In a recent television interview, President Clinton made the remarkable admission that he expected a terrorist attack using a weapon of mass destruction in the United States within the next 10 to 20 years. Just one attack with such weapons could annihilate more people on U.S. soil than foreign powers have killed there during the history of the republic and cause pressure to severely curtail our constitutional liberties. Yet the president is in denial on the best solution to reduce the chances of a catastrophic terrorist attack. The president needs to exercise some self-restraint in his foreign policy as much as he needs to do so in his personal life.

In August 1998, when justifying U.S. cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan in response to terrorist bombings of two American embassies, the president admitted that Americans are targets of terrorism in part because the United States has “unique leadership responsibilities in the world.” That phrase, along with another euphemism “engagement and enlargement,” is used by the administration to mean interfering in other nations’ affairs in a crusade to spread democracy and free markets around the world. Although free market democracies represent a superior form of political and economic organization, the United States should lead by example rather than subvert its own constitutional system by prosecuting undeclared wars in remote regions that have little or nothing to do with U.S. vital interests. Those wars and interventions undermine rather than enhance U.S. security by fomenting needless animosity among nations and terrorist groups. The Clinton administration’s policy of engagement and enlargement should be called entanglement and endangerment.

The president realizes that a severe threat to the U.S. homeland exists and admits that U.S. foreign policy is a prime cause of the threat (empirical evidence supports this premise). Yet he refuses to accept the most direct way to ameliorate the threat: reduce needless U.S. meddling overseas. Instead, the president’s solution is to “mobilize the country on biological and chemical weapons” and make sure that the government is doing everything possible to close the gap between offense and defense. In practice, playing defense against an offense that has connections with a few residents of the United States has meant harmful restrictions on civil liberties for all--for example, the anti-terrorism law passed in 1996 after the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing and the gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Focusing on defensive measures has also led more than 90 government agencies to use the threat to justify a bureaucratic dash for budget cash.

Adopting some defensive measures--for example, stockpiling vaccines and antidotes for some of the most common agents and training local police, firefighters, and medical personnel to respond to catastrophic terrorist attacks--is probably prudent, but action by government is generally not the best solution. In fact, government got us into this situation in the first place. The Clinton administration’s frequent use of the armed forces for military social work around the world has painted on the American homeland a big bull’s eye for terrorists to take aim at. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the recent apprehension of Algerian terrorist group members reportedly linked to Osama bin Laden--one of whom was allegedly trying to smuggle bombing-making material from Canada to the United States--are dramatic incidents of terrorist responses to U.S. foreign policy.

Would adopting a more restrained U.S. foreign policy amount to appeasing terrorists? Not at all. U.S. military action should be taken when U.S. vital interests are at stake or in retaliation for terrorist attacks against the United States. But staying out of petty intra-state conflicts--such as those in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo--will lower the risk that the United States will face catastrophic terrorism in retaliation for U.S. intervention. In the post-Cold War era, the vast majority of conflicts in the world are within the territories of states rather than across their borders. Intra-state conflicts usually do not threaten U.S. vital interests.

Intervention in intra-state conflicts--that is, attempts to nation-build--have not been very successful. Even after U.S. intervention, Haiti is still poor, corrupt, and sliding back into dictatorship. In Somalia, the warring clans were still fighting when the United States left and are still fighting today. In Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S.-led interventions have the potential to become limitless quagmires. Despite profligate inflows of foreign aid, nation-building in Bosnia has been a failure. In Kosovo, allied intervention has merely brought ethnic cleansing in reverse--that is, Albanians against Serbs. U.S. military action will not solve the long-standing, complex problems of those countries. Such internal ethnic, tribal, and religious disputes are the conflicts that are most likely to spawn retaliatory terrorist attacks against the United States.

U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of other countries rarely improves the situation there and needlessly endangers U.S. security. The president realizes both the severity of the threat of catastrophic terrorism and that our foreign policy is a prime cause of it, but he is not taking the action that would most dramatically lessen U.S. vulnerability: restraining his tendency to intervene promiscuously around the world. But then self-restraint is not one of the president’s known attributes.