WASHINGTON -- The greatest challenge any American president can face is war -- and George W. Bush, who won the presidency at a moment of peace and prosperity, is abruptly facing a sterner test than anyone expected.
Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington were almost certain to rank as the most damaging ever against U.S. territory, with the final death toll expected to exceed Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Bush's initial response -- after an awkward day, dictated by security concerns, in seclusion on military bases -- was a brief statement pledging "to find those responsible and to bring them to justice."
"We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them," Bush said, warning countries like Afghanistan that they can no longer count on U.S. restraint.
But the real test of the new president's leadership will come in the weeks to come: Can he unify the nation in grief and anger? Can he choose an effective military response? And can he find ways to prevent another attack from occurring?
As at most moments of crisis, the country is likely to rally around the president in the short run. But Tuesday's horrific events will also prompt sharp questions for the administration about how such a disaster could happen -- and what it is doing now to protect the nation from seeing it recur.
"This is Bush's moment of crisis," said Tom Henriksen, a senior fellow in international affairs at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "How he handles this in the next hours and day are crucial."
In its scope and devastation, the attack drew instant comparisons to Pearl Harbor. But when Japan attacked the United States in 1941, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt already knew what his response would be: total war against the attacker.
Bush's challenge now is quite different. Unlike Pearl Harbor, the airliner attacks came with no return address. And unlike FDR, then in his third term, Bush is in only his eighth month as president, still untested as an international leader.
Polls show that after the bitterly disputed 2000 election, Bush still faces doubts from skeptics who question whether he has the skills and experience the presidency demands.
In that political context, the best analogy may not be Pearl Harbor, but rather the Cuban missile crisis that confronted President Kennedy. Like Bush, Kennedy faced doubts whether he had the experience and strength of leadership for the job -- but his conduct of the 1962 face-off with the Soviet Union increased his stature enormously.
In the weeks ahead, Bush's response to the full magnitude of this challenge, from mapping a law enforcement and military response to reassuring the nation that its borders are safe, could either quiet his doubters -- or harden their skepticism.
"This is a horrible, horrible thing, but as far as his presidency it's an opportunity to get a bit of a fresh start with the people," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Part of Bush's challenge will be communicating to the country -- a process he began with his televised address Tuesday night. But a greater challenge will be convincing the country that he can map out a substantive response sufficient to the challenge.
"This is not a marketing problem," Mann said. "If he gets anywhere it is going to be because he takes real steps that make sense and are reassuring."
The issues aren't new. Even before Tuesday's attacks, the Bush administration was organizing a task force on defending against terrorism and other threats against U.S. territory. The aim of the task force, one official said, was to focus the federal government on the increasing dangers of attacks and answer the questions: "What are the threats? What would we be prepared to do?"
But the policy group, to be chaired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, isn't up and running yet. It doesn't even have an official name.
"A couple of people had been hired, and they were looking around for office space," the official said.
For years, GOP national security experts, including some now inside the Bush administration, have asked for greater attention to what they called "homeland defense." But their main concerns were attacks by ballistic missiles, chemical or biological weapons and nuclear devices--not low-tech operations like airplane hijackings.
At least in the short run, the public and Congress are likely to give Bush a relatively free hand in designing a national response. "There's a natural rally-round-the-president effect at first," said John E. Mueller, an expert on public opinion and war at Ohio State University.
Tuesday night, in fact, Republican and Democratic congressional leaders linked arms on the Capitol grounds, declared their support for a bipartisan response, and sang "God Bless America" together.
Tuesday's attacks are likely to produce public pressure for quick action against suspected terrorists. Americans may accept tougher wartime-style security measures -- at airports, borders, and other sensitive installations -- than before.
And the attacks assuredly will make spending on military preparedness and intelligence collection more popular than they were only a week ago, when the Social Security surplus was the capital's main preoccupation.
Such reflexes have occurred in response to previous terrorist attacks, such as the 1992 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. But in the past, public interest faded quickly.
"Up until now, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism as been extremely small -- fewer than the number killed by lightning -- and as a result there has been little public pressure to act," Mueller said. "This may be different."
On the other hand, he noted, Americans have resigned themselves to outrages before. "In 1983, when the Marines were attacked in Lebanon, there was no clear target, so people lived with it. Same with Lockerbie," (the Scottish town where a Pan Am jet crashed in 1988 after a terrorist's bomb exploded inside it).
Still, Mueller noted, Tuesday's attacks were on U.S. soil.
And the full impact of the casualties has yet to sink in. Over the coming days and weeks, as bodies are painfully removed from shattered, smoldering buildings in New York and Washington, the public mood may harden.
It may have been the most traumatic day America experienced since Kennedy's assassination or the attack on Pearl Harbor -- and it is not over.
Already many politicians were defining the attack as an "act of war" -- a term that would justify a large scale military response. It was also a term Bush carefully did not use; he called the attacks "acts of mass murder."
So the first debate, and the first test for Bush, may be: How large a military response?
There will be voices on both sides.
"This is total war," thundered Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
"Any kind of retaliation must be very restrained, and methodical, deliberate and accurate -- or else it's going to worsen the situation," said John L. Martin, former chief of internal security at the Department of Justice.
This much, though, seemed certain. "Our lives will never be the same," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., "especially in terms of the ways we approach air travel, national security and our own personal safety."
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