When the unforeseen occurs, there are no easy answers

Staying Ahead

September 23, 2001|By JANE BRYANT QUINN | JANE BRYANT QUINN,Washington Post Writers Group

SO OFTEN, I've written to you about the unforeseen. By definition, we never know what that's going to be.

But when you lay plans for the future, you need an asterisk somewhere for the sudden, unexpected turns of life - and death.

Death in the Pentagon or World Trade Center by the hand of a suicide pilot is the most appalling example I've heard of the unforeseen.

But more obvious things (obvious in hindsight) lie unattended, right under our noses.

The bursting of the stock-market bubble was unforeseen. Even though everyone "knew" it eventually had to happen, people left their money in the market and got caught.

Today, we "know" that America will strike against those responsible for the terrorist attacks. We're starting with Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi Muslim extremist who wants the United States out of the Middle East.

We'll strike back because we must. Washington's problem is how to ride out America's demand for revenge while forming an assault plan that won't make a horrible situation worse.

What Americans failed to foresee was that the great Middle Eastern war - the war that has festered for decades between and among Muslims, Christians and Jews, Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shiites, Palestinians and Israelis (with U.S. support) - would eventually be fought on U.S. soil, too.

Turning bin Laden into a casualty of war would be entirely satisfactory. But it's not just the man who is our enemy, it's the money that supports him, and not just his own.

Vast sums are available for a war of fear against the United States today. Obvious donors include our open enemies, such as Iraq, Libya and Sudan.

But the work is also financed by semi-friends such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who buy their own peace by funding Muslim radicals on the side.

Bin Laden also gets money - indirectly - from us.

This is oil money, after all. The United States imports 60 percent of what it consumes, according to the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. The Persian Gulf countries supply 23 percent.

So whom are we going to bomb once we've fired at the Taliban? Where do Iraq and Yemen fit in (remember the bombing of the USS Cole)? Can we extract co-conspirators from Egypt or Saudi Arabia without endangering those moderate governments? If Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gives the U.S. military help, will he be assassinated by radicals there? Above all, how do we interdict the money the terrorists command?

I have no answers to these questions. And I know they're just kindergarten queries compared with the interests and risks the government has to weigh.

But if we're building toward physical or economic war with extremists in the Middle East, don't be seduced by memories of the quick victory in Kuwait.

This isn't a one-country job. It's a process of bullying, dealing, threatening, shooting and still not being sure that some fanatic won't release an unspeakable weapon on the Washington Mall.

Oil producers have pledged to make enough fuel available to hold world prices steady. But there are no guarantees. Depending on how U.S. retaliation goes, oil prices could soar and fragile national economies slump.

What a difference a year makes.

We all try to prepare, in some way, for the unforeseen. That's why we buy life insurance, sign pre-nuptial agreements and keep savings accounts.

If money were the only issue, experience says to relax. The worst, economically, would be a slightly longer business slowdown than was previously expected.

The liquidity being poured into the markets by the world's central banks should eventually raise stock prices, even if the stock market drops off for a few days or weeks.

But war in the epicenter of the oil world sends my risk meter soaring. I'll buy some stock-index mutual funds. But it's a good time for owning bonds and cash, and staying out of debt.

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