A Test by Terrorism
Byline: James Schlesinger
The events of September 11, undoubtedly the best planned and bestexecuted terrorist act in memory, have transformed the domestic andinternational landscape. The media have regularly asserted thateverything has changedâ€"a judgment that apparently does not applyto the hyperbole of the press. Some things have changed; othershave been re-inforced; and still others have been made visible thatpreviously were unrecognized. What has changed domestically is anew and different focus and a rebirth of national unity, whichcould prove transitory. The publicâ€™s illusion, despite most of adecadeâ€™s intelligence warnings and commission reports, ofAmerican immunity to terrorism has been shattered. London, Paris,Rome and Tokyo may have been susceptible to terrorist acts, but inthe public mind somehow this nation remained invulnerable. We noweven recall prior acts of foreign terrorism on our soil that werequickly forgotten. We now recognizeâ€"and perhaps exaggerateâ€"ourown vulnerability to terrorism.
Internationally the impact has been equally dramatic. Publicopinion in allied countries has again become strongly supportive ofthe United States. Gone are the cascading complaints about globalwarming, American unilateralism, ballistic missile defense and therest. Suddenly the French recall 1944â€"and the Russians reminisceabout the wartime alliance of 1941â€"45. â€œIch bin ein NewYorkerâ€ is uttered as a chorus in Germany.
Public reaction in much of the Middle East has been quitedifferent, however. While public demonstrations of delight werefew, many felt that America had â€œgotten what it deserved.â€ Forfar too many, Osama bin Laden has become something of a folkheroâ€"an Arab Robin Hood successfully defying the American Sheriffof Nottingham. Demonstrations against the American bombing ofAfghanistan have been widespread. While something less than SamuelHuntingtonâ€™s clash of civilizations, this disparity and reactionis instructive. It underscores both the internal fragility ofparticular nations in the Islamic world, and the overall fragilityof the coalition that we are assembling in the wake of theSeptember 11 attack.
Before turning to the many consequences of that act, we shouldreflect on some of the fundamentals of terrorism. Terrorism istruly a weapon of the weak. It is an act of defiance against adominant power or a dominant establishment, based upon the tacitacknowledgment that direct confrontation is beyond the power of theterrorist. In this case, the need to turn to terrorism is in asense a tribute to the basic strength of the United States; themotive for doing so is American pre-eminence.
The need to strike out against a stronger power has fostered thesearch for what is known as asymmetric warfareâ€"the means toinflict significant damage on a stronger foe by attacking points ofmaximum vulnerability. And the possibility of asymmetric warfare,curiously enough, is a reflection of the trickle down oftechnology, developed in large degree by the United States, butincreasingly available to those who would assault it. Terroriststoday have available to them the fruits of Western technology; notonly wide-bodied jet aircraft and flying lessons, but also theGlobal Positioning System, satellite photography, encryption, theInternet and jamming capabilitiesâ€"all technologies that permitmore sophisticated attacks than anything available in the past. Theirony is that contemporary terrorists are making use of all thoseelements that are the product of the progressive civilization thatthe more dedicated or fanatical Islamists find soobjectionable.
Countless studies have pointed to the necessity of asymmetricwarfare for those who would damage the United States, especiallysince the failures of Saddam Husseinâ€™s Iraq in the Gulf War.Steady and persistent intelligence warnings have pointed to thededication and malign intentions of bin Laden and his ilkâ€"even ifintelligence clearly failed to provide specific warnings regardingeither the timing or the technique of the September 11actions.
Catastrophic as those events were, they have had the beneficialeffect of providing a useful wake-up call. The revelation of ourvulnerability has made us keenly aware of the necessity of reducingthat vulnerability. For some forty years, this nation has nurturedan ideology of ever greater opennessâ€"and suddenly we have beenconfronted with some of the consequences. Under this ideology wehave become terribly lax. The September 11 terrorists were able alltoo easily to enter the country and to operate with surprisingfreedom. Tourist and student visas are given almostautomaticallyâ€"and their conditions are not enforced when theyexpire. Visa requirements can be waived. The Immigration andNaturalization Service devotes most of its energies to sweepsagainst illegal workers from Mexico and elsewhereâ€"and devotes fewresources to those who may wish to inflict damage on us. Ourborders are porous and individuals with hostile intent can enterillegally, most notably from Canada. The nation, as Senator DianneFeinstein has observed, is like a sieve.
Once here, these individuals confront security measures that areless than robustâ€"certainly far less robust than in otherindustrial nations. That four sets of terrorists could move soreadily through airport security, and apparently stow box cutterson some aircraft, tells us how flimsy airport security measureshave been. Moreover, that access to the aircraft cabin was soeasily obtained shows that both procedures and physical protectionwere wholly inadequate. After the theft, we are now taking steps tolock the barn door. These measures will be sufficiently effective,no doubt, that the next terrorist acts will employ something otherthan passenger aircraft. Still, in my judgment, the President needsto establish a national commission, like that after the Challengerdisaster, to study the entire range of issues in order to learnwhat went wrong. This is fundamental.
