All Writings
June 6, 2004

Defeating Terrorism – Introduction

This is the introduction to a major essay on Defeating International Terrorism to be published in a series of 10 weekly segments starting June 13.

We are at a new crossroads in our campaign against international terrorism. Looking at the balance sheet of our successes and failures, the inescapable conclusion is that while we have “decapitated” two-thirds of its leadership and destroyed much of its infrastructure, Al Qaeda remains extremely potent, in fact, as dangerous as it has ever been. Moreover, the war in Iraq, the continuing violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the growing Islamist presence in most Arab countries have swelled the ranks of many terrorist groups. Based on all intelligence estimates, we are no safer today than we were before 9/11.

To end the scourge of international terrorism, we need to do more than reorganize our intelligence agencies, establish a department of Homeland Security, and kill or capture every terrorist we track down. While these measures are crucial, they do not address the root causes of international terrorism which is bound to haunt us for decades if the current policy continues. To prevent new catastrophic terrorist attacks, the United States must urgently develop a comprehensive national strategy and mobilize the necessary financial resources to tackle the many vulnerable areas that have been completely ignored, suffered benign neglect, or been weakened by simple policy failures–and so contributed to international terrorism. Winning the war against terrorism may prove to be much harder and more expensive than defeating Communism. Invisible, insidious, and insolent, terrorism is pervasive; it thrives on poverty, idleness, social and political disorder, and discontent. We won the Cold War because we could accurately assess and predict the former Soviet Union’s position on most issues, what policies it would pursue to promote its objectives, and where the “battlegrounds” would be. Despite many mistakes in our efforts to contain the former Soviet Union, we were, nevertheless, able to demonstrate throughout the Cold War viable alternative social, economic, and political ideals that led ultimately to the downfall of Communism. This outcome was helped along because we developed effective alliances, especially NATO, and spent trillions of dollars to build up our military and our defenses, including a nuclear deterrence system that neutralized the Soviet’s nuclear power.

Until the end of the Soviet era, the two great forces basically maintained a balance of power. Today we find ourselves shocked by acts of terrorism and in response have adopted policies that inadvertently undermine the international order for which we have sacrificed so much. By not dealing with terrorism’s root causes, we are limited to dealing with its symptoms, a situation that only encourages new recruits to join the ranks of various terrorist groups that are speaking to, rather than ignoring, the condition of their lives. We all agree that acts of terror, regardless of their source are despicable, but in its eagerness to stop them, the current administration has failed to understand that not all terrorists are motivated by the same cause. The reality is that although many terrorist organizations sympathize with one another and often cooperate, exchange information, and offer training, each Islamic terrorist group has its own domestic agenda. For example, Hamas’ agenda, which is to end the Israeli occupation, has nothing to do with Al Qaeda’s goal to rid the Arab world of any Western interest and influence. Al Gama’a el-Islamiya in Egypt is another example of a terrorist group that cooperates with several other groups, including Al Qaeda, but whose main agenda is the overthrow of an Egyptian government it deems corrupt and illegitimate.

Both the Bush and the Clinton administrations have attempted to tackle some of these issues at one time or another, but no American administration, at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has committed itself to a comprehensive, systematic national agenda for dealing with terrorism. Rather, the focus has been on trying to kill or capture those who attack us. A comprehensive agenda would include the following ten areas which the next administration must focus on if we are to defeat terrorism and enhance the prospects for a more stable and prosperous international community.

I. Solve and end the Israeli-Arab conflict. An equitable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, is linked directly and indirectly to diminishing international terrorism. It is an illusion to suggest that we can win the campaign against terrorism without finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict acceptable to all parties. The two prerequisites are for the Palestinians to abandon their demands for repatriation of the refugees and for Israel to relinquish nearly all of the West Bank. The role of the United States remains pivotal to any future negotiation. As long as this conflict continues, it ignites a tremendous emotional charge that fuels other Arab terrorist groups.

2. Create a national energy independence strategy. We must develop a national energy independence strategy that will free us from our addiction to Arab oil and thereby our being beholden to Arab regimes, especially that of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Because it is a strategic asset, we have been forced to protect Arab oil and the price we have paid has been extremely high, not just materially, but in the heavy toll in human lives we continue to pay, as exemplified by the first and now second Iraqi war. We can also look forward to oil wells and oil installations being seen by terrorists as targets of choice, to be destroyed for the express purpose of disrupting supplies, as witnessed by the recent attacks at Yanbu and Khobar in Saudi Arabia, which shot up the price of oil to more than $42 a barrel. This is only the beginning, with worse to come.

3. Focus on sustainable development. As long as poverty remains rampant around the globe–today, more than 2 billion people live below the poverty line (earning less than $2 a day), mostly in Africa and Asia, and are disabled by disease, hunger, and illiteracy–millions will be open to recruitment from terrorist organizations. The United States must sponsor large-scale sustainable development projects through multiple NGOs in developing and under-developed nations to ease poverty and restore human dignity. If we found $200 billion to spend in Iraq on an uncertain venture, we’d better find half that amount to lift scores of nations from their misery and prevent terrorist groups from dipping into a bottomless well of ready recruits.

