December 31, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Lessons Learned

Militant Islamists first used terrorism against Americans more than 20 years ago when a Hezbollah suicide bomber slaughtered 241 marines in Beirut. But the US learned little from that defeat, just as we learned little from the terrorist attacks we suffered later in the ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s as well. Only since the devastating atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001 have Americans begun seriously to consider how to defend themselves. What lessons should we take into 2004? Here are several:

It's a world war, stupid: Jihadi terrorists tell us virtually every day whom they are fighting: Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and moderate Muslims (whom they disdain as apostates). They tell us what they want: The defeat of the “infidels,” the “Crusader-Zionist” alliance (their name for the Free World). They are willing to massacre innocent people anywhere: Not just in New York, Washington, Jerusalem, India and Bali, but also in Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. We know how far they are willing to go: They have no restraints, no limitations, no humanitarian sentiments whatsoever. They are a uniquely dangerous enemy.

It's not your father's war:  The US today is more adept at fighting major battles than any military power in history. But we're still puzzling out how to defeat an enemy whose mission is not to take territory but simply to destroy and demoralize. Explosives are often the means, but societal implosion is the goal. Americans are now involved in the kind of nasty conflict the Israelis have long been waging. Israelis and Americans could defeat their enemies quickly – if we were willing to use force as our enemies would were the situations reversed. But we are not willing to do that. Instead, we strive to maintain fundamental rules of civilized behavior. Col. Allen West was recently forced out of the U.S. military because he fired a handgun in the presence of an Iraqi suspect to induce him to talk, which hid did, which saved American lives. Can you imagine Saddam having such scruples? Al Qaeda? Hezbollah? Hamas? Fatah?

Preemption is prudent: Confronted with a malevolent matrix of rogue dictators, WMD and terrorism, to wait until a threat becomes “imminent” is to wait until it's too late. How does one determine when “imminence” arrives? Even with the benefit of hindsight, on what date did the Taliban become an “imminent” threat? If the goal is to save lives, the US and other democratic societies must be willing to act against those who have the intention — and appear to be developing the capability — to do us harm. As the legal and diplomatic scholar Ruth Wedgwood has said: “Fighting terrorism in a purely reactive way won't work.”

9/11 was predictable: There were dots that could have been connected. But there were fewer dots than there might have been because politicians in both parties consciously – and recklessly — diminished America's intelligence-gathering capability over recent years. Too many so-called experts convinced themselves that Jihadi terrorism was a criminal justice problem rather than a national security crisis. Too many thought it was impossilbe to penetrate organizations such as al Qaeda and Hezbollah. But if John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla could manage the trick, shouldn't an intelligence organization have figured out a way?

9/11 was preventable:  It doesn't require a blue-ribbon commission to figure this one out. The atrocities of 9/11 could have been prevented had intelligence been better (see above), had there been better controls at our border or increased scrutiny of visitors from countries that encourage terrorism. And here's the simplest way that the attacks of 9/11 could have been foiled: Had air marshals or trained and armed pilots been on the planes, they would have been able to stop terrorists whose only weapons were box cutters. Yet in 2003 the Transportation Security Administration continued to do everything it could to prevent pilots from protecting their planes and passengers.

Peace is protected through strength: There are still those who insist that until the US disarms, it has no right to tell regimes such as those in Iran, Libya and North Korea that they can not have WMD. Such people fail to recognize the differences between democracies and dictatorships, between cops and criminals, between fire fighters and arsonists, between good guys and bad guys. 

A robust policy brings bonuses: Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi appears to be willing to give up his WMD program. That's not because he's decided that in his golden years he wants to focus his energies on developing the best darn health care system in North Africa. It's because he doesn't want to end up in a cave or a spider hole. There is only one substitute for force – and that is the credible threat of force. That said, Qaddafi is still a mass murderer and an oppressor. We still don't know whether he plans to stop funding terrorism. He's still no friend of Americans – or of Libyans.

You gotta have friends: Several years ago, Paul Wolfowitz, now No. 2 at the Pentagon, wrote that a wise American foreign policy would consistently demonstrate that “your friends will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies will be punished, and that those who refuse to support you will live to regret having done so.” That has not always been American policy in the past, not even in 2003. It's the right policy for 2004 and beyond.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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