Commentary

The Interventionist Follies

Last year the United States bombed a sovereign state for 78 days without a single American casualty. This year it sent a destroyer to refuel in a country at peace and lost 17 sailors. Such is the danger of terrorism.

The problem is likely to worsen, especially if Al Gore is elected president and continues the Clinton administration’s promiscuous intervention in small but bitter foreign conflicts. Foolish attempts at nation-building risk turning all of America into a war zone.

Indeed, Washington’s high-profile intervention in the angry fight between Israel and the Palestinians makes additional incidents almost certain. Demonstrators as far away as Pakistan blame the U.S. for Israeli killings.

Ayman el Zawahri, an associate of terrorist Osama bin Laden, has called for attacks on Americans to avenge dead Palestinians. Even Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih says he would send troops to aid the Palestinians if his nation bordered Israel.

With the end of the Cold War, terrorism has become the chief weapon of weak states and movements to strike at the globe’s sole superpower. Yet Washington policy-makers are inevitably shocked that someone wishes us ill.

Simply threatening the attackers doesn’t go nearly far enough. Officials should review U.S. policies that encourage terrorism.

The assault in Yemen was predictable. This poor, strife-torn, tribalistic country is home to Islamic militants and a variety of terrorist groups. In fact, Washington pulled out American military personnel in 1993 after a series of embassy and hotel bombings.

The USS Cole’s visit was more than a simple supply stop. Reports Bill Gertz of The Washington Times: “Refueling U.S. warships in the Yemeni port of Aden is part of a broader U.S. government effort to develop closer ties with Yemen and to place an electronic eavesdropping post on a nearby island.”

Alas, opponents of the regime -and of a war long raged between what were once two separate countries - have no reason to view U.S. sailors as “standing guard for peace,” as President Clinton claimed. Two groups, one with ties to bin Laden’s Al Qaida group, have denounced America’s military presence. Just two weeks before the bombing, an Egyptian ally of bin Laden said it was “time to take action against this iniquitous and faithless force the U.S. which has spread troops through Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.”

Last year, reports the State Department, there were 169 attacks on American targets. They were concentrated in Colombia (where the U.S. supports the government in its war against leftist guerrillas and drug producers) and Greece (in protest over the U.S. bombing of neighboring Serbia).

But the most violent incidents usually involve the Mideast. For instance, the 1998 embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, were thought to have been organized by bin Laden, who has criticized America’s support for Israel, unsavory alliance with Saudi Arabia’s totalitarian monarchy, and intervention in Somalia. Similar sentiments motivated the 1996 truck bombing that killed 19 U.S. soldiers at an American military installation near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Back in the mid-1980s, attacks were launched on American bases in Germany and Spain and a German disco frequented by U.S. soldiers. The latter was thought by some to be retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger airliner by a U.S. navy vessel patrolling the Persian Gulf to aid Iraq during its war with Iran.

Far bloodier were the 1983 Lebanese bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks (as well as French military headquarters) in Beirut. Here the reason was even more obvious: Washington was providing military backing for the minority Christian government, going so far as to shell Muslim villages. Americans were targeted because they were at war.

The potential for terrorism doesn’t mean it is never in Washington’s interest to act. But it does mean the U.S. must carefully calculate the risks before acting.

And in a world where weapons of mass destruction are spreading -some 100 Russian tactical nuclear weapons are currently not accounted for - huge damage could be inflicted at home as well as overseas. Imagine bombing New York’s World Trade Center with a suitcase nuke.

That means the benefits of acting must be commensurately large. Unfortunately, that is not the case today.

The Clinton-Gore administration seems committed to using American forces for the most frivolous purposes, such as turning a military dictatorship into a presidential dictatorship in Haiti, maintaining an artificial multi-ethnic state in Bosnia, and deciding which ethnic group can “cleanse” the other in Kosovo. It apparently also thinks it can pacify the Mideast.

The upcoming election should spark a rethinking of U.S. foreign policy. Else the attack on the USS Cole may be the harbinger of more terrorism to come.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.