It was not about us; it was about them. that is the first
thing to understand about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the
Many motives may have figured in the minds of those who directed this
atrocity. Perhaps they hate us, as some pundits say, because we are rich, or
because of our liberal and secular culture, or because of our support for
Israel--but none of these reasons is fundamental. The basic objective of the
terrorists is to destroy the Middle Eastern governments that are friendly to the
West and replace them with radical Islamic regimes. Osama bin Laden has said that
the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia,
defiles Islam and is justification for jihad. Though cloaked in the language of
religion, this comes close to the heart of the matter. Bin Laden and company want
to see their version of Islam dominate the Arab world, if not the entire Islamic
world. As President Bush said to the joint session of Congress, we happen to be
in the way.
Certainly the grievances of the Palestinians are a rallying point exploited by
extremists and terrorists of many stripes. But it is nonsense to assert, as King
Abdullah II of Jordan has, that the tragedy in this country would not have
happened if only Israel and Palestine had reached a peace agreement last year.
Moves toward peace have always provoked more terrorism, not less. Moreover, the
operation that culminated on September 11 was under way for years.
The radical Islamic movement is born of the failure of much of the Muslim Arab
world to modernize. Arab socialism as a path to modernity reached a dead end in
the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, and Arab nationalism proved equally barren. The
corrupt elites that control the government and the economy of many countries have
squandered oil riches and left the Arab masses in grinding poverty. Nowhere in
the Arab world are there real democracies.
For some Muslims--often middle-class or privileged ones--the failure of their
societies is unbearable. And rather than blame themselves, they look to external
causes and seek solace in religion. The response of a few is to try to return to
a 10th century of their imagination in search of a fundamentalist, militant, even
apocalyptic Islam that has never existed. It matters not that acts of terror and
suicide are antithetical to Islamic tenets.
The strategy of those who perpetrated this attack on America is to provoke a
U.S. response that they can represent as a holy war against Islam, thus gaining
additional recruits and undermining the legitimacy of moderate Arab states that
cooperate with us. No one questions that retaliation is essential; the
perpetrators and their supporters cannot be allowed to get off scot-free. But the
retaliation must be measured and discreet, or we may drive more people into the
arms of the extremists and also lose the enormous sympathy and support the
tragedy has generated for us around the world. The Bush administration seems
fully aware of this trap but finds it difficult to avoid.
While the president has sensibly counseled patience, his rhetoric has raised
expectations to unrealistic levels: "The enemy is terrorism itself." Our aim is
to "root out terrorism everywhere." This is an impossible objective. Are we going
to go after the ira and its agents in the United States? How about Basque
separatists? We have no dog in that fight. Or the Tamil Tigers? Sikhs of Kashmir?
Chechens? The Kurds in Turkey or--closer to home--the Zapatistas? No, we are not.
By the time he spoke to Congress, the president had qualified his language. We are
now targeting "terrorists of global reach."
Even so, we will have to be painfully discriminating. Radical and terrorist
organizations in the Middle East often help one another, even across ideological
lines. Besides al-Qaeda, are we going to take on Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas,
the Muslim Brotherhood, and the various Algerian terrorist groups? Some of them,
such as Hamas, are directly engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Are we
going to become combatants in that conflict? Not a good idea if our strategic
goal is to defend moderate Arab states against a radical Islamic takeover.
Aside from protecting our people, every action we take must be measured
against the goal of thwarting the control and domination of the Middle East by
Islamic radicals--and enhancing the survival of states that are willing to
cooperate with the West. Retaliation, capturing terrorist leaders, destroying
safe havens--all of this must support and be subordinate to that overarching
Will we prevail? the answer to that is all about us and not about
them. Despite the outpouring of patriotism, many commentators have questioned
whether Americans have the attention span to pursue the long, horizonless war we
have declared. But the problem goes far beyond our collective attention-deficit
disorder. We are ill prepared, psychologically and perhaps even militarily, for
the kind of war that must be waged.
The September 11 attacks have frequently been compared to Pearl
Harbor. As a wake-up call, certainly. For the struggle ahead, however, Vietnam
provides a much closer analogy as well as an object lesson.
First, there is the danger of "Americanizing" the conflict with Islamic
radicals. When the United States moved into Vietnam in force, it turned a
struggle among the Vietnamese into one with America. Apart from Israel, the
battle against Islamic radicals has largely been waged within such countries as
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Syria. In order to thwart bin Laden's efforts
to turn these inter-Arab struggles into a war between America and Islam, we must
depend on our friends in the Middle East to bear the principal burden in this
The United States can supplement its intelligence capabilities, provide
material support and training, and perhaps even conduct special military
operations on a selective basis. But we must take care not to undermine the
political legitimacy of the moderate Arab governments, or they could fall from
within as we defend them from without.
