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Commentary

Insufficient Response to Terrorism


     
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President Clinton’s military counterattack was probably the right response to the embassy bombings, but it is insufficient and may have been done for the wrong reason. Given the president’s scandal at home, suspicions were bound to arise about his motives. The initial questioning of the president’s motives by some Republican members of Congress during a military operation overseas indicates the level of that cynicism that lies just below the surface on Capitol Hill. Skepticism was fueled by the contrast between the current rapid response and the plodding, legalistic U.S. response to the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and the lack of any military response to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s harboring two of his own intelligence agents who were implicated in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Although the administration did not provide much information to support its claim that further attacks on U.S. embassies were imminent and that a terrorist leadership pow-wow was occurring in Afghanistan, U.S. counterstrikes were probably needed. The United States must not allow terrorists to attack our embassies abroad. The embassy compounds in Kenya and Tanzania are U.S. territory; an attack on them is the same as an attack on the United States. Terrorists need to know that they cannot commit heinous acts against U.S. citizens and property without experiencing swift and decisive consequences.

The purpose of such targeted military action is to dissuade terrorists--through violent retaliation that threatens their cause and their lives--from future attacks on the United States, its citizens or its overseas embassies. However, such targeted retaliation is simply the first step. The U.S. government must ask why terrorists target the United States in the first place. The answer is that they perceive the United States to be interfering excessively in the affairs of other nations. For example, bin Laden, a Saudi, resents the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and U.S. support for Israel.

Over the long term, the United States must quietly reassess its vital interests--which could be significantly narrowed after the demise of its Cold War rival--and intervene only when they are threatened. For example, the United States must stop acting like a military nanny by intervening in faraway places--such as Bosnia and Somalia--that have little relevance to U.S. security interests. Excessive and untargeted military action makes the United States a higher profile target for terrorism. In October 1997 a Defense Science Board study noted a historical correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks on the United States. Even President Clinton admitted that terrorism against the United States is caused by its role as a “leader.”

The correlation between increased terrorism and U.S. intervention might have been brushed off in the past because terrorist attacks were regarded by great powers as mere pinpricks. Unfortunately, we are now in a new strategic environment. The technology for producing weapons of mass destruction-chemical, biological and nuclear weapons-is proliferating around the world. Now even the weakest actor in the international system-the terrorist-can effect mass slaughter in the homeland of a superpower.

Chemical and biological weapons, in particular, can be made in commercial facilities using widely available technologies. If it is true, the most alarming aspect of the recent incident is the administration''s assertion that bin Laden was using the targeted pharmaceutical plant to make precursors for VX nerve gas. Furthermore, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, even nuclear technology and fissionable materials are more widely available. A terrorist with a crude nuclear bomb or a sprayer containing chemical or biological agents could cause massive casualties in a U.S. city. To illustrate the power of weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of Defense William Cohen noted that five pounds of anthrax could kill half the population of Washington, D.C.

Such catastrophic attacks by terrorists are hard to prevent or mitigate. The Defense Science Board admitted that only incremental measures could be taken against them. Thus, Secretary Albright is correct in stating that terrorism is the most severe threat to U.S. security now and in the 21st century.

Targeted U.S. retaliatory action in response to particular terrorist acts is probably necessary and can be justified as self-defense, but the swaggering attitude that such attacks must not be allowed to deter a superpower like the United States from acting as the world’s policeman is a dangerous and foolish conceit. Terrorists commonly despise the United States as a Goliath standing in the way of their causes; they see themselves as David and may be perfectly willing to use weapons of mass destruction to attack us where we are vulnerable.

In short, the United States should adopt a foreign policy based on the dictum of Gen. Anthony Zinni, Commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East: “Don’t make enemies [but] if you do, don’t treat them gently.”
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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