The greatest setback in the war on terrorism isn't the failure to capture Osama bin Laden; nor is it the failure to quell the growing insurgency in Iraq. It has been the utter loss of moral ascendancy as a nation in the pursuit of those aims. The restoration of US moral ascendancy ought to be the top priority for newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - otherwise the ultimate destruction of Al Qaeda and the establishment of a viable democracy in Iraq will be in jeopardy.
I first heard the term "moral ascendancy" in 1985 at Fort Benning, Ga. A speaker addressing officers at the Infantry School, Gen. Richard Cavazos, asserted that in battle, nothing is more important than to achieve moral ascendancy over the enemy. He did not define "moral ascendancy," nor did he explain how one achieves it. The concept remained profound and at the same time impenetrable to me for most of my Army career. I finally "got it" while serving as an Army attaché at the US Embassy in Moscow.
On Sept. 12, 2001, as I returned to Moscow from St. Petersburg, I was struck by the physical signs of solidarity and sympathy that Russians had placed on the sidewalk in front of our embassy: rows of candles, mounds of flowers. Older women - venerable babushkas - stood in small huddles murmuring prayers. The candles and flowers and prayers were an acknowledgment that we faced a common threat, and shared common shock, grief, and cause.
As a result of 9/11 attacks, the US was indisputably in a position of moral ascendancy - that is, the unambiguous and near-universal perception that your cause is right. It is more than sympathy. It's "actionable sympathy." Moral ascendancy is to the diplomat, military attaché, or CIA case-officer what "being ahead in the count" is to the baseball pitcher. You are in the driver's seat. It is a good position to be in when you need help.
Serving in the intelligence community post-9/11, I learned that when your country has moral ascendancy, the most powerful intelligence collection tool isn't necessarily a $50 million satellite or a highly placed agent or source. It can be simply a business card.