The post-Cold War era abruptly ended the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. From the moment terrorists turned passenger airplanes into weapons of mass destruction, the United States was inescapably engaged in a new “war” against global terrorism. That effort now represents the organizing principle of America’s foreign and defense policy.
This is not like the war against Iraq a decade ago, in which the United States and its allies had a clear territorial objective that could be swiftly achieved, or the war over Kosovo, in which the Serbs relented after 78 days of bombing Yugoslavia and NATO suffered not one combat death.
And while the attacks on New York and Washington immediately brought to mind memories of Pearl Harbor, our campaign against terrorism will not be like our fight to force Japan’s unconditional surrender.
This struggle is—instead—much more like the Cold War of the past century. Like the fight against Soviet communism, today’s fight against terrorism is likely to be drawn out, complex, and without a clear vision of how it will be won. Even complete success in the pending military operations in Afghanistan will not mean victory.
Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network extends well beyond Afghanistan, and hostile groups could easily reconstitute themselves and launch other horrific attacks even if bin Laden and his lieutenants are captured or killed.
assembling a global coalition. Harry Truman’s rousing call in 1947 “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” set the course of U.S. history for the next four decades. President Bush’s invitation to every nation to join the United States in “civilization’s fight” was phrased as expansively—and intended to be as enduring.
And, like the Cold War, the new fight against terrorism is likely to be nasty, brutish, and long. We face ideologically motivated foes who do not shrink from death. Our fight can end only when, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, Americans can once again get on with their daily lives without fear or thought of a possible terrorist attack.
One critical question as we enter this new “Cold War” is whether we have learned the lessons of the last one—or whether we are destined to repeat its mistakes. Will we again overemphasize military force to achieve our goals and ignore the non-military instruments of statecraft? Will we again focus so narrowly on battle that we forget other important foreign-policy goals?
Will the deals we cut today to gain support from other nations prove to be major problems in years to come—in much the same way arming Afghan rebels to fight the Soviet Union contributed to the terrorist threat we face today?
It is crucial that we not only fight this new Cold War against terrorism with the dedication and vigor that Bush emphasized in his forceful speech to Congress on Sept. 20, but also that we do so smartly. We must be aware of the complexities of our new fight—and of the pitfalls that are before us.
In many stages and on many fronts
If conducted with proper care, the fight against terrorism will be fought in stages and on multiple fronts. The first phase will be predominantly military.
The United States will seek to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, destroy his Al-Qaida network in Afghanistan, and depose the Taliban if it does not cooperate in the fight against terrorism. That might be accomplished through a mix of Kosovo-style strategic bombing of fixed military targets to weaken the Taliban’s hold on power, Somalia-like commando raids to wipe out the terrorists holed up in the unforgiving countryside, and Nicaragua-like support for the Taliban’s adversaries.
With luck, military operations would end quickly and relatively painlessly; more realistically, they will be a major undertaking with significant costs. But even when successful, the campaign against terrorism that Bush promised will only have begun, much as the Korean War blunted communist expansion, but did not end it.
The administration will need to turn to a long, grinding, difficult and expensive campaign to disrupt, deter and defeat terrorist operations elsewhere in the world. And while military force will continue to play some role in this effort, it will be a distinctly secondary role.
Ultimately, a successful campaign against terrorism requires three additional elements.
First, we must better organize and become more effective in defending our homeland by improving intelligence collection about potential threats and enhancing security of our transportation networks.
Second, we must build an international coalition aimed at disrupting and destroying terrorist operations. The coalition must agree to share information about terrorist activities; impose tighter controls over illicit money, weapons and technology flows; isolate and pressure states that sponsor and support terrorists; and strike militarily if targets for action present themselves.
Third, we must intensify our efforts to resolve conflicts around the world, and especially in the Middle East. Although they did not cause the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, these conflicts contribute to the anger that terrorists manipulate to their own despicable ends.
We must also intensify support for democracy and promote economic development—especially in areas like Central Asia, the Arab world and northern Africa, where repression and poverty provide breeding grounds for international terrorism. Prosperous, democratic countries are our best allies against terrorism.
Because the fight against terrorism is a new Cold War, it is worthwhile remembering some key lessons of the old one. While we ultimately triumphed in that conflict, we made critical mistakes along the way, ones that we must now seek to avoid.
We must begin by recognizing that military force alone is not enough; pretending that it is takes us down a dangerous road. The militarization of containment—which ended in our disastrous engagement in Vietnam—undermined the American public’s trust in its government and weakened the very alliances on which we depended to win our confrontation with the Soviet Union.
In calling on the nation to conduct a “war” against terrorism, the Bush administration has helped create the impression that our victory will be a military one. But terrorism cannot be defeated by the force of arms alone. We also need better law enforcement, enhanced intelligence, focused diplomacy and targeted sanctions to succeed.
We must also avoid creating new threats even as we seek to defeat the current ones. The Vietnam War ended with that country left in tatters and under communist rule, with a destabilized Cambodia vulnerable to genocide by a murderous regime, and a once-pristine Laos all but destroyed.
We must not repeat that record in Afghanistan. The threat of further destabilization there is real. Almost-constant war over more than two decades—first against the Soviets and then against each other—has created more than 1.5 million refugees and left many hundreds of thousands of other people lacking sufficient food or adequate shelter. Should unrest spread, the consequences for neighboring Pakistan—an internally divided and failing state in possession of nuclear weapons—could be severe. The last thing we want is a takeover of Pakistan by Islamic fundamentalist sympathizers of bin Laden.
Stabilization must follow
Whether we like it or not, military engagement would need to be followed by an all-out effort to stabilize Afghanistan, if we hope to avoid encouraging future generations of desperate people from becoming terrorists. Ultimately, regional stability would require the kind of nation-building support the Bush administration so abhors.
Finally, we must avoid making the new Cold War an all-consuming fight—one in which we carelessly sacrifice other important foreign-policy interests and values to serve the cause of defeating global terrorism.
During the four decades that we squared off against Soviet communism, we embraced unsavory characters (from Franco to Mobutu to Pinochet), engaged in highly questionable conduct (from assassinations to secret coups d’etat), wasted billions of dollars on dead-end interventions and superfluous weapon systems, and ignored a long list of other foreign-policy challenges (from human rights to weapons proliferation to the environment).
The same risks exist today. To solicit support, we have lifted sanctions on Pakistan imposed after the military’s takeover in 1999, begun to side rhetorically with Russia in its brutal fight in Chechnya, and sought assistance from such key state sponsors of terrorism as Iran and Sudan.
These and other steps may be needed to address a short-term emergency, but they may come at a hefty price in the long term.
The defeat of terrorism, like the defeat of Soviet communism, will not be achieved or celebrated in one grand moment. There will be no V-E or V-J day, no ticker-tape parade along Fifth Avenue. Our victory will, instead, be piecemeal. Every day we go without a terrorist attack will be our triumph.
But even that limited achievement requires waging our fight against terrorism with a clear memory of the last “war” that required much more than just battlefield bravery. Otherwise, any victory will be tarnished by the new problems we will reap.