Bush acts with calm, restraint

September 26, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's decision to refrain from a swift resort to military power may not satisfy the desire of many Americans eager to avenge the New York and Washington terrorist attacks. But it reflects an awareness of the complexity of the challenge posed by an elusive enemy hiding amid millions of innocent people.

President Bush, despite his blunt warning that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan must "hand over the terrorists or they will share their fate," and that the United States will direct "every necessary weapon of war to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network," has not so far struck out impatiently or indiscriminately.

His tough language appears rather to have provided a sort of immediate safety valve for the public's pent-up outrage at the attacks, reflecting the national mood while a cooler, more rationale response is promulgated. The president is proceeding, at least at the start, with an understanding that wanton overkill or empty bouncing of existing rubble will only undermine global support and the integrity of his effort to root out the perpetrators and their terrorist apparatus.

While the president did note in his speech to the nation Thursday that "this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with the decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion," it probably wasn't contemplated by most Americans that he would hold his fire for so long.

But the observations of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, delivered as always in his cool and temperate manner, indicated how cognizant the administration is of the imperative of a controlled and carefully conceived strategy that will not play into the enemy's hands.

Mr. Powell made a point of saying that the American response had already begun, in the diplomatic and intelligence realms if not yet with bullets or missiles. "Let's not just focus on Osama bin Laden," Mr. Powell said. "It would be nice to see him brought to justice, but that won't end it. It's the whole network that has to be ripped up and brought to justice.

"That's why it isn't strictly a military operation. It is an operation that covers financial activity, information activity, protection of borders, shutting down the ability of people to move easily from country to country. That's why we are calling it a full-scale campaign using all the elements of national and international power."

Later, Mr. Powell observed that "we shouldn't see this ... as if there is a large enemy out there that we plan to attack in conventional ways." If Mr. Bush so decides, he said, "our military will have plans that will go against their weaknesses and not get trapped in ways that previous armies have gotten trapped in Afghanistan."

As for warnings against indiscriminate use of military power victimizing the innocent, Mr. Powell said: "One has to be careful that in your reaction, you don't give the enemy exactly what the enemy would like to have -- a new cause celebre."

Although the terrorist attacks have aroused Americans to a desire for retribution against the perpetrators, there has been no outcry yet that the Bush administration is taking too long to strike back. In a post-attack poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, 525 New Yorkers were given a list of comments and asked, "If you could say one thing, as a New Yorker, to the rest of the country, what would you say?"

A plurality -- 23 percent -- chose "We are proud of New York City and will survive and prevail." Another 17 percent chose "We are proud of the United States and are united with all Americans." Lowest on the list of nine responses was "Find, punish and retaliate against the terrorists." Only 3 percent subscribed to that answer.

After some initial Wild West cowboy rhetoric from our president from Texas, the administration appears to recognize that the terrorist attacks were so monstrous that no further cheerleading is needed to rally the nation to its support. Indeed, excessive chest-thumping and flag-waving risk escalating the public demand for immediate revenge.

As Mr. Bush, Mr. Powell and Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York all have urged, the most sensible and responsible course is for the public and the country to strive for a return to normal as much as is possible under the circumstances -- and be resigned to a long and diligent campaign to achieve the justice sought and warranted.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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