Restraint Necessary To Avoid Declaration Of World War III

21 September 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of President Bush's address to the nation on September 11 was his declaration that his administration would see "no difference" between the terrorists behind that day's attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. and the nations that harbored them. I do not mean to say that the accomplices of terror should be let off the hook. However, Bush's statement points down the road to a far more damaging conflict that could easily emerge from our response to the attack.

Within a day of the attack, there was a consensus in our government, media and public discourse that crashing planes into major American buildings is an act of war, and that the response would be a military one. But the term "war" can be misleading. Conventional warfare, while appealing in its comparative straightforwardness, is of secondary importance.

It is convenient to assume for the sake of discussion that the mastermind of last Tuesday's attacks was Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, who is being sheltered by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers. Although, as of this writing, no formal accusations have been leveled, Secretary of State Colin Powell has made it clear that "all roads lead to" bin Laden. The Taliban's grossly perverted version of Islam has made it a pariah among the world's nations, and would make it easier to justify an invasion of Afghanistan.

The justification for action against regimes that harbor terrorism is, in addition to satisfying the desire for vengeance, to discourage such action in the future. But we need only think back to 1995 to see that simply convincing governments not to aid terrorism is not enough. That was the year that, after a rash of accusations of Middle Eastern connections, the perpetrator of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was found to be American Timothy McVeigh. With hatred for, rather than help from, the American government, McVeigh and his associates were able to carry out an attack that left hundreds dead and shocked the nation. The danger of such independent terrorism is especially great in the kind of free and prosperous society we would like to see established in the nations terrorists now operate from. Terrorists need no government support to wreak havoc.

Clearly, getting at bin Laden's al Qaeda organization itself must be the focus of our response. But doing that will require actions much different than traditional warfare. Al Qaeda is spread out across the world, with cells operating even within the United States. The hijacker pilots who took over the four flights that went down last Tuesday were trained not in bin Laden's camps in the mountains of Afghanistan, but here in Florida. Bin Laden's power is not based on the control of a territory and its population, unlike the nation-states that have been our adversaries in nearly every other war the United States has fought.

We cannot simply raze bin Laden's operation with our bombers and tanks the way we could invade Kabul to destroy the Taliban. An effective anti-terror operation would require careful planning and calculation to make sure we got to the heart of the organization. It has to be a response that bin Laden can't see, lest he go into hiding elsewhere.

In the meantime, the temptation to continue conventional warfare will be great. But the consequences of a response that does not remain specifically focused on rooting out bin Laden and al Qaeda will run the risk of escalating the conflict.

It is no secret that the United States has many detractors abroad. Right or wrong, the rest of the world sees America as pursuing an uncooperative, isolationist policy. We have rejected international agreements on land mines, biological weapons, arms proliferation and global warming. Bush scaled back U.S. involvement in the peace processes in Israel and Northern Ireland. Furthermore, growing American cultural hegemony is seen as a threat by non-Western countries.

The attacks on September 11 brought out a nearly unanimous expression of support from around the world. Even the uncooperative Taliban and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has long been associated with terrorism, saw that it was in their best interest to officially denounce the acts committed against the United States. We must remember that the overwhelming support for action that the United States now enjoys is a result of a very specific incident. Allowing the scope of our action to broaden could easily recreate the type of escalation that turned the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand into World War I.

The danger is that American action will be seen as not just antiterrorist, but anti-Islamic or anti-Arab. Bush's unequivocal condemnation of the despicable acts of hate directed against American Muslims and Arabs (as well as people, such as Sikhs, who look to the ignorant eye like Arabs or Muslims) is, in addition to the obvious goal, targeted at reminding the world that intelligent Americans can tell the difference between terrorists, Arabs and Muslims. But if American military action against Afghanistan (and any other nation that may be implicated as a bin Laden accomplice) is too strong, that fact may fade in the minds of foreign leaders and we could find our support among Arab and Muslim countries (which will be key to the logistics of attacking Afghan territory) fading fast.

Once the conflict leaves the arena where the focus is on the United States versus terrorism, the door is opened for other nations to switch sides. Russia has strong ties with the Arab world and none too strong a liking for American foreign policy. China recently signed a deal to provide the Taliban with development assistance in return for help in combating terrorism in the Chinese province of Xingjiang. A war against the Taliban may place Russia and China on the opposite side to a war against terrorism.

As long as the American response to the tragedies of September 11 remains clearly focused on digging out and bringing to justice bin Laden's organization, while discouraging nations from supporting terrorism as a secondary goal, the United States can count on at least the moral support of nearly the entire world. But we must be careful in our response not to give anyone an excuse to see the conflict as being about anything more than people versus terrorists. In a conflict of American culture versus Islam, or West versus East, we will find we have far fewer allies.

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