U.S. must reconfigure military now

September 16, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON - Tuesday's warfare, waged against civilians, may transform America's mind and hence its future because of this stark fact: The death toll could exceed all America's battle deaths from the Revolutionary War up to the Civil War (8,428). And those casualties came to a country inured to wars then under way.

Tuesday's war deaths, the first within America since 1865, should banish the recent sterility of political argument, the sheer littleness of budget-surplus fetish.

The worst domestic terrorism - Oklahoma City - catalyzed the revival of the Clinton presidency because it underscored the curdled rhetoric of some Republicans' general hostility to America's government.

Now history's worst episode of terrorism may strengthen the connection between President Bush and a country that has been suspending judgment about his presidential stature.

He can invest that stature in reforming military forces still configured for the Cold War, a configuration continued from the Second World War, anticipating mobilization of heavy firepower on battlefields known in advance of the battles.

Perhaps reconfiguration will now receive a more respectful hearing in Congress than the reflexive rallying of legislators around dubious weapons and bases - the defense budget as jobs program.

Forces for large conflicts are still needed; so are more nimble forces.

Since the inquisitorial Senate hearings of 1975-1976, the CIA has been a casualty of the Vietnam-era culture wars. And the leveling impulse now colors criticisms of the FBI, another elite institution in which honor is partial compensation for demanding duties. These are front-line forces in what Israel's former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, calls "a war to reverse the triumph of the West."

Surely Washington will see less of Yasser Arafat, the most frequent foreign visitor to Mr. Clinton's White House. Surely we will hear less talk about Israel's attempts to pre-empt terrorism being "inflammatory" and "provocative." Such signs of U.S. irresolution and squeamishness tempt terrorists to believe they can bend U.S. policy.

The Middle East is one coup (in Egypt or Jordan) away from a convulsion radically inimical to Israel. However, as Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday by telephone from Jerusalem, Islamic radicalism regards Israel as Nazi Germany regarded Belgium - as a small steppingstone toward a much larger conquest.

In 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, Egypt's President Nasser proclaimed: "We are confronting Israel and the West as well." Mr. Netanyahu says: "The soldiers of militant Islam and Pan-Arabism do not hate the West because of Israel; they hate Israel because of the West." They hate "Zionism as an expression and representation of Western civilization."

And they hate America because it is the purest expression of modernity - individualism, pluralism, freedom, secularism.

A grim illustration of the law of unintended consequences: Vast U.S. support helped create a large cadre of Islamic fighters to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The cadre is now worldwide. And although Americans are denouncing the terrorists' "cowardice," what is most telling and frightening is their lunatic fearlessness.

As an Islamic militant, Abdullah Azzam, declared to an American crowd in 1988: "After Afghanistan, nothing is impossible for us anymore. There are no superpowers. ... What matters is the willpower that springs from our religious belief."

Islamic groups in Italy and Denmark were linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Among the papers of El Sayyid Nosair, charged with but not convicted of killing Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York in 1990, was this: "We have to thoroughly demoralize the enemies of God ... by means of destroying and blowing up the towers that constitute the pillars of their civilization, such as ... the high buildings of which they are so proud."

In his 1995 book, Fighting Terrorism, Mr. Netanyahu forecast that Islamic fundamentalists would be the "delivery systems" of increasingly lethal terrorism.

Tuesday they delivered to Manhattan two 198-ton bombs - fully fueled aircraft. When they get nuclear weapons, Mr. Netanyahu says, they will use them. So U.S. policy must respond to a closing window of opportunity for pre-emption.

That, says Mr. Netanyahu, means not going after needles in haystacks, but against the haystacks - the states that sustain terrorists.

U.S. forces at Midway, he says, did not just destroy Japanese planes, they sank their carriers.

Certain supportive states are the terrorists' carriers. Hitler, notes Mr. Netanyahu, developed V-2 rockets but not atomic devices. Stupendous American determination produced the Manhattan Project. Now more prodigies of determination are required.

As Oklahoma City was a pinprick compared to Tuesday's carnage, the New York and Washington attacks were a minor overture to the cymbal-crash crescendo of violence our enemies are building toward.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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