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A necessary price to pay

Two years ago next week, who would have thought that $87 billion was too great a cost to make the world safer?

To listen to the critics of President Bush's speech Sunday night, one would think the money spent so far had not accomplished much and that the nation would have been better off concentrating only on homeland security and hunkering down against future terrorist threats.

Instead, the money spent so far has successfully foiled attempted attacks. The tragedies of 9/11 have not been repeated. Meanwhile, the United States has overthrown the Taliban, the ruling party blatantly supportive of al Qaida and its terrorist operations in Afghanistan, and it has destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein, a bully who was an impediment to peace in the Middle East.

The United States took the conflict to the parts of the world where threats to national security were thought to have originated. Much good has been accomplished in two years.

But the job is only partially done. Lasting peace and the establishment of free governments in those nations is still a distant goal. The United States had these responsibilities thrust upon it. The ultimate outcome — to dismantle international terrorism and establish free governments in pivotal areas long oppressed — will be expensive to pursue. But the nation can't afford not to pursue it.

The president has a clear understanding of what needs to be done. His methods, however, have not always been as well considered. He justified military action against Iraq by focusing on the need to rid that nation of weapons of mass destruction. Instead, he should have focused on the need to remove a brutal dictator who was sitting on vast oil reserves. Oil is the engine to much of the world's economy, and its control could change the course of Mideast politics.

He badly misplayed efforts at attracting allied cooperation for that attack, making the United States and Great Britain responsible for nearly all of the war's costs.

Sunday, Bush finally changed course on these matters. He did not mention weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found in Iraq, and he called on the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force.

Much of the rest of the world was unwilling to join the messy work of eliminating the Iraqi regime, but all of the world has a stake in winning the peace there. The United States is taking a heavy toll in casualties, morale and expenses, and terrorist attacks seem relentless and never-ending.

The United States stepped up to its moral responsibility to defend freedom. One can certainly argue about ways to order federal budget priorities, but the war on terror ought to be at the top of the list.

Two years isn't really such a long time. No one can afford to forget the horror of that day.