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No Choice

Foreign policy after September 11

What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common? All acknowledge a truth that most Americans would rather not: that what took place last week was, as Sontag put it, “[not an] attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” That those actions should be a source of pride and not a cause for selfflagellation is beside the point. Terrorist grievances aren’t with America. They’re with America’s global power. And if the United States intends to snuff out terrorism, Americans will need to acknowledge the full extent of that power as well. Not, as Sontag presumably wishes, in order to dismantle it. But in order to wield it effectively in the coming struggle.

If it’s true, as so many commentators insist, that last week’s horror awakened America, it’s equally true that we had a deep slumber from which to awaken. While Republicans turned inward during the 1990s, President Clinton assured the country that complex questions of politics and history had been resolved. “At the dawn of a new millennium, we can envision a new era that escapes the twentieth century’s darkest moments, fulfills its most brilliant possibilities...” he burbled in 1997. “The forces of global integration are a great tide, inexorably wearing away the established order of things.” The conviction that these “forces”--or, put less grandly, “open markets”--could accomplish the traditional aims of U.S. foreign policy obscured the fact that something far more tangible was sustaining world order: American power. Over the past decade, the United States tallied up a record of frenetic military activism, led the world in economic productivity, and exported its popular culture to the farthest-flung precincts of the globe. Indeed, the conceit of the whole project was that it amounted to something other than global preeminence.

All the while this country’s leaders asked nothing of its citizens: no casualties, no budget deficits, not even an adequate level of military expenditure. Central to hegemony on the cheap was the conviction that grand undertakings beyond our shores, much less a major war, were unnecessary, pointless, and even counterproductive. And even if they weren’t, America lacked the resources to carry them out. As Clinton’s undersecretary of state for policy, Peter Tarnoff, put it in 1993, “we simply don’t have the leverage, we don’t have the influence, we don’t have the inclination to use military force, we certainly don’t have the money.”

Such assessments, coupled with deceit about the costs and purposes of American primacy, continue to this day. Hence, the discovery last week that America must still contend with cruel and resourceful foes has generated a certain fatalism, particularly among elites. Dubious that America’s dominion can be sustained under assault, leading opinion makers have presented Americans with a list of phony choices. The United States, they claim, can’t defend against missiles and terrorists. It can’t fight terrorists conventionally and unconventionally. It can’t wage a war against terrorism and uphold its competing obligations abroad. But the United States can do all of these things. Indeed, it has no choice.

The first phony distinction is between what Washington Post columnist David Broder dismisses as “a theoretical ‘rogue nation’ missile threat,” on the one hand, and America’s very real vulnerability to terror, on the other. Senator Dianne Feinstein points out that “these planes were missiles a defense shield could not defend against,” while her Democratic colleague, Patrick Leahy, declares that the assault proves “our threat is not a threat of somebody launching nuclear missiles at us.” But the insistence that America’s vulnerability to terrorists renders it invulnerable to missiles points either to a failure of logic or an ignorance about the world we inhabit. In the past few years, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and China have all test-launched ballistic missiles; and Syria, Iraq, and Libya have apparently acquired the components to do so. They’re doing so for a reason--one that critics who cast missile defense as a Maginot Line refuse to grasp. As Muammar Qaddafi explained after the United States bombed Libya in 1986, “If Americans know that you have a deterrent force capable of hitting the United States, they would not be able to hit you. Consequently, we should build this missile force so that they and others will no longer think about an attack.” He’s right. An adversary armed with long-range missiles, points out Robert Joseph, President Bush’s counterproliferation specialist at the National Security Council, can “hold American and allied cities hostage and thereby deter us from intervention.”

What does that deterrent have to do with the newly declared war against terror? A lot. Because many of the same states that pose the greatest missile threat--Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria--also happen to be the leading sponsors of terror. Were they to acquire long-range missiles, the risk of confronting them directly--say, over their support for terrorism--would instantly become too steep to bear. Hence, as a recent RAND report puts it, “Ballistic missile defense is not simply a shield but an enabler of US action.” Oddly enough, foreign critics like China’s ambassador to the UN conference on disarmament, who complains that missile defense would grant the United States “absolute freedom in using or threatening to use force in international relations,” understand its purpose far better than the American punditocracy.

