GUEST COLUMN: Mistakes in fighting terrorism


The relevant facts about Iraq and terrorism are different today than they were six months ago. Then Iraq was not a significant source of terrorism and no one thought it was. It did not threaten the region or us with weapons of mass destruction, though some thought it did. To its people, it was a terrible, violent tyranny, and to those nearby, a belligerent and hateful neighbor, although these characteristics were not the ones that led the Bush administration to war with its immense costs and grave dangers.

But that war and its aftermath have changed all this. Our forces are under attack by terrorists whose origin we do not know. Whatever their motivations or alliances, if we appear to violent Islamists to be driven out of Iraq by terrorist attacks, the case for terrorism in their minds will be dangerously confirmed. In 1998, Osama Bin Ladin explained to ABC News that his hopes were based on our flight from Lebanon and Somalia, Soviet flight from Afghanistan, and Israeli’s precipitous withdrawal from southern Lebanon. One more demonstration of terrorist power could be devastating. Whatever we do, we cannot afford to be driven out now that we are there.

That is what justifies our staying there – not, as Condoleezza Rice suggests, the fragile hope that we can create a thriving Iraqi democracy whose majority will have new attitudes toward radical Islamists and toward peace in the Middle East, and which will transform even its worst Arab and Muslim neighbors by its shining example. We aren’t “leaning forward” in the fight against terrorism as the administration claims; we are defending against a newly exposed vulnerability in a place that we would rather not be. We did not choose to fight terrorism in Iraq; the terrorists chose that battlefield, in response to the presence of our troops there.

At the same time, we must continue our efforts to deal with terrorism more broadly. The people and economies of open and wealthy societies like ours are always vulnerable to terrorist attacks. We are too target-rich to defend ourselves against all dramatic attacks. The costs of surrendering the benefits of openness to the movement of beliefs, knowledge, goods and visitors would be too great for us to thoroughly check every possible source of the information, goods, people and access that terrorists can use. President Bush is right that we will have to display determination in Iraq for some time, but even determination on a much broader field is not enough; we have to be smart as well as tough and we are flunking that test in seven ways.

1. The administration is betting far too much on the proposition that capturing or killing the leaders of Saddam Hussein’s government or Al Qaeda will bring a sharp reduction in terrorism. That prospect depends on an assumption that may well be false: that capable replacements for the leaders of one or two organizations willing to attack us after September 11 are scarce. That is not likely to be true, even if the pool from which leadership can be drawn is only a tiny fraction of the one and a quarter billion Muslims in the world today. Terrorists need a number of things more than they need their present leaders, including new recruits, resources, training, tactical information, access to targets, havens and, perhaps above all, hope and social acceptance by a wider support network. We should be directing far more of our attention to all of these other factors, not just to a few of them.

2. Dealing with the grave threat by calling it the first war that doesn’t involve a hostile nation has suggested an exaggerated role for the military. We are unlikely to be able to deter terrorism by fear alone, so long as it looks morally justified to the young and desperate. That is a lesson we should have learned from Israel. Soldiers who do not know the people or who can’t speak the language cannot effectively hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq without methods that generate several terrorist recruits for each terrorist veteran it seizes.

3. Nor can we depend so much on the pressure to battle we can put on the “leaders” of populations sympathetic to terrorism. In Palestine, they have proved too weak to control Hamas. In Afghanistan we have been and are being misled by Afghan warlords willing to suggest that their friends are our friends, and their enemies are our enemies. The same is likely to be true in Iraq. A useful step would be to demand an end to hate and violence inspiring lies in government-regulated schools and media.

4. The terrorists have other strings to their bows. They can hide from unpopular leaders in locations supportive of their goals if not their means. Reducing the threat of terrorism will therefore have to rely far more on intelligence than on military force. Most important, it will take diplomacy to enlist the wholehearted intelligence efforts of a local government to deny neighborhood havens. But the success of a local government will require making significant portions of even the neighborhood surrounding the terrorists see the legitimacy of its cooperation with our goals and our means. We have made that far harder by developing a foreign policy that justifies unilateral decisions about war, assassination, coercive interrogation, indefinite detention and trial with potential death sentences by military tribunals. All that plays the “toughness” card for domestic audiences at the expense of perceived legitimacy, even among either the crucial foreign groups who now understand and can reduce the safety and influence the behavior of terrorists.

5. We have to be tireless; we cannot leave Iraq and thereby reinforce the message of terrorist success that followed the departure from Lebanon of the U.S. and then Israel and of the Soviets from Afghanistan. But refusing to reward terrorism comes perilously close, in a “war” against all terrorism, to automatically refusing to do anything about the grievances that bring forth dangerously desperate recruits. If we are to be intelligent about fighting terrorism, and denying it the support it needs, we cannot thoughtlessly support everything by every nation that is threatened by terrorism. For example, the future of the Middle East is likely to depend upon where Israel builds its protective fence. Keeping the fence near the 1967 boundaries increases the safety of both Israel and the United States. Protecting settlers by letting it expand broadly into areas occupied by Palestinian Arabs is a political expedient, not good for any country. We must insist on being heard on this.

6. It will take more than a quarterly speech to maintain the long-term domestic support for costly measures against terrorism that we will need – an endurance that we want to make clear to our enemies, despite a number of presidential elections. That depends on an attention to our democratic traditions that the Bush administration has almost wholly disregarded. Americans care about their freedoms. It is irresponsible to think that the cost in long-term support of claiming frightening presidential powers to secretly detain American citizens seized in the United States is justified by the marginal benefits of holding one American, Padilla, in that way. Asking the American people to accept a traditional sign of totalitarian states as the only resource to protect us against Padilla is indefensible.

7. Finally, American citizens believe they have a right to judge the success of costly measures. The secrecy that surrounds the ways we are fighting terrorism from who and where people are held, to what is done to them, to arrangements with foreign countries known for their brutality, to unsubstantiated claims of the importance of captures – suggests that our policies cannot be openly defended. They will have to be.

HLSProfessor Philip Heymann is the author of Terrorism, Freedom, and Secuirty: Winning Without War.

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