Commentary

War Against Terror Expands Excessively

By Ivan Eland
February 8, 2002

In his State of the Union address, President Bush implicitly threatened to expand the war on terrorism to countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction and nations that are “timid in the face of terror.” The president singled out three nations — North Korea, Iran, and Iraq — as the “axis of evil” and implied that he might take military action to preempt the threat from their weapons of mass destruction.

Although such rhetoric may simply be saber rattling to intimidate those nations, the possibility of an expansion of the war is a real and dangerous possibility. But those three countries hardly constitute an organized alliance against the United States, as did the much more dangerous collaboration among Japan, Germany, and Italy during World War II. In fact, Iran and Iraq hate each other. And despite North Korea’s continued harboring of a few members of the Japanese Red Army, North Korea has not actively sponsored terrorist attacks in many years.

Although North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are developing (or have acquired) weapons of mass destruction, so are many other nations. According to the Pentagon, 12 countries have nuclear weapons programs, 13 nations have biological weapons, 16 countries have chemical weapons and 28 nations have ballistic missiles. Is the president prepared to attack all of those nations? What if North Korea, Iran, or Iraq has already sent intelligence operatives or terrorists to the United States with weapons of mass destruction to lie in wait in case a strike is needed in retaliation for a U.S. attempt at regime change? Iran or Iraq might do the same to Israel.

The fact is that the United States must live with an increasing number of nations that have acquired weapons of mass destruction. North Korea, Iran, or Iraq are poor nations on the other side of the world from the United States and should not be natural enemies of the United States — unless the United States keeps intervening in their regions. Furthermore, if the president attacks North Korea, Iran, or Iraq, he could exacerbate the proliferation problem rather than reduce it. Other nations would believe that they could be next and think that working on missiles and weapons of mass destruction was the only way to keep out a superpower bent on intervening in civil wars everywhere in the name of fighting terrorism.

And would the United States really intervene unilaterally in friendly nations that it believed were too timid in fighting terrorism — for example, the Philippines or Yemen? In the Philippines, would the United States intervene against the wishes of a democracy that it helped institute?

A perpetual state of war — as the president seems to envision when he asserted that the war may run beyond the duration of his term — could undermine economic recovery, does not comport with the values of a republic, and will likely lead to the erosion of constitutional liberties and the accumulation of too much power in the executive branch. And a war in perpetuity is not needed to minimize the threat from North Korea, Iran and Iraq. If the United States could contain the threat from a rival superpower during the Cold War, it can certainly contain three small, poor countries. In addition, a seemingly unprovoked war against another Moslem nation — either Iran, Iraq or both — could act as a recruiting poster for terrorists for years to come in the fundamentalist Islamic community. Thus, an expanded U.S. war on terrorism could generate more terrorism.

Most important, intervening against terrorist groups that do not have the United States as their primary target — for example, the president’s speech mentioned Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Jaish-e-Muhammad — or against oppressive nations such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and even in nations too timid on terrorism diverts and dilutes U.S. action from combating the most dire threat to the U.S. homeland in a half century. Al Qaeda, a global terrorist organization, probably still has most of its leadership and worldwide network intact and U.S. targets in its crosshairs. The United States must focus on crushing that imminent threat. In fact, attacking terrorist groups that do not now focus primarily on American targets could cause those disparate groups to join Al Qaeda and multiply the threat to U.S. targets dramatically.

In sum, an apparent widening of the current war designed to enhance U.S security could have the opposite effect. Let’s hope the president’s rhetoric is only that.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy at the Cato Institute.