Rationale of terrorism missing from equation

August 14, 1996|By Dimitri K. Simes

THERE IS something missing in the current American debate about the terrorist challenge.

All kinds of security precautions inside and outside the United States are being proposed, along with some ideas -- not yet accepted by most other nations -- about how to isolate states sponsoring terrorism. What is not mentioned, however, is whether it is possible to go to the root of the problem -- to address the issues that motivate individuals, groups and states to use this extreme weapon.

Instead of a serious discussion of this central question, we hear that the United States, as the only remaining superpower, is bound to do things that will anger others around the globe.

Some say that America's very presence -- the high visibility of its culture and business -- makes it a target.

Not true. Indeed, as an assertive world leader with a global economic and cultural presence, the United States is bound to create controversy. But attacks against such a powerful nation ''because it is there'' are very rare. Anyone who has the brains, organization and money to blow an airliner out of the sky can figure out that the United States is capable of massive retaliation against the perpetrators of the crime and their sponsors.

Group terrorism

While we can never discount the possibility of the crazy but effective fanatic, more often than not terrorism is the work of groups and has its own -- if perverse -- rationale. Yet this rationale is never mentioned in discussions of the challenge of terrorism, despite the fact that there is a clear causal connection between U.S. government action and terrorist retaliation.

For example, the United States became a major target of international terrorism in the Middle East after the ill-conceived 1982 military mission in Lebanon, which made this country a direct (if unwitting) participant in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Of course, it would be preposterous to argue that the U.S. government be held responsible for every incident of anti-American terror. When key national interests are at stake, the United States should do whatever is required to protect those interests, whether others like it or not.

The U.S. stake in Persian Gulf oil, for example, is certainly high enough to justify an American military role in the region, even if that presence may encourage terrorist attacks such as the recent bombing in Saudi Arabia. Containing Iraq's destabilizing ambitions is also sufficiently important that the United States should be prepared to accept any consequences.

The point is not to surrender pre-emptively to prospective terrorists and their masters. Rather, it is that the American government take into account the potential for terrorist retaliation when considering policy options. Everyone takes it for granted that we have to be careful in dealing with leading powers such as the Soviet Union of the past or China and Russia today, even if their actions are quite disagreeable.

But in dealing with smaller states we have become complacent by erroneously assuming that the people on the ground -- whether Lebanese Shiites, Somali tribesmen or Bosnian Serbs -- will play by American rules. We come to their lands with vastly superior firepower and impose our solutions with minimal casualties, while they are left to reconcile themselves to the notion that our United Nations umbrella and preponderant power give them no choice but to comply with our wishes.

This is not, however, the way the real world works. While there is no justification for attacks on innocent civilians, it is a fact that throughout history the weak have used every means at their disposal to combat the strong. And in today's world of instant TV images, rapid international air links and considerable expatriate populations from countries affected by American displays of force living in the United States, it is predictable -- indeed inevitable -- that somewhere, somehow, someone will decide to target innocent Americans to punish them for the perceived misdeeds of the U.S. government.

As a great nation, we should be prepared to take precautions when possible, to take the pain when necessary and to stay true to our interests and values. But, as a wise nation, we should be pragmatic enough to factor terrorism into our decisions and to avoid reckless moves that may endanger American lives for no good reason.

Now, for example, pressure is mounting on the Clinton administration to arrest Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and deliver them to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Some of those urging this course would never suggest the same treatment for the Russians responsible for atrocities in Chechnya, the Syrians sponsoring terrorism or, for that matter, North Korea's leaders, who are being financially supported by the Clinton administration despite their record of support for international terrorism. But in the Bosnian Serb case, people assume that we can just go and get their leaders with impunity.

This assumption is wrong. More than most European ethnic groups -- with the possible exception of the Irish Catholics and the Basques of Spain -- the Serbs have demonstrated a propensity for feeling victimized, taking satisfaction from standing tall against overwhelming odds and using indiscriminate violence to protect their interests and pride.

The case can still be made for going after Messrs. Karadzic and Mladic, but it should be made with open eyes and with full disclosure of the possible costs.

Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, wrote this article for Newsday.

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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