Second, there is the problem of finding the enemy. The Vietcong hid in the
jungle, in tunnels, in sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and among the people.
Despite massive defoliation, saturation bombing, incursions into Cambodia and
Laos, and prodigious intelligence efforts, we seldom found them. Similarly,
Islamic terrorists hide in the mountains, operate from sanctuary states, and move
invisibly among the Arab people. Identifying them will require better
intelligence, but the information will infrequently rise to the standard of
certainty. Rooting them out, therefore, will inevitably involve killing the
innocent and those only peripherally involved. Does America have the stomach for
what in Latin America is called a "dirty war"?
Third, there is the question of sanctuaries. In the Vietnam War, we bombed but
never invaded North Vietnam, the principal sanctuary. Will we need to invade
Afghanistan in order to depose the Taliban and chase the terrorists from their
havens? As the Russians amply demonstrated, this would be a massive undertaking.
And what of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran, all of which harbor and support
terrorists? If they do not respond positively to the lesson being readied for
Afghanistan, can we--will we--invade them all? Neither the U.S. military nor the
American people are ready for war on such a scale.
We might try to bomb the sanctuary countries into acquiescence. It worked in
Yugoslavia but, unfortunately, not in Vietnam or anyplace else. Iraq is just the
most recent example of how a bombing campaign alone will probably only strengthen
the control of the targeted regime. And the likely civilian destruction will
radicalize more people throughout the region.
The fourth lesson of Vietnam concerns the corrosive effect on popular support
of what is now called "asymmetric warfare." The small victories that
characterized the conflict in Vietnam were hard to measure and uninspiring. Our
government had to resort to the infamous "body count" to show any semblance of
military success. The defeats were seen on TV in America's living rooms and were
The battle with terrorist organizations will be even more frustrating.
Capturing or killing Osama bin Laden would be satisfying but would not
necessarily stop acts of terror against us. U.S. victories against terrorist
cells will be small affairs and often kept secret to preserve intelligence assets
and protect our Middle East allies from adverse public reaction. So other than
our initial retaliation, there may be little to put on television to show that we
On the other hand, our defeats--and we must expect defeats despite all our
efforts--may again involve massive loss of American lives and be displayed on
television for everyone to see. This "asymmetric" impact will test Americans'
resolve as never before.
Finally, against this backdrop of operational difficulty and potential public
frustration, we need to consider whether the American people will support this
fight over the long haul. Vietnam offers no guidance in this respect since we were
never attacked at home. Indeed, it is sobering to realize that the fatalities
inflicted on Americans in one day, September 11, amount to more than 10 percent
of American deaths in a decade of combat in Vietnam.
Naturally, we want to fight back because we have been attacked. But once the
initial round of retaliation is completed, will the public remain steadfast? In
the Gulf War, we fought for the principle that aggression shall not stand; but we
were also fighting over oil, and that became controversial. A quick and almost
painless victory silenced such criticism. Now we will be fighting for the
principle that terrorism will not be tolerated--and to preempt a future and worse
conflict between the West and a radical Islamic Middle East. But oil is not
irrelevant to our interests in the region. In a long, drawn-out campaign against
terrorism, this could become a source of doubt in the eyes of many Americans.
Perhaps this is why the president has reached back to the rhetoric of the Cold
War and said that we are fighting for freedom. This also is an eerie echo of
Vietnam. And freedom is hardly what friendly Arab governments seek under the
This war is fully justified by our strategic interests. Despite daunting
obstacles, it is by no means doomed to failure; America has enormous resources
and worldwide support. We must conduct the war, however, in a way that ensures
that this support--above all, on the home front--remains strong. The
administration needs to start by being candid; this, too, is a lesson of Vietnam.
We may be able to disrupt the terrorists' operations, keep them on the run,
neutralize their key leaders, undermine the governments that provide
sanctuary--in short, we should be able to control and minimize the level of
Islamic terrorism--but it seems unlikely that it can be eliminated entirely.
Can we sustain our commitment in such a struggle? Can the generation scarred
by Vietnam accept the casualties and moral compromises that the battle against
terror inevitably entails? Can the subsequent generations of Americans who have
little or no knowledge of the Vietnam War learn its hard lessons? If so, we can
It's all about us.