All Writings
October 26, 2002

A War We Must Win, But How?

That we must win the war against international terrorism cannot and must not be in doubt. The problem is that after fourteen months of waging such a war we are almost as vulnerable as we were before September 11th according to a report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and prepared by a panel co-chaired by former senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart. As the report's full implications sink into public conscience, there will be much finger-pointing regarding this sorry state of affairs. From where I sit, the buck stops at the president's desk, and the Bush administration must bear much of the blame for what has happened and not happened. In order to prevent or deal with, in the words of the report, a catastrophic terrorist attack, which is virtually certain to occur with devastating impact, new and urgent measures must be taken. I agree, but suggest that it may be at this point useful to look closely at some of the administration's mishaps so far in waging war against terrorism.

First, rather than focusing on the war effort and exercising leadership to move Congress to pass the Homeland security legislation, the White House has shamelessly engaged in politics as usual, using the war for purposes of vote-getting and so sending the wrong message both at home and abroad. It did not seem to matter to the administration that while the political squabbles have been going on, Al Qaeda, according to the CIA's most recent assessment, has reconstituted itself and is now ready to strike against American targets at home or overseas with the potential of devastating human and economic losses.

Second, although the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are desirable goals, we have spent and continue to spend billions on the preparation for war against Iraq while depriving local, state, and federal agencies of desperately needed funds to build defenses against terrorist attacks. "In virtually every major city and county in the United States," the panel's report contends, police, fire, and other emergency workers, lack the equipment needed to communicate during an emergency. Equally frightening, no funding of any consequence has been allocated to protect seaports, power plants, oil refineries, rail systems, and urban centers. Not acting to meet these needs is tantamount to being gripped by paralysis while watching a new and inevitable disaster in the making.

Third, it is a given that the support of other countries is critical to the fight against terrorism. Many of the nations whose support we need, however, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Yemen to name only a few, totally lack the financial resources necessary to wage effective campaigns against the more well-funded, sophisticated, insidious Al Qaeda or for that matter, a number of other terrorist groups. We need to change this situation, and the administration does not have the luxury of a waiting period. It is an enormously dangerous fantasy to think that we can win this war without providing huge amounts of money to these countries for their anti-terrorist war efforts and without working closely with them from start to finish. They need, among other things, training, surveillance equipment, logistical support, advanced computers, and communication and control centers . Although some of these elements are being provided, they are hardly enough to make a real contribution in an effort that requires large resources and unshakable commitment, especially as many of these nations must wage war against terrorism under serious domestic constraints and sometimes outright resistence from segments of their own population.

Fourth, we have largely persisted in our policy of turning a blind eye to the behavior of our so-called allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Gulf states who have, at best, unwittingly been providing the breeding ground for future terrorists. Our continued support of these regimes (to ensure the flow of oil to us), including not putting any real pressure on them to initiate political reform, only increases public discontent in the Arab world and inflames hatred toward us. We can no longer pay lip service to democratic reforms there or elsewhere, especially in the area of human rights. Without giving these people, notably the young, at least a hope for a better future, we can count on a steady stream of thousands of new recruits to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groupsâ€"recruits who will be willing to die for a cause they understand rather than continue to live in despair and desperation.

Fifth, although Under-Secretary-of-State Burns is now in the Middle East with a new blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the administration's efforts in this regard are dismal at best. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe that Washington is committed to a real solution. Mr. Bush wants to create the perception of being involved when, in fact, all he cares about is reducing tensions sufficiently to make it easier to wage war on Iraq. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains central to the war on terrorism. We must work with Israel and the Palestinian leaders to neutralize Hamas and Jihad which are against any peace negotiations and are behind most of the horrendous terrorist attacks. Moreover, we cannot ignore these terrorists whom we can identify and thereby engage in wishful thinking that the Israelis and Palestinians will somehow come to terms when the war drums against Iraq are beating louder every day.

Sixth, it is true that North Korea violated its 1994 agreement with the United States perhaps few years before Mr. Bush declared it as part of the axis of evil. As time has shown, however, the president's designation was counterproductive to our conduct of foreign policy, specifically to our war on terrorism. In their formal response the North Koreans, seemingly unbowed, stated: "The Bush administration listed the D.P.R.K. as part of the axis of evil and a target of U.S. preemptive strike. This was a clear declaration of war. . . . " The North Korean response further linked any new agreement on dismantling their nuclear weapons program to a demand for a non-aggression pact with the United States, along with our recognition of their sovereignty and a commitment not to hinder their economic development. If the underling requirement of a successful campaign against terrorism is international cooperation, our characterization of North Korea as part of the axis of evil has achieved the precise opposite exactly at the moment that North and South Korea were working hard on improving the relations between them to the point of eventual reunification. North Korea must obviously give up its nuclear program first and the focus must then shift to diplomatic means. We must move toward "ending the more than a half century of armistice" as former president Carter suggested in a recently published column in The New York Times, "and the consummation of a comprehensive and permanent peace agreement."

Is it possible that this administration knows something about the danger Saddam Hussein poses that nobody else knows or appreciates, causing the campaign to oust him to supercede every other domestic or international threat? By now it must be obvious to the government–and increasingly to the American people–that no matter how great the preparations for war on Iraq and how much political capital it has expended on persuading the public of the urgency of this agenda, we remain extremely vulnerable to attack at home. If only one of the warnings of the Rudman/Hart report becomes a reality , we will still be in a heck of a mess.

Immediately after September 11th Mr. Bush declared war on terrorism, predicting it would have one outcome–our victory. Yes, this is a war we must win, but how? Surely, it will not be won by partisan politics, using language to simultaneously frighten the American people while obscuring the reality of the situation they face, and also the little that is being done to avert attacks that may be continuous and unprecedented in scale and nature, being fixated on one enemy to the near exclusion of others, or by allocating of our assets disproportionately, creating new enemies, clinging to bankrupt policies in the Middle East and drifting back to an immensely dangerous complacency.