Courtesy of National Review Online.

Lest we forget why we have been fighting the al Qaeda terrorists and are now ready to invade Iraq, we should remember some basic facts about the present war.

What is its immediate cause?

About a year and a half ago, Middle Eastern terrorists -- at a time of peace and without provocation -- simply murdered 3,000 Americans. They blew up four airliners together with their crews and passengers, toppled the World Trade Center, and attacked the Pentagon. In addition, they caused billions of dollars in damage to the American economy, threw millions out of work, and forever changed the daily lives of an entire country and of much of the world besides.

Why did they attack us in such a manner?

Our enemies struck at icons of American economic and military power and used terror in lieu of conventional weapons and tactics. Knowing they could not defeat the United States military or appeal for support to the American people, they thought to create a climate of horror and fear to further their own political agendas. Perhaps we were supposed to quietly withdraw our troops from the Middle East, insist on concessions for Yasser Arafat, and grant de facto spheres of influence to al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups. Yet just as the fundamentalists gave us no thanks for saving Muslims in Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait, and Somalia, so too they would have looked at such dispensation as decadent compassion and been emboldened rather than appreciative.

But who exactly are our enemies?

Without at least tacit support from civilians, the terrorists could not exist.

The hard-core group of Islamic fascists, known as al-Qaeda, involves perhaps no more than 10,000 or 20,000 loosely coordinated killers. But like the Italian fascists, German Nazis, and Japanese militarists, their largely pampered leaders hope to capitalize on latent anger against the West among Islamic populations at large -- to bully, threaten, or hijack weak regimes in the Middle East to obtain de facto political power. Post-9/11 cheering on the West Bank or amused smiles in the salons of Beirut and Cairo were seen as initial successes. Without at least tacit support from civilians, the terrorists could not exist.

What do they really want?

It is hard to tell, inasmuch as their grandiose schemes are as illogical as Hitler's -- but no less dangerous. But if we take them at their word, their Middle East would look something like the Taliban's Afghanistan or the mullahs' Iran -- a vast tribal, patriarchal, and theocratic society on a continental scale. It would be run by zealots and religious extremists who would institute a medieval sort of Islamic law, even as the leaders themselves, like Ottoman grandees of old, would continue to be parasitic on the West -- importing their own eyeglasses, medicines, videos, and electronic technology. Politically, they would hope to expand on the model of Iranian theocracy and terror, using vast oil revenues to buy missiles and eventually components for nuclear weapons -- first to obliterate Israel, then to either blackmail or attack us. The ultimate goals of demented thugs like a Mullah Omar or bin Laden are, of course, contradictory and absurd -- how can one hate and wish to destroy the West, when it is the only source of everything one uses -- from oil-drilling equipment and SUVs to machine guns and cell phones? So they are a lot like the Visigoths and Vandals who liked the appurtenances of Rome yet on their own accord could not create, but only ransack them. Take a look at present-day Iran and recent Afghanistan to ponder the ruin and barbarity that their rule could bring to hundreds of millions in just a few years.

Do they have any support?

Criminals like these at first never have real support. But if, like a Hitler or Mussolini, they demonstrate success in stirring up resentments and winning concessions from supposedly weak enemies, then they can win over the masses through their ardor and ?lan. Most people usually welcome a sense of increased national importance and pride on the cheap -- as long as it does not entail real costs. So al Qaeda is like the Nazi party circa 1926, in a high-stakes game for the hearts and minds of the so-called Arab street, which so far likes the rhetoric but is not yet sure of the eventual price tag. Blowing up Jewish kids in schools or shooting a few unarmed Americans is easy and plays well, but being barred from traveling to Europe or America, earning ostracism from the World Bank, and having your entire military obliterated in mere hours -- all that and more requires some careful consideration. Wearing a bin Laden T-shirt or bragging that Saddam Hussein stands up to a strong America afraid to use its power is one thing; seeing GPS bombs glide through the windows of mansions in Lebanon and Syria is another.

But why would any in the Middle East follow such a pitiful band of cutthroats?

Fear, for starters -- the terrorists can murder newspaper editors, government officials, or military officers who oppose them. Despair plays a role too among the Arab dispossessed. Over 300 million in the Middle East live under regimes that are corrupt and tribal, dysfunctional autocracies without elections or the rule of law. With rising populations and failing economies, despots can only defer reform by using their state-run presses to vent tension against those more successful, such as Israel and the West. Hating the Jews is old stuff for the weak and envious, and so apparently is despising the country that gives you Star Wars, 757s, and vaccinations. A mass, crybaby adolescence has infected the Middle East. At first this pathetic, passive-aggressive view of the West intrigued Americans, then it disturbed them; but now it has become not merely tedious, but downright repellent to us. There are root causes for the spread of terror, but they are entirely self-induced.

So who are we really at war with?

We fight first the terrorist nucleus, and so must hunt all of them down in a global chase where there is little quarter asked for or given. Further, radical regimes that in the past have harbored terrorists, stockpiled frightening weapons, and are either openly or covertly aiding al Qaeda must be confronted to change or be vanquished. In the past where would an Abu Nidal or Abu Abbas have gone without a haven in Syria, Libya, or Iraq?

Who is winning?

It is not even close so far. After little more than a year, and at a cost of fewer than 100 American casualties, al Qaeda is about half ruined. The Taliban is gone. Iraq is terrified. And equally awful regimes like those in Syria, Iran, and Libya are apprehensive precisely because they know they are guilty of spreading murder and mayhem against Western innocents. We know where the terrorists thrive -- in outlaw states like an Afghanistan, Somalia, or Sudan, theocracies like Iran, or dictatorships like Iraq. When those regimes are either gone or reformed, the world of our enemies shrinks.

Could we lose?

Militarily, no. Their only hope is to frighten or demoralize us to such a degree that in our wealth and leisure we feel too afraid, smug, or distracted to take them seriously. So far only about 10 percent of Americans -- naively hoping that compromises could guarantee our security -- would throw in the towel, withdraw, hand over a sixth of the world to them, and thus grant them the power to do the greater evil that they wish.

How will we know when the war is over?

When Europeans and Americans are no longer rounding up terrorists in their countries, when mullahs and sheiks are quite afraid to broadcast calls to kill Americans, and when so-called allies volunteer their help without our own bribes and coercion. I might add, also, when an American diplomat, without qualification or embarrassment, says publicly that he has nothing but support for Israelis who hunt down killers and terrorists. In other words, we will win when a sense of deterrence -- lost during the last decades -- is reestablished, one that sends the message to our would-be enemies that the killing of Americans is synonymous with their own near-instantaneous destruction. The Nazis and the Japanese militarists alike came to realize the Americans were not necessarily pacifistic and malleable people, but rather scary and unpredictable; al Qaeda's supporters must come to the same conclusion.

But won't they just attack us again and again?

War is tragically endemic to the human condition. We can only do our best in our own time as befitting our station and pass on our lessons to the next generation -- even though we sometimes forget such precepts ourselves. Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union created an entirely new climate in eastern Europe, so too the defeat of al Qaeda, the new government in Afghanistan, and a post-Hussein Iraq will send a powerful message to the lunocracies of the Middle East: join the world of democracy, freedom, law, and prosperity -- or perish trying to destroy it.