Of course, many of its members don’t seem terribly bothered by the idea that America might be deterred from attacking terrorist havens; they believe our anti-terror campaign can be waged right here at home. Lawrence Korb, the director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the billions of dollars the United States has expended on “sophisticated ships, planes, and tanks” would have been better spent on “more border police and customs agents, building more Coast Guard ships.” Alas, in a free society such as our own, erecting an airtight defense against the sort of attack that brought down the twin towers simply isn’t possible. Vigilant law enforcement, tighter immigration controls, heightened airport security--these measures may diminish America’s vulnerabilities, but they can hardly eliminate the threat. To do that, America must go into the world.

“The best defense,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference last week, “is an effective offense.” He’s right. But what sort of offense? According to a chorus of leading opinion makers, here the United States faces a second stark choice: Either it can respond to terror with its conventional war-fighting capabilities, which won’t work, or with unconventional means, which it doesn’t do very well. Plotting strategy from the cheese line at Zabar’s, the editorial writers at The New York Times have let it be known that they find the “war talk we have heard from Washington ... disconcerting,” as the Bush team hasn’t the slightest clue “what sort of war this will be and how the United States can ensure that it prevails.” Equally disconcerted, Stanford historian David Kennedy finds America “rendered the victim of an elusive foe impervious to the military might we have spent decades building” and against which “our conventional arsenal is all but useless.” In this telling, our enemy is formless, invisible, ineffable. Or, as everyone from the retired generals who clog the cable news programs to the hosts on MTV have been explaining, the threat is “asymmetrical.”

But the word obscures more than it clarifies. Our opinion makers seem to have forgotten that the asymmetry between terrorists and the United States is an asymmetry of power--and the power belongs to the United States. Moreover, that power may be wielded in innumerable ways at once. There is, after all, a geography of terror. Because it would play to the Pentagon’s strengths, U.S. military planners naturally find the prospect of a conventional war more appealing than the unconventional alternative. And, indeed, our conventional arsenal has its uses. If U.S. policymakers conclude that a national government bears some measure of culpability for last week’s attack--and Afghanistan’s Taliban, by harboring and supporting bin Laden’s network, surely do--American forces, even if operating primarily from the air, could exact a steep price from that regime. (This is especially true if, as administration officials believe, operations by the Afghan opposition could help force the Taliban out into the open, much as the KLA did to Serb forces in Kosovo.) Afghanistan’s leadership may have weathered an unending civil war. But those same leaders have yet to endure the exponentially greater levels of violence that the U.S. arsenal can deliver. “Despite all the talk about their prowess, the Taliban are really just a ragtag band,” says Ray Takeyh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And they’re much more susceptible to American firepower than many people imagine.” (See Michael Rubin, “Weakest Link,” page 11.)

To be sure, firepower won’t suffice. Attacking a nation that harbors terrorists without attacking the terrorists themselves would hardly achieve American aims--not least because many of these terrorists nest outside Afghanistan, even in countries friendly to the United States. Here too, however, the United States has ample resources to bring to bear. Terrorists don’t operate on their own. They belong to networks and cells, which can be interfered with, penetrated, and indeed eliminated. According to counterterrorism experts, the key lies in exposing these networks to sunlight, making them transparent, and then apprehending or killing their members. “A huge number of U.S. intelligence assets will be focused on terrorists,” says defense analyst Michael Vickers, a former CIA and Special Forces officer, “and they will by no means be immune to those assets.” Included among those assets is a vast electronic intelligence network, which will have a crucial role to play. So, too, will Special Operations forces. Recent history contains ample precedents for their use, particularly Israeli counterterror operations in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich massacre, which included a mix of intelligence operations, commando raids, air strikes, and assassinations that resulted in the elimination of nearly every terrorist involved in the attack. And Pentagon officials predict something along precisely those lines: One day, there may be a commando raid in Iraq. The next day an air strike, a helicopter assault, or an insertion of a Special Forces team into Afghanistan. And, the day after that, an abduction in Sudan.