4. Make a commitment to multilateralism. The war on terrorism cannot be won singlehandedly. Our debacle in Iraq has demonstrated the shortcomings of unilateralism. The future security of the international community rests on the collective effort of the nations, although the United States can, indeed should, take the lead. The administration must now commit itself to multilateralism and restore relations with our allies and work with the UN Security Council to enhance international security. That does not mean we cannot use force unilaterally and preemptively to protect our national security interests; what it means is that we must first demonstrate our credible concerns, genuinely exhaust all options before taking military action, and, finally, act with transparency.

5. Provide assistance for counter-terrorism. Since the war on terrorism is global, we must provide equipment and training to nations willing to cooperate with us but with limited financial resources to act effectively on their own. Many such nations, including Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Yemen, and even wealthier countries like Canada, are starving for funds to buy new equipment, train intelligence personnel, augment electronic intelligence gathering, and upgrade other counter-terrorist activities. Our unwillingness to provide such assistance deprives us of crucial intelligence data with all its human and economic implications.

6. Reorganize our intelligence agencies. The United States may have one of the world’s better intelligence operations, but our agencies still failed to uncover the plot that led to 9/11 and grossly mis-assessed whether Iraq had amassed weapons of mass destruction. Many inadequacies related to our intelligence gathering, and the analyzing and sharing of information, continue to plague our intelligence community. Especially, there are problems due to the plethora of intelligence agencies and the lack of coordination among them. The Congressional Committee on Intelligence that has completed its examination of our intelligence failures concerning 9/11 is soon expected to release a scathing report. This, coupled with the resignation of CIA Director Tenet, may spur a complete reorganization, leading to the consolidation of most of our intelligence agencies into one unit. A priority in any reorganization would be to shield our intelligence from political influence.

7. End the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We must also develop a strategy to diminish and eventually end the spread of weapons of mass destruction. To this end, we have to lead by example and adhere to all international treaties. Our experience in Iraq should have taught us that the UNSC must ultimately have the authority to deal with this critical issue that poses a serious future danger should any terrorist group manage to obtain and actually use WMD. We can obviously lead in this regard but must not assume the sole responsibility for enforcement. The search, seizure, and destruction of such weapons must remain the domain of the UNSC.

8. Deal effectively with rogue nations. We are not the world’s policemen, and we have neither the means nor the political leverage to police rogue countries that refuse to adhere to international norms of conduct, especially those like Syria that harbor terrorist groups or, like Iran, pursue WMD. We do, however, have tremendous leverage to exert political and economic pressure on many countries that violate these norms. But here too we must seek international consensus in order to improve the chances of compliance. We cannot bully nations into submission. We must carefully look into legitimate grievances and formulate a strategy tailored to each rogue state that includes both carrots and sticks for it to change direction without our having to resort to violence.

9. Promote human rights and democracy. Having basically championed the cause of human rights from the time our republic was established, we still do not understand that human rights and democracy cannot be shoved down the throats of peoples whose cultural, religious, and ethnic orientations differ from ours. We must seek dialogues and reach better understanding of the unique situation of each entity or group with whom we deal. No Arab country has ever enjoyed a single day of real democracy and freedom; how then can we be so presumptuous as to think we know the sort of political system any of these nations should or would be willing to adopt? We are in the midst of a cultural clash with the Arab and the Muslim world–it is in many ways an ideological war. Only after carefully examining each country’s traditions, history, and psychological disposition, should we then suggest gradual reforms–that fit their needs and have human rights at their core–reforms they can absorb over time.

10. Eliminate the hardcore terrorists. The previous nine measures, if comprehensively and deliberately employed, may eventually eliminate many of the root causes of terrorism, but certainly will not end it entirely. There are those hard-core groups and individuals for whom terrorism is a way of life. These are the blind terrorists, who live in denial and cannot be reached by any reasonable discourse and so must be destroyed. That said, to suggest every terrorist group falls into the same category is a grave mistake. The majority of would-be terrorists will not swell the ranks, if their living conditions improved, and helping them to achieve a better life is the greatest task before us.

The worse damage we can inflict on ourselves will occur if our government continues to politicize the campaign against terrorism and does not develop a comprehensive national strategy to deal effectively with its root causes. This is not a campaign we can win in a year or even two. It may take a decade or more of consistent, intensely focused effort costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The question is: can we afford to do less? We are a nation that rises to the occasion and answers the call. With the Marshall Plan, we resurrected Europe from the ashes of WW II. We went to the moon to discover new frontiers; we spent $3 trillion on the military alone during the Reagan administration, and this ultimately led to the collapse of Communism, and we have spent upward of $200 billion in Iraq, albeit it must still be justified. We can, indeed we must, muster the financial resources to fight a realistic war against terrorism because not to do so will leave us vulnerable for the conceivable future. We must remember that the disaster of 9/11cost this nation more than $10 trillion.

The greater reward of such a campaign will not only be the end of international terrorism as we know it, but the transformation of the world into a true international community, one in which nations work together for the betterment of the world’s peoples. For America the greatest windfall will be the renewal of our moral authority to lead, an authority squandered because of the war in Iraq.