Those are the stakes that were made clear by George W. Bush in an alarmist speech to an association of U.S. military officers on Sept. 5. He declared that the United States must battle not only likely or even possible threats from terrorists, but the most fantastical dreams of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda about a mystical global "caliphate."
Adopting some of the most extreme rhetoric favored by his neoconservative advisers, Bush also broadened the "war on terror" beyond al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists and the Sunni-dominated Iraqi insurgency to include the Shiite-run Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and the Shiite government of Iran.
"As we continue to fight al-Qaeda and these Sunni extremists inspired by their radical ideology, we also face the threat posed by Shia extremists, who are learning from al-Qaeda, increasing their assertiveness and stepping up their threats," Bush said.
Bush also cited his determination to defeat Hezbollah, a Shiite movement in Lebanon that is now a prominent part of the elected Lebanese government and broadly popular because its militia battled the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon in July.
Bush referred to Hezbollah's leader as "the terrorist Nasrallah," suggesting the United States has joined Israel in its determination to kill Sheikh Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah who was rated the most respected leader in the Middle East by an August 2006 poll in Egypt, which is considered one of Washington's staunchest regional allies.
So, Bush has set the United States on course to battle not only the stateless terrorists of al-Qaeda and the stubborn insurgents in Iraq but Islamic political leaders who have widespread support among the Muslim masses. How the United States would win such a war or even assemble the vast numbers of soldiers needed is hard to comprehend.
'World War III'
Bush's virtual declaration of war on the Islamic world ranks as possibly the most ambitious military plan in American history and without doubt the most reckless. This so-called "long war," which Bush's followers hail as "World War III," would mean fighting large portions of a religious movement that has the allegiance of about one-sixth of the planet's population.
Muslims are concentrated in nations from northern Africa to East Asia, but also include large numbers in Europe and North America.
Nevertheless, in his address to the military officers, Bush talked bravely about how confident he is that the United States will win this war. "America will not bow down to tyrants," he declared to applause.
Bush's experience over the past five years, however, suggests that his strategy would require a full-scale transformation of the United States into a warrior nation, committed to a virtual endless struggle against any and all Islamic extremists who harbor thoughts of power, no matter how fanciful those imaginings might be.
A key point in Bush's argument is that al-Qaeda has expressed a dream of creating a "caliphate" reaching from Spain to Indonesia. Bush described the steps to this empire as starting with "numerous, decentralized operating bases across the world, from which they can plan new attacks, and advance their vision of a unified, totalitarian Islamic state that can confront and eventually destroy the free world."
But the reality is that prior to Bush's presidency, al-Qaeda was a marginal movement in the Islamic world, driven out of countries across northern Africa, hounded by secular governments in the Middle East, and expelled even from the Sudan.