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US must avoid extremes in responding

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 1, 2001

The United States has both a vital national interest and moral obligation to mount a strong response to the terror recently unleashed upon our soil. This is important not merely to exact revenge, as such actions would in fact be undertaken in just self-defense, but to help deter further attacks against American citizens.

Yet it is also important for our leaders to show restraint, as total war against the entire Arab world is neither in our interests nor just. The result of an overreaction would likely yield more terrorism rather than less and visit untold suffering on populations that already are too familiar with misery and bloodshed.

President George W. Bush received some criticism for "overheated cowboy rhetoric" when he stated unequivocally that he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." As evidence tying those who crashed commercial airliners into both towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands, to bin Laden's Al-Qaidia terrorist cells continues to mount, the validity of these words is clear. From the original World Trade Center bombing in 1993 to the attack on the USS Cole, our limited criminal-justice response to terrorism has proved ineffective in the face of organized terror campaigns. Only by going to the source of this terror and cutting it off directly can we reduce our vulnerability.

While the men who hijacked the airplanes in the events of September 11 may have been willing to die for terrorist objectives, bin Laden and his top lieutenants aren't as unconcerned with their physical safety. They have gone into hiding whenever credibly threatened and bin Laden is constantly under heavy guard. Reportedly, due to an enlarged heart he refuses to ever be far from his personal physician. It is not necessarily the case that those who organize, plan and fund terrorist campaigns do not fear losing their lives.

Killing those responsible for terrorism against the United States is not only consistent with the just war doctrine, as Al-Qaidia is clearly waging a war against our people and our way of life, but it is an effective way of disrupting terrorist cells and preemptively striking against those most likely to initiate future attacks. I recently defended Israel's policy of targeted killings as a method of eliminating those who have committed and are actively planning terrorist campaigns. This practice now needs to be adopted by the United States, which has previously criticized it.

Rather than creating more enemies among the Afghan people through carpet bombings, carelessly launched cruise missiles or a full-scale invasion, we should dispatch Special Forces units to hunt down and either capture or kill bin Laden and his associates. This will not be easy and will require a great deal of logistical support. There is also significant risk involved, as our intelligence will need to be precise and the potential for ambush is high. But these very well trained and physically fit soldiers are up to the challenge of rooting out vile terrorists and accomplishing this critical mission.

The United States must also support the Northern Alliance and others in Afghanistan working to overthrow the Taliban. The Taliban actively supports and gives refuge to Al-Qaidia, in addition to being a destabilizing influence in the entire region. This regime aggressively abrogates the rights of its own people and threatens moderate Arab states. Defeating those aligned with Osama bin Laden requires support for the ouster of the Taliban.

Such actions would indeed constitute an ambitious but serious and achievable war against terrorism. But it would also be a more limited and prudent response than the nation building some would like us to engage in to remake the entire Middle East in our democratic capitalist image.

Ignore them Dubya

If some paleoconservatives are unrealistic to suggest that a retrenchment of US world involvement absent a military response against perpetrators is the solution, neoconservatives are similarly off-base in pounding the drums for a broader war under the guise of benevolent American hegemony. In a letter to President Bush signed by 41 leading journalists, foreign-policy experts and center-right political figures (Jack Kemp to his credit notably refused to sign, alone among his Empower America associates), there was a call to bring the war to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. The letter also advised the president to make eradicating Hezbollah a priority even if retaliation against Syria and Iran is required. The drafter of this open letter was William Kristol, the neoconservative leading light who during the 2000 presidential campaign was encouraging John McCain to embrace a foreign policy based on "rolling back" authoritarian regimes across the globe.

David Tell, one of Kristol's associates at The Weekly Standard, implied that he wants conflict not only with those harboring and assisting terrorists now and in the future, but also countries that have sponsored them in the past. The Wall Street Journal has editorialized in favor of strikes against portions of Syria, Sudan, Algeria and "perhaps even in parts of Egypt." How this would be beneficial to our relationship with Egypt and other moderate Arab states that were part of our Persian Gulf War coalition and our Cold War allies is unclear.

Nor is it clear how quickly this would metastasize into a full-blown war involving much of the Arab world. But if it did it is important to note the scope of such a war, as it would run two continents and possibly include countries ranging from Algeria to Afghanistan. The probable result would be to imperil the international coalition against terrorism President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell are working to build, crucial less because of other countries' military support than their intelligence assistance, and result in a conflict between perhaps six or seven Islamic states against the United States and Israel.

Endangering our alliances and intelligence-gathering capabilities while making new enemies and launching missiles throughout the Middle East is not likely to help prevent terrorism. Bin Laden doesn't want a war against terrorism with Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia still allies with the Americans. He wants this to be seen as a war between Christians and Jews in the West and the Islamic world, with the United States and Israel sharing the title of "Great Satan."

A crusade of this type should not be what America wants and the total war and extra-constitutional global policeman role is not what America needs. President Bush was correct that any country that supports terrorism going forward should be treated as a hostile regime. But this does not mean we must go to war with every single one of them. Dependent upon the degree of their involvement in terrorist activity against the American people and our allies, we can impose a variety of sanctions proportionate to their offenses. If Iraq or some other government is found to have provided Al-Qaidia the intelligence information it needed to carry out these attacks, then yes, we should visit military action against them. We should also rescind the executive order barring federal agents' participation in assassinations. But we should not engage in lengthy wars to try to establish new governments in foreign lands, as it is not feasible, productive or within our government's constitutional mandate. We cannot simply impose our own political institutions and structures in the countries of the Middle East. Attempting to do so will only create a fertile climate for more terror against a self-styled benevolent empire.

Our response as a country must be strong, firm and tethered to the principles of swift justice. But it must also be measured and well thought-out. We must avoid the extremes of defeatism and pacifism on the one hand and hubris and endless conflict on the other.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at

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