Commentary

A Not-So-Global War on Terrorism?

By Ivan Eland
September 24, 2001

There is more to President Bush’s speech on Thursday night than meets the eye. While the president strongly expressed America’s resolve to fight a war against terrorism, he also seemed to imply that the battle might not be as sweeping as earlier reports had indicated. If so, it’s a wise move, for America cannot police the entire globe. But America can take some actions to find and stop the major terrorists and the entities that assist them.

Following his address to Congress, the media focused much of their attention on the tougher aspects of Bush’s speech. For example, they noted the president’s demands that the Taliban deliver Osama bin Laden and all other terrorists, close their training camps, and allow the United States full access to verify that they have been shut down. But the more important threads in Bush’s remarks must be teased out from the “stand tall” rhetoric.

Making comprehensive demands that the Taliban could not fulfill even if it wanted to (ensuring that every terrorist has been handed over), or would result in national humiliation (allowing the personnel of a foreign nation on Afghan soil to verify the shutdown of the camps), sets the stage for a strong military strike against Afghanistan. The American people will not be content with bin Laden being turned over to U.S. authorities. The president knows that Americans also want to see punished those in Afghanistan who have harbored bin Laden.

Yet the real news buried in the speech was some retreat from an ill-advised worldwide war on terrorism, which would likely fail and make the terrorism problem worse by helping to recruit future terrorists. Someone in the administration more knowledgeable than the president about the difficulties of fighting such a global war—perhaps Donald Rumsfeld, who recently has been playing down the “war” rhetoric—must have provided wise counsel to Bush to define his objectives more narrowly. For instance, in his speech the president stated that the war on terror “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” The revealing phrase here is “of global reach.” It implies limitation. It may mean that the administration is limiting the terrorist groups it is pursuing to those affiliated with bin Laden.

In addition, the president implicitly gave states that have been past sponsors of terrorism amnesty if they cease supporting terrorism. He said: “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” The operative phrase here is “from this day forward.”

Such statements by the president give the administration flexibility in the battle against the primary enemy—bin Laden, the al Qaeda organization that he heads, and his protectors in Afghanistan. They also keep the administration from biting off more than it can chew. For example, Iran, a state-sponsor of terrorism and also a sponsor of the Afghan opposition to the Taliban, might provide valuable intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. In addition, why target the Hezbollah, an effective terrorist group sponsored by Iran that operates mainly in Lebanon? Such targeting might stir the hornet’s nest and induce attacks on the American homeland. Why needlessly aggravate other players such as those? Bush’s speech allows him to keep his “eyes on the prize”—retaliating against a horrific terrorist act—while perhaps avoiding an unwise and even counterproductive wider war against terrorism.

Ivan Eland is Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.