Terrorists' attack tactically unsound

September 24, 2001|By Christopher Bassford

STANDING IN the Navy hallway of the National War College the other day, considering the large painting of American battleships sinking at Pearl Harbor, I wondered whether other nations' military institutions so prominently display images of their national humiliations.

From the college's peculiar perspective, however, this wasn't a painting of an American tactical disaster. Rather, it depicted a fantastic national-strategic blunder by imperial Japan, leading to its destruction and the emergence of the American superpower.

The brilliantly executed terrorist attacks on New York and Washington may fall into the same category of strategic idiocy -- a possibility clearly recognized by leaders of regimes that sponsor or tolerate terrorism, such as the Palestinian Authority and Afghanistan's Taliban. They fell all over themselves hypocritically condemning the attack while their supporters danced in the streets. Whether that possibility is realized depends, however, on our own response.

American blood has been shed on American soil, and this is an American war.

Despite their present calls for a "war on terrorism," many of America's leaders persist in the delusions that terrorism is faceless and stateless. They contend that the peoples living under terror-sponsoring regimes are innocent victims of their hate-mongering overlords (and thus cannot be allowed to suffer from our counterattacks), and that the "war" will be a matter of bringing specific criminals to justice -- if only we can identify them and build the appropriate legal case.

Let's hope the persistence of these delusions will prove to be merely a matter of cultural lag. States that provide terrorism with harbor, financial backing or money-laundering services, or rhetorical and propaganda support are enemy states committing acts of war. Until the latest attacks, the state sponsors of international terror had been wise enough not to startle Americans out of our daydream of peace. Their leaders are no doubt quietly cursing the zealots who finally overstepped the bounds of prudence.

The United States, possessor of overwhelming power, is now fully engaged, with a justification for war no state on Earth can legitimately dispute. Our enemy is terrorism in general, not just Osama bin Laden's minions.

But the war against terrorism will require not only police work, "homeland defense" and a war-crimes tribunal in the Hague for enemy political and military leaders. It will also require conventional campaigns (and, at some stage, messy counter-guerrilla strikes) against states and peoples who harbor criminal leaders and ideologies.

The fear that resolute action might result in American casualties is now pretty much a moot point: Clearly, it is better to die fighting on the battlefield than helplessly strapped in your airline seat next to your children or standing by the office water cooler.

All this may well require American armies on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul. That means forcing the Islamic world to drop its moral ambivalence and hypocrisy. We have the right to demand that those who speak in the name of religion take sides, either for decency or for barbarism, and to kill those who opt for the latter.

Despicable as our present enemies are, they thrive not only on lies but on genuine injustices. Although Israel is our ally and a true democracy, one of our primary war aims must be the establishment of a legitimate Palestinian state, with genuine borders, a practical interest in peace, and the will and ability to police its own population.

If all this sounds like the awkward logic of empire, so be it. An empire of the democracies is nothing to be ashamed of.

Christopher Bassford is a former U.S. Army officer and currently professor of strategy at the National War College. This article first appeared in Newsday.

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