Waging a war unlike any other

Rarely has the nation's capital witnessed such a week, as the Bush Administration took the first, unmistakable steps toward waging a war unlike any witnessed by this generation of Americans, and perhaps any other.

Leaders and foreign ministers from around the world shuttled through the White House and State Department for tense consultations. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deployed combat aircraft and ships to the Persian Gulf region. The Pentagon mobilized 35,000 of a potential 50,000 reservists authorized for activation and asked defense contractors to interrupt regular contracts in order to ramp up production of select precision-guided munitions. The U.S. Navy launched the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt toward the Persian Gulf, and quietly removed the regular updates of the fleet's position from its public Web site. Many military experts now expect a much larger mobilization of U.S. military forces, likely to include sending at least two combat divisions to the Middle East and Southwest Asian region.

For its part, the Central Intelligence Agency has asked the Bush Administration and Congress to relax restrictions on the recruitment of unsavory informants, and perhaps to drop the ban against assassinations. The Justice Department is pressing Congress to vote on a hastily assembled package of counter-terrorism measures that would dramatically expand the FBI's ability to wiretap telephones and computers, target money-laundering operations, and prosecute terrorists and those who harbor them. On Sept. 20, President Bush announced the creation of a new Office of Homeland Security, and the administration is weighing a dramatic shift in the Pentagon's focus from fighting conventional wars to combating "asymmetric" threats such as terrorists. Meanwhile, Congress has given President Bush a $40 billion emergency supplemental spending bill and sweeping authority to pursue the campaign. Legal experts say the measure is comparable to granting the President new war powers. "The message to every country is that there will be a campaign against terrorist activity, a worldwide campaign, and there is an outpouring of support for such a campaign," Bush said on September 19. Calling the unconventional attacks an assault on freedom-loving people everywhere, the President planned to address a televised joint session of Congress on September 20 to make his case directly before the American people. "The mind-set of war must change. [This] is a different type of battle, a different type of battlefield, and a different type of war.... The challenge is to redefine the terms of the conflict and campaign in a way that leaders understand and in a way that the people of the world understand. This is a new type of struggle. It's really the first war of the 21st century." The first war of the 21st century will almost certainly include multiple counter-terrorism operations by an international coalition of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, plus commando raids, aerial bombing strikes, and intense diplomatic arm-twisting that employs the full spectrum of U.S. instruments of power and persuasion. The possibility of a full-blown war against another nation, or against a consortium of state sponsors of terrorism, also looms as a distinct possibility. Great Perils The risks are abundantly clear. Once ignited, such an ambitious campaign to "smoke" global terrorists out of their holes and confront their state sponsors, as Bush and senior Cabinet officials have repeatedly pledged to do, carries a significant danger of retaliation. Terrorist wars in places such as Northern Ireland and Israel have rarely led to conclusive victories, and we have learned that the terrorists are likely to strike back with the only weapon they understand: more terror. The Bush Administration clearly hopes that the full power of a determined United States, joined with a worldwide coalition of like-minded nations, will coerce state sponsors of terrorism into peacefully capitulating. If, however, the campaign leads to war or major military actions against Afghanistan or an Arab nation such as Iraq, or if it results in the accidental killing of innocent civilians, it could inflame Arabs who see the assault as one against all of Islam. Moderate Arab regimes could topple in the process. The worst-case result could be a reordering of the post-Cold War era into a world divided between the West and a radicalized Islam. Brent Scowcroft was national security adviser for former President Bush and helped build the coalition that fought the Persian Gulf War. "I think the attacks last week scared moderate Arab regimes in the Middle East to death, because they are much more vulnerable to these forces than we are and thus should be willing to help," he told National Journal. "On the other hand, if we strike out willy-nilly, or assume that every act of terrorism can be placed at the feet of Arabs and Muslims, then we could end up with a terrible state of affairs in the region. The possibility of escalation is very high, which is why President Bush has to be very careful not to do something in the short run that puts us in a worse position in the long run." In terms of efforts and risks, some historians equate the challenge ahead to the Cold War struggle against the former Soviet Union. "Like the Cold War, we are facing an intractable foe who must be fought on multiple fronts with a variety of means, from diplomatic and economic to military," said Donald Kagan, Hillhouse Professor of History at Yale University. "Similarly, we will also have to take the risks and fight the battles that have to be fought now, with full understanding that they won't bring an end to the struggle. Americans have to be prepared for the long haul." Kagan also sees similarities to the Cold War in the clash of ideologies inherent in the coming confrontation. "We're going to have to win the battle of ideas and ideology in this war, just as we did against Communism," Kagan said. The struggle is not against Islam, he stresses, but against an extreme, fundamentalist strain that has perverted the ideals of Islam and declared jihad, or holy war, on the West. "These terrorists view the American way of life as inimical to their deepest beliefs, and they may be right. I doubt radical Islamic fundamentalists are going to prosper or feel comfortable in the modern world we inhabit," added Kagan, who argues that a Cold War-like Marshall Plan directed at the Islamic world could be a necessary component of any meaningful victory. "We need to do everything possible to help peaceful Islamic societies share in some of the benefits and prosperity of modernity and the Western way of life, so we can increase their prosperity and reduce this resentment over the long term." What is still lacking--and sorely needed--in America's "war on terrorism," however, is a blueprint such as the Cold War strategy of "containment" of the Soviet Union that was laid out in the 1947 National Security Act, which led to the creation of the National Security Council and the CIA. Indeed, in the space of