What We've Done Wrong

Credit administration officials with this: They took to the airwaves in record time to calm the American public. Only the administration officials weren't from the Bush administration. Sandy Berger, William Cohen, Richard Holbrooke, Bill Richardson--the networks paraded the entire Clinton national security team in front of the cameras for wisdom on America's day of grief. And, if the Bush team has any sense, it will do exactly the reverse of what they recommend. That's because the Clinton administration offers a template precisely for how not to respond to terror. For that reason alone, the Bush team should cast a glance backward before proceeding any further.

The Clinton administration's response, and nonresponse, to a succession of strikes against U.S. targets in the 1990s created a profoundly defective paradigm for combating terror. That paradigm rests on three basic principles. The first is that terrorists are less combatants fighting for a political cause than everyday criminals. In Clinton's telling, they represent the dark underside of globalization, the rats that got aboard the USS Interdependence before it could embark for eternal peace and prosperity. The trappings of globalization, President Clinton instructed, "make us more vulnerable to a host of threats--terrorists, drug cartels, international criminals--that have no respect for borders." Out of this conviction that terrorists should be lumped in with "transnational" threats like aids and global crime, and out of the belief that globalization amounts to "a great tide, inexorably wearing away the established order," grew another conviction: that, hitherto intractable dilemmas of politics having been largely resolved, these terrorists could only be "madmen," nihilists acting on behalf of no serious political cause and without the sponsorship of any country.


Hence, the personalization of counterterrorism policy, and a shift away from the Reagan-era practice of holding states accountable for the deeds of their agents. This is the second principle of the Clinton administration's anti-terrorism policy. Under its terms, the White House treated terror as a law enforcement problem rather than a political challenge--shifting the burden of response from the Pentagon to the Justice Department and referring to terrorists as if they were juvenile delinquents. "We are not a nation that retaliates just in order to get vengeance," Madeleine Albright insisted after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, "]nor do we] forget our own legal system while searching for those who harmed us." Her predecessors may have responded to terror with the long reach of American military power, but Albright deemed it a matter for the "long reach of our nation's law enforcement."

Alas, law enforcement's reach isn't always so long. While FBI agents and other government investigators operate freely in the United States, they can't do the same abroad. In fact, foreign law enforcement agencies routinely deny their U.S. counterparts access to terrorist suspects. Resistance in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for example, has brought American efforts there to a standstill. As a result, most of the culprits who in 1996 destroyed Khobar Towers, the Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, still remain at large, as do all of those who crippled the USS Cole in Yemen last year. Terrorist suspects sometimes even benefit from the support of the very countries on whose assistance U.S. investigators depend. As Steven Pomerantz, a former FBI chief of counterterrorism, has put it, "When pursued, the terrorists frequently take shelter (in these states), and it's nearly impossible to get them out"--the most obvious example being the haven Libya provided for years to the Pan Am Flight 103 bombers. And, even when America does bring terrorists to justice, it's hardly clear that judicial punishment fits the crime. After all, if you're the type who plans to blow up the World Trade Center, you're probably not deterred by the wrath of the New York district attorney.

Which brings us to the key fallacy of the Clinton policy: that international terrorism is a criminal justice issue at all. It's not. It's an act of war. What the United States ran up against this week wasn't a group of criminals but a creed--an animus toward the United States based on specific political grievances, most of them having to do with America's support of Israel and our military presence in the region. Moreover, launching an international terrorist operation on the scale of the Khobar Towers attack or the World Trade Center horror is, according to terrorism experts, nearly impossible without the connivance or aid, if not the explicit instruction, of a state. "It's implausible that an organization could conduct a sophisticated operation--replete with phony passports, sophisticated explosives, and flying lessons--without at least tacit state support," explains military strategist Andrew Bacevich. Afghanistan's Taliban regime may not have ordered the killings at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. But the Taliban provide a haven and shelter to the likely culprit, Osama bin Laden, and refuse all requests to expel him. Those facts alone make Afghanistan culpable.

A serious counterterrorism policy would have raised the cost of harboring bin Laden beyond what Afghanistan could bear. The Clinton team had no such policy. True, it directed a fusillade of cruise missiles at a bin Laden camp after the attack on our embassies in Africa. But the whole business of such attacks--which offer action in lieu of strategy, and tactical scoring in place of any intent to destroy--reflects the fiction that America's struggle with terror is distinct from war. Hence, the third Clinton principle, which inclines the United States to expend its military power in increments. The idea is to hit things without jeopardizing people, to skirt moral ambiguities, to design strikes, as Clinton put it after the missile strike against Iraq in 1996, "to have very limited damage to human beings." Although advertised as proof of heightened moral awareness, these pinprick attacks have merely allowed terrorists to conclude that they enjoy more room to maneuver than American rhetoric would suggest--as, indeed, bin Laden clearly does.

What would a response that avoids these pitfalls look like? The United States need not strike out blindly or precipitously. Sometimes revenge is a dish better served cold. But the organization that lies behind this week's destruction should, in all but its initials, cease to exist. The Joint Chiefs of Staff will undoubtedly rule out the deployment of ground troops or even Special Operations forces. According to senior officers at the Pentagon, they won't be so quick to rule out a sustained air campaign. That, of course, would mean putting pilots in harm's way, for such a campaign would require more strikes than there are cruise missiles in the U.S. arsenal. Another plinking, after all, would only dramatize America's weakness.

Fortunately, President Bush seems to recognize the inadequacy of his predecessor's response to terror. Following the attack, Bush said, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them." He continued, declaring his resolve to avenge this "act of war." If bin Laden masterminded this week's evil, that war ought to be taken to bin Laden's hosts. One of them, a Taliban official, told Americans this week that the organization "feels your pain." Let's make extra sure.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.