A wake-up call has also sounded in another area. For years,analysts have been pointing to the possibility of biologicalwarfare directed against the United States. Now, with the sendingof anthrax spores through the mail, it is no longer a possibility,but a reality. On balance, this too has its beneficial aspect. Noone need die of anthrax attacks. The public has been alerted. Thedisease is readily treatable when detected early enough. Publichealth officials are being provided the resources they need tostore antibiotics, vaccines, and to make other preparations.
The American Responseâ€"So Far
The Bush Administration has reacted impressively. It has ralliedthe American public (as well as an international coalition). It hastaken necessary measures. It has been steadfast. At times, someofficial statements went further in creating alarm than wasnecessary, but the administration has now struck the right balancebetween warning and reassuring the public.
In one area, however, we are obliged to do more. We have urgedothers to follow the money trail and to cut off the financialresources flowing to terrorists. But we must practice what wepreach. The United States is not the only or even the first nationto be subject to terrorism. Britain, for example, has beensubjected to repeated acts of terrorism by the IRA and itssuccessors. Where does the money come from? From the UnitedStatesâ€"collection points, nominally for charity, can be found inall too many of the bars in Boston, New York and elsewhere. We oweit to the Britsâ€"to say nothing about the consistency andcredibility of our campaign against terrorismâ€"to clamp down onthose money flows.
The measures that we take domestically, though essential, are byfar the easier part of the problem. The international position ofthe United States has been challengedâ€"and the ultimate questionis how does the United States respond to that challenge? Asmentioned above, in the aftermath of the September 11 events, muchof the world has rallied in support of the United States. Some didso with deep sympathy and with enthusiasm. Others, however, did soequivocally, and still others did so reluctantly. The immediateresponse that we have seen will undoubtedly be the high point ofsupport. As actions are taken in response to the terrorist attack,support will gradually dwindle. The demonstrations against the U.S.bombing of Afghanistan are a harbinger of eventual disagreementswith American policy. For the moment, the outside world has beenshocked into attentiveness. There is a good deal of apprehension:what will the Americans do? How will it affect us and (mostimportantly for foreign leaders) public opinion in ourcountries?
In itself, that underscores an important point. While theinternational spotlight is on the United States, it is essential,if we are to preserve our international position, that the actionswe take be regarded as successfulâ€"preferably highly successful.The first requirement in deciding what to do is to avoid actionsthat can be deemed a failure. We do not need a repetition of DesertOneâ€"or even a lesser muck-up like the bombing of the Chineseembassy in Belgrade. It is perhaps less important precisely whatactions we take than that those actions be deemed impressive andsuccessful.
The first set of actions seems almost mandatory, and indeedobvious: go after the Al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime thathas provided it protection. The entire international coalitionexpects such actionâ€"and will support it. Driving the Taliban frompower should be relatively straightforward. The Russians, who arepainfully familiar with the difficulties to be encountered inAfghanistan, agree that the Taliban can be removed. But theyadmonish us that it cannot be accomplished by bombing alone. Itwill require U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan to weaken or destroythe elite forces that support the Taliban. That judgment iscorrect. But it will require sustained firepower from the air toprotect the modest friendly forces on the groundâ€"especially ifthey are led into traps by false intelligence.
I believe that such actions can and will be successful, and thatthe international coalition will stay with us throughout, thoughwith diminishing enthusiasm. One admonition should be borne inmind, however. The removal of the Taliban should be accomplished asexpeditiously as possible, not least because the situation inPakistan is delicate. Some significant part of the Pakistani publicvehemently disagrees with President Musharrafâ€™s decision to allyhimself with the United States. The more quickly the removal of theTaliban becomes a fait accompli, the less will be the internalstrain within Pakistan and the more secure will be our ownarrangements in that country.
A further point to bear in mind is that actually capturing binLaden may be neither quick nor easy, or even eventually beaccomplished with certainty. One should recall that even in Panamawe were unable to find and apprehend Manuel Noriegaâ€"until hefoolishly located himself for us by taking refuge in the residenceof the papal nuncio. But if finding bin Laden is time-consuming, oreven if it is ultimately unsuccessful, the fall of the Taliban willbe regarded internationally as an indication of Americansuccess.
The Next Stage
The crucialâ€"and difficultâ€"question is what comes next, afterthe Taliban has been removed and bin Laden has been killed,captured or put on the run? It is then that the President will beobliged to make a decision that is laden with complexities andburdened by risks. We have asserted that the war on terrorisminvolves not only rooting out the terrorists themselves, but alsothose who harbor them. To do so is a demanding and a lengthy task,and, realistically, we must recognize that it can never be whollysuccessful. We may assert that we will root out all â€œterrorismwith a global reachâ€, but not all agree on just who are theterrorists and who are the legitimate resistance fighters. When andif we go after other nationsâ€"other than the obvious culprits inAfghanistanâ€"we must expect international support to diminish andthe international coalition to fray. That in itself poses a simplebut critical question: Is the creation and preservation of aninternational coalition a means to an end, or an end initself?
Our rhetoric about confronting those who harbor terrorists almostobliges us to take further action. We have regularly spoken of theâ€œnext phase.â€ But unavoidably, that next phase will be fraughtwith difficulties. We must bear continuously in mind the injunctionthat failure would be far worse than taking no additional action.So, as we move into that next phase, we must assure ourselves thatthe political and logistical problems that might preclude successhave been meticulously examined and redressed in advance.
The target of the next phase most discussed in Washington has beenSaddam Husseinâ€™s Iraq. If it turns out that Iraq has been thesource of the anthrax bacteria planted in various places in theUnited States, that would clearly provide us with sufficientjustification for action against Iraq to ease the concerns of mostmembers of the coalition, though not all. We must anticipatevehement objection to any possible American action by some othernations, and particularly by Iraqâ€™s Arab neighbors. Such actionmight destabilize one or more of the moderate regimes in theregion.
To move successfully against Iraq, one must have appropriate bases.Yet even Turkey has of late been moving toward warming itsrelations with Iraq, and, given its preferences, would wish to takeno part in any such action.
The situation in Saudi Arabia is even more problematic. The Saudiregime has long practiced a balancing act, in which limitedcollaboration with its Western protectors is weighed againstsupport for conservative elements within the Kingdom that resentthe association with and the presence of those protectors. It haslong been a fiction of many in the West that there is a substantialliberal opposition in Saudi Arabia seeking greater openness,transparency and tolerance. The real opposition comes fromconservative elements that passionately believe that the Saudigovernment has gone much too far in accommodating Westernâ€œinfidels.â€ That has been the source of bin Ladenâ€™s support.The great irony is that charitable contributions from Saudi Arabiago to support the religious schools outside of the country that areundermining the regime and seeking its overthrow.
Since it is scarcely in the American interest to weaken agovernment that is partly responsive to our desires, and even lessso to contemplate what a successor government might look like (binLaden himself would emulate Khomeini), careful assessment of theconsequences in Saudi Arabia of any American decision is essential.The bases in Saudi Arabia are almost a necessity for successfulaction against Saddam Hussein. To be sure, bases in Israel might bea partial substitute, and the government of Israel likely would beamenable, but that raises difficult political questions even as itsolves logistical ones. The fragility of Saudi Arabia and thedelicacy of our own relations with its government underscore theneed for caution. One must reiterate that any action taken againstSaddam Hussein must be successfulâ€"or it should be avoided, atleast for the time being.
Moreover, we must also bear in mind the question of oil supply andpriceâ€"especially as the global economy sinks into recession. Amove against Saddam Hussein immediately removes more than twomillion barrels a day of oil from the international supply, andwould before very long have a sharp impact on prices. Moreover,being associated with a U.S. attack on an Arab country makes itextraordinarily difficult for other Arab oil-producing states tocompensate for such a loss of supplyâ€"and no one aside from theArab producers has the requisite spare capacity to attempt suchcompensation. The upshot of all these considerations is that anypresidential decision must be carefully weighed on the basis ofsound intelligence and a full spectrum of political and economicassessments.
The terrorist actions of September 11 represent a testing of theUnited Statesâ€"its strength, its will and purpose, its tenacity,in short, its international position. The episode poses thequestion as to whether the United States can be repeatedly attackedwith impunity. We have no alternative but to react very forcefullyto this episode. To do otherwise would weaken our internationalposition, as well as expose the United States to a continuation, ifnot an increase, in such terrorist acts.
The nation senses this. The publicâ€™s response to this attack hasbeen both impressive and gratifying. One rarely has seen such animmediacy of stalwart response, or such intensity of national unityas has been demonstrated over the past several weeks. But theadministration has wisely emphasized that this will be a lengthystruggle, and so the key question is, will our national unity last?Will we, indeed, stay the course, even in the face ofdisappointments and future unpleasant surprises?
Many have compared the events of September 11 to those of December7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. One hopes that that will prove to be thecase and that, as before, this country is ready for a lengthycampaign. But we should also remember that our engagement in 1965in Vietnam started with a similar if less dramatic display ofnational unityâ€"with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and with GeneralWilliam Westmoreland brought back from Southeast Asia to address acheering joint session of Congress. But then came thedisappointments and the unpleasant surprises. National unitydisappeared and the national will faltered. One trusts that thatwill not be the case in this complex, difficult and lengthystruggle.
A Test by Terrorism
A Test by Terrorism