March 16, 2006 | USA Today

Inaction Failed

If we learned anything from 9/11 it's that doing nothing while tyrants and terrorists plot to kill Americans is not a viable policy.

But that was U.S. policy for more than 25 years. When Iranian revolutionaries seized our embassy yelling, “Death to America,” we said to ourselves: “They probably don't mean it.”

When, in 1983, the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah slaughtered hundreds of American troops in Lebanon, we said: “If we get out of their way, perhaps they'll settle down.”

After the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993, we did nothing to those who sent terrorists to our shores.

So before we decide that pre-emption has been a failure, let's acknowledge this: It is because the alternative failed that President Bush came to the conclusion that sometimes it is necessary to use force before attacks occur. It is not enough to attempt to punish our enemies after the blood has been cleaned from our streets.

Nor is deterrence a realistic policy. You can't deter someone who believes that murdering children will earn him a place in paradise.

It's easy to conclude we'd have been better off had we responded to Saddam Hussein's threats and defiance with continued inaction. But Iraq proves nothing. The battle isn't over. We may yet prevail. Or we may be defeated — as we were in Somalia and Vietnam and other conflicts whose outcomes strengthened our enemies' conviction that America lacks the will to resist.

It is disappointing that the CIA didn't accurately appraise Saddam's capabilities. But even Saddam's generals were shocked to find that no VX nerve gas would be available to them.

We also know that Saddam intended to restock his arsenals. And we know he supported and trained terrorists, at such facilities as Salman Pak — now closed for business thanks to U.S. military forces.

It's easy to say that if we had left Saddam alone, nothing bad would have happened. But how is that different from what was said for years about Osama bin Laden? We knew his intentions. We didn't take pre-emptive action. Don't you wish we had?

If Americans have learned anything, it should be this: When people say they intend to kill you, take them seriously.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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