Which leads us to the third false dichotomy. Just as terror doesn’t obviate the need for missile defense, and just as one response to terror doesn’t preclude another, neither does terrorism absolve U.S. foreign policy of its traditional aims. Being a superpower means being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But, partly because U.S. policymakers have been unwilling to acknowledge the global enterprise to which the United States has committed itself, many foreign policy elites have persuaded themselves that we can’t do both. “We no longer have the luxury of thinking about U.S. national security primarily in terms of protecting American allies and interests abroad,” says Michele Flournoy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We need to give far more serious attention to protecting the U.S. homeland.” That we do. But this hardly relieves the United States of its obligation to defend Taiwan from China, to stand by Israel and our European and Asian allies, and to defend American principles abroad. On the contrary, the administration’s war against terror falls squarely within the realm of America’s grand strategy.

Ten years ago, Paul Wolfowitz, the current deputy secretary of defense, neatly summarized that strategy in a Pentagon planning guidance, which called for the United States to “prevent the emergence of a new rival” and “prevent any hostile power from dominating” a vital region. One of the regions Wolfowitz had in mind was the Persian Gulf--and, in fact, bin Laden has stated explicitly that he intends to drive U.S. forces out of the region. To diminish our military presence there, as State Department officials have been recommending for months, would merely vindicate his efforts. But the United States has obligations beyond the Middle East as well. And there’s a danger that the war on terror may obscure them. Absent a renewed commitment to defend Taiwan against China, for example, Chinese forces might exploit our attention to the Middle East to attack the island democracy. Indeed, a failure to mind the broader ends of U.S. foreign policy could leave us even more vulnerable than before to the conventional threats that consumed our attention until last week.

Resisting the inclination to isolate the war on terror from America’s broader global strategy means resisting as well the fantasy that this war has transformed longtime foes into newfound friends. Already, Colin Powell has been musing about enticing Syria into America’s coalition. And State Department Policy Planning Director Richard Haass, a longtime proponent of improved relations with Iran and other rogue regimes, has recommended doing the same with Tehran because of its “long history of opposition to the Taliban.” To which Bush adviser Richard Perle sensibly responds that “it would be crazy to bring in Iran, which is [itself] involved in terrorism.” Crazy, because the State Department reported last year that “Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2000,” while, only a few months ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that Iranian officials “inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah” who murdered 19 U.S. airmen in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. The United States has no reason to cultivate governments which themselves constitute part of the problem. During the Gulf war, the United States invited unsavory regimes into its coalition to clarify that America’s war was against Iraq, not the broader Arab world. But to draft active sponsors of terrorism into a war against terrorism clarifies nothing. The problem here isn’t that Haass and Powell don’t understand the aims of America’s adversaries. It’s that they don’t understand the aims of America.

While the State Department soothes our foes, America’s military may soon find itself at war with them. Until last week, however, what passed for military strategy at the Pentagon amounted to little more than budgetary strategy. Chasing its tax cut, the White House repeatedly pared down Rumsfeld’s funding requests. And congressional Democrats protested even the paltry sums it did approve. Last week’s horror ought to put an end to this parsimony. So far Congress has authorized roughly $20 billion in additional defense funding. But it will need to do more. Last year the Congressional Budget Office estimated a $50 billion annual shortfall in military expenditures. And in the coming struggle, putting to use the gaudy prosperity the United States has enjoyed for a decade could spell the difference between victory and defeat.

“The national resources ... are exhausted,” President Lincoln said in the midst of civil war, “and, as we believe, inexhaustible.” If that was true in 1864, it’s even more so in 2001. A candid acknowledgment of those resources, moreover, means putting to rest phony strategic choices. It means providing the armed forces with sufficient funds to fight the war against terror and any other wars that may loom on the horizon. It means defending the American homeland as well as its interests abroad. And, most of all, it means facing squarely the costs and purposes of American leadership. These things we can afford. Self-delusion we can’t.