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A New Kind of War Requires a Different Strategy

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Ivo H. Daalder
September 21, 2001
Newsday

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Last night, President George Bush told a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the American people that the United States would win the war against terrorism. But what would that victory look like?

The answer to that question is central to sustaining political support for the difficult road the United States is now traveling. Despite the frequent comparisons of last week's attack to Pearl Harbor, a fundamental difference separates the two. Then both our adversaries and our objectives were clear. The United States would use its military might to bring Japan and Germany to their knees.

Today our adversary has no territory to defend. Osama bin Laden may reside in Afghanistan for now but he could easily move. We could invade Afghanistan as the president appeared to threaten, but that would hardly mark victory in any meaningful sense. Even if we captured or killed bin Laden, the terrorist network he has assembled has cells in more than sixty countries. They could easily regroup and launch a new wave of attacks.

By the same token, despite all the talk of bringing the perpetrators to justice, the United States faces more than a law enforcement problem. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were more than the acts of single individuals. They were abetted, at least indirectly and perhaps even directly, by countries that sponsor and support international terrorism. As President Bush said, theirs was an act of war.

A broad military response is clearly called for as a first step. The immediate goal must be to punish those who turned passenger planes into conventional weapons of mass destruction. And President Bush put governments like the Taliban on notice that they will pay a hefty price for harboring and sponsoring terrorists. Military preparations will have to be extensive, and any operation will be costly. But last week's atrocity demands nothing less.

Yet, even if we destroy bin Laden and his network and eliminate the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, we will not achieve victory. International terrorism is a far larger scourge than one man, his associates, or a single odious regime. And so our response must be both broader and more enduring than even a massive military operation of the kind President Bush promised to conduct.

Such a long-term strategy must have three components.

First, we must reduce our vulnerability to attack. While there is no magic bullet that can make us invulnerable, we can do much more to protect ourselves. We need better intelligence about potential threats. We need to enhance the security of our transportation networks—making airlines safer, our borders less penetrable, and our responses to attack more rapid and effective in mitigating the consequences. Our military must make defense of the homeland their top priority.

Second, we need to disrupt, destroy, and foil terrorist networks where we can. That requires working more closely with other countries to make the fight against terrorism a top priority. Together with our friends and allies we need to develop better mechanisms for sharing what we know about the terrorist threat, establish better controls over illicit money flows, isolate and pressure states that sponsor and support terrorists, and prepare to strike militarily if targets for action present themselves.

Third, we must address the sources that feed international terrorism. While we must hold fast to our convictions, not least our continued support for Israel, we must intensify our efforts to resolve conflicts around the world, and especially in the Middle East. Such conflicts did not cause last week's attack, but they contribute to the anger that terrorists manipulate to their own, despicable ends. We must also intensify support for democracy and promote economic development. In the long term, prosperous, democratic countries are our best allies against terrorism.

This strategy will not be easy to carry out. The temptation will be to think that our immense military power alone can win the war on terrorism. It won't. Nor will the fight be easy. The terrorist threat did not emerge overnight, nor can it be defeated quickly. Patience and persistence will be the watchwords of the day.

So what, then, is victory? There will be no V-E or V-J day— a ticker-tape parade along Fifth Avenue to celebrate the end of the war. Terrorism is not an entity. It is a means by which the weak and cowardly seek to lash back at all that we hold dear.

Victory will be piecemeal— a process rather than a destination. Every day without a terrorist attack is one more step to victory. In a sense, terrorism is the foreign policy equivalent of a chronic disease. Only if we understand that this is the fundamental challenge, will we be able to defeat it.