Defeating terrorism is now the top priority in U.S. foreign and defense policy. Reaching that goal will be a tall order. It requires a multi-dimensional strategy that relies not just on military force but also on diplomacy, economic coercion, and domestic preparedness. There will be no quick fixes. It will take a commitment of years, if not decades, to succeed.
But as we begin our war against terrorism it is crucial to understand what we are doing. We are not embarking on a modern version of World War II or even the Gulf War, where the objective was to retake territory. Rather what we now face is a new Cold War, one in which the ultimate battle will be for hearts and minds. And like the Cold War yesteryear, ensuring greater safety and security for all our citizens will require making tough choices.
The fight against international terrorism will of necessity evolve over two stages. The immediate task is to find and punish those responsible. All signs point to Osama bin Laden, who remains hidden in Afghanistan. The Taliban have resisted intense pressure to turn him over to the United States or even an international tribunal. So we’re left with military action.
But military force alone will not produce victory. To begin with, hunting down bin Laden will be difficult. Afghanistan is the size of France with a terrain like that of Switzerland—mountainous and riddled with canyons. Perfect for an outmatched foe to ambush the attacker—as the Soviets learned in the 1980s and the British a hundred years earlier.
Even if the U.S. captures or kills bin Laden and his lieutenants the fight against terrorism will not be over. His terror network, Al Qaeda, is global in scope. It has cells in an estimated 50 countries. It has formed alliances with a wide variety of other groups. Striking militarily at them all is simply not feasible.
That’s why the second and longer term strategy must emphasize domestic preparedness, diplomatic maneuvering, and economic coercion. While we can never be invulnerable, we can make the terrorists’ job harder. That means everything from better airport and border security to improved surveillance to technological innovations such as software that makes it impossible to fly airplanes deliberately into buildings.
The United States will also need to cooperate with other countries willing to tackle the terrorist challenge. We need to better coordinate intelligence efforts and to train and equip poorer nations to track and disrupt terrorist operations. Together, we must use our immense economic power to punish those nations that choose to aid and abet terrorism.
This multi-dimensional strategy is the same approach the United States followed during the Cold War. Then the U.S. resorted to military force in places like Korea and Vietnam where it hoped to achieve its goals without triggering a broader war. But in most instances the U.S. recognized that the price of war was too high. Instead, it assembled an international coalition of like-minded countries centered around NATO to contain communist advances, coerce countries with economic sanctions, and disrupt them through covert activities.
The Cold War analogy carries a clear warning. Although the West eventually won, it paid a high price along the way. The U.S. overreacted to the threat early on and impulsively traded away precious civil liberties in the McCarthyite scare. Washington and its allies made common cause with a long list of unsavory characters—Franco, the Greek Colonels, and Mobutu to name just a few—who had little interest in or respect for democratic values.
The same risks exist today. The rush to consider legislation expanding wiretapping and investigative powers risks upsetting the delicate but crucial balance between guaranteeing civil liberties and effective policing. The threat is not only from governments, but from the people themselves—some of whom may now be tempted to single out those who are somehow different (be they Arab, Muslim, Sikh, Moluccan or any one else with dark skin or wearing a turban) as an actual or potential terrorist.
And there are foreign policy risks in making the fight against terrorism the overriding priority. Will we ignore Russia’s abominable acts in Chechnya, Pakistan’s acquisition of a growing stock of nuclear bombs and long-range missiles, and Indonesia’s brutal repression of separatists in order to enlist their assistance in fighting the terrorists that threaten us?
Foreign policy—today no less than two weeks ago—involves making tough choices. The fight against terrorism is now a clear priority, but it must not be fought at the cost of basic civil liberties or other foreign policy goals. Our leaders should carefully heed the lessons of the last Cold War, as we embark on fighting a new one.