menace.

Helprin finds that the country, and its elites in particular, remain enamored with the illusion that it can muddle through, “that the stakes are low and the potential damage not intolerable.” In other words, 9/11 did not serve as a wake-up call. He calls on Americans to make up their collective mind and answer the simple question, “Are we at war, or are we not?” If not, they need not worry and can remain happily asleep in pre-9/11 mode. If they are, “then major revisions and initiatives are needed, soon.”

Helprin sketches out the steps needed for serious war-fighting, both abroad (focusing on Iraq and Iran) and at home. The latter include: truly secure the borders with a 30,000-strong Border Patrol, summarily deport aliens “with even the slightest record of support for terrorism,” closely surveil American citizens with suspected terrorist connections, and develop a Manhattan Project-style crash program to protect against all chemical and biological warfare agents.

The means to take these steps exist; what prevents them from taking shape is the Left being in a state of “high dudgeon” and the Right not even daring to propose such measures. “The result is a paralysis that the terrorists probably did not hope for in their most optimistic projections, an arbitrary and gratuitous failure of will.”

Lindberg, editor of the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review magazine, also finds a wide agreement among Americans, one that transcends the partisan divide of the current election season. Unlike Helprin, he is cheered by what he finds. The Bush administration, he notes in the Weekly Standard, has “outlined a new strategic doctrine that is going to guide national security policy for the next 50 years, regardless of who wins the 2004 election.” Whereas Helprin looks at the deficiencies, Lindberg points to four changes which Bush asserted and now Kerry appears to accept, namely that Washington:

  • Forwards democracy globally, “because free, democratic states want to live in peace with each other.”
  • Intends to do what it takes “to remain the world’s foremost military power by an order of magnitude sufficient to discourage all other states from attempting to compete militarily, thereby encouraging the peaceful resolution of disputes between states.”
  • Holds governments responsible for permitting any support for terrorism within their borders, thereby discouraging this activity.
  • Will, facing the prospect of weapons of mass destruction being used for terrorist purposes, reserve the right to engage in preemptive action rather than wait for aggression to occur, thereby dissuading some states from following the Iraqi example.

The Democratic nominee could have revised or rejected these policies. He could have endorsed lower spending on the American military, focused narrowly on terrorists and ignored the states behind them, forsworn preemptive war, and promised noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. But Kerry did none of these. Rather, he complains about implementation, basically limiting his criticism of Bush to Osama bin Laden’s eluding capture or gaps in the coalition versus Saddam Hussein.

Helprin and Lindberg have reached nearly opposite conclusions about the underlying agreement between the hostile Democratic and Republican tribes. But Helprin, who excoriates the American reluctance to do what’s necessary, is the more correct. Lindberg correctly discerns that Kerry has, during the electoral season, accepted the Bush administration’s presumptions because they are widely popular. But there is no reason to expect these views to survive into a Kerry administration, which is very likely to revert to a wholly different outlook.