Don't Cause A Backlash
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a Pulitzer prize-winning
historian. His most recent book is A Life in the 20th Century: Volume
I, Innocent Beginnings.
New York -
In his powerful address before Congress on Sept. 20, President Bush correctly
defined the threat of terrorism. And he correctly characterized the motivation
of Osama bin Laden, the presumed evil genius of terrorism.
President Bush correctly called for American leadership in a global campaign
against terrorism. But he laid down non-negotiable specifications for
his "war" that friendly states will consider ill-judged and
delivered in a tone they may regard as arrogant.
Our allies have had more experience with terrorism than we have had. They
know how difficult it is to eradicate terrorism, even when the terrorists
operate in their own countries. The Basque terrorists live in a relatively
confined space in northwestern Spain, but Spanish governments have tried
and failed for 25 years to stop their outrages. The Corsican terrorists
live on an island, but they continue to defy all efforts by the French
authorities to stamp them out. The British could not stop Irish Republican
Army bombings in England; nor, now that the IRA has abandoned terrorism,
can they stop bombings by the thugs who style themselves the "Real
There is no knock-out blow against terrorism.
Does our president really understand what he is getting us into?
President Bush believes he knows how to deal with terrorists in a part
of the world in which we have had meager historical experience and small
operational knowledge. He should have asked himself what Bin Laden would
wish us to do next. What American response would best serve the villain's
The answer surely is indiscriminate American air attacks on Afghanistan,
killing large numbers of innocent people. Bombing is not likely to eliminate
Bin Laden and his crowd, who have well-prepared hide-outs. It would only
demonstrate once again the impotence of the American superpower. Civilian
casualties would confirm Bin Laden's thesis of an evil America, push even
moderate Muslims toward hatred of the United States, produce a new generation
of suicidal bombers for Al Qaeda, Bin Laden's terrorist network, and incite
radical Muslims to rise against moderate regimes.
The only thing that would probably please Bin Laden more would be an invasion
by American ground forces. Afghanistan is famous for its unconquerability.
The British Empire and the Soviet Union failed in their efforts to dominate
the country, and they at least knew the rocky terrain and had people who
spoke the languages.
American troops in Afghanistan would be even more baffled and beset than
they were a third of a century ago in Vietnam.
There is, in addition, the land-mine problem. According to Robert Fisk,
Middle Eastern correspondent for the Independent in London, Afghanistan
contains one-tenth-more than 10 million-of the world's unexploded land
mines, laid by the Soviet Red Army in 27 of 29 provinces. Two dozen Afghans
are blown up every day.
Moreover, by November, freezing weather will arrive, and the Pentagon
has no hope of dispatching troops and winning the war in the six weeks
remaining before winter comes to Afghanistan.
Nor could an invading American army count on serious assistance from the
internal anti-Taliban resistance, their most effective leader, Ahmed Shah
Masoud, having been assassinated shortly before the assault on America.
But President Bush is not confining his attentions to Afghanistan. He
seems to be contemplating confronting much of the Arab world. "Either
you are with us," he said, "or you are with the terrorists.
From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support
terrorism will be regarded by the US as a hostile regime." That sounds
like the "ending states" and "regime change" talk
of Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense and the most high-flying
Does this mean that, after Afghanistan, we will be taking on Iraq, Iran,
Syria, Libya? And though the president correctly distinguishes between
the moderate and the militant Muslim states, this hard line will make
life considerably more difficult for the moderates in Egypt, Jordan and
Little is more vital in the months ahead than retaining the support of
moderate Muslim states. President Bush has set an admirable example by
visiting a mosque and condemning attacks on American Muslims. Islam has
historically been a tolerant faith.
Mohammedans ruled Spain for five centuries, during which Spain was culturally
more advanced than the rest of Europe. Muslims coexisted cheerfully with
Christians and Jews. Most moderate Arab states have fragile regimes threatened
by radicals within. It is essential that we take no drastic actions that
would please our own fire-eaters but would drive Arab states into the
arms of the terrorists.
The Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote a provocative
article in Foreign Affairs some years ago forecasting a "clash of
civilizations" that would determine the future. The Bush administration
has no greater challenge than disproving Huntington. If we let the international
police action against terrorism degenerate into a civilizational war of
the West versus Islam, we are heading toward catastrophe. The last thing
we need is a counter-jihad to respond to the jihad invoked against us
by the pals of Bin Laden.
Bin Laden has set a trap for the US. Let us not walk into it. It is hard
to think of a drastic action taken at once that would not rebound against
us. The quest for a knock-out blow is an illusion.
We must pray that the president's tough talk will work. But, as President
John F. Kennedy said during the Cuban missile crisis, it is "one
hell of a gamble."
If he wants to win the gamble, our president had better take more care
with his language. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "One of the first things
a president has to learn is that every word he says weighs a ton."
When Bush spoke of wanting to capture Bin Laden "dead or alive,"
he no doubt pleased his domestic audience, but he sent a chill through
the chancelleries of our allies already fearful of "cowboy diplomacy."
When he spoke of organizing a "crusade," he angered Middle Easterners
who still harbor ancient resentments of the Crusaders. His persistent
use of the word "war" recalls Harry S. Truman's preference in
the Korean War for a more appropriate term-"police action."
The terrorists are criminals; we should not bestow on them the dignity
of a sovereign state. "Police action," not "war,"
is what we should be talking about today.
President Bush is everlastingly right in seeking an international coalition,
as his father did so effectively in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago.
If the campaign against terrorism is to succeed, he must continue along
a resolutely multinational course and put together a united international
front. We need collective action for several reasons-to confer legitimacy
on our response, to divert blame from the US and to gain counsel from
countries that have had far more experience than we have had in dealing
with the tortuous politics of the Middle East.
In the short run, the international coalition must pool intelligence in
order to avert new terrorist attacks. Using commercial airplanes as missiles
is probably finished; biological and chemical terrorism is very likely
the next step. The coalition working through the United Nations must also
set up global financial controls to stop the covert funding of terrorist
operations and global arms controls to stop the arming of terrorists.
It is in the interest of governments everywhere to join in the campaign
against terrorism. Persons from 80 nations died in the World Trade Center.
At home, Congress must not abdicate its constitutional role and give the
president a blank check. "In politics," as Samuel Taylor Coleridge
said, "what begins in fear usually ends in folly."
We live in an age of violence and, with all the pressures of globalization,
the United States cannot hope to remain immune. I have no doubt that most
Americans will confront terrorism with resolution as a horrible hazard
of modern life-a hazard that will take a little time before we, with our
friends and allies, can bring it to an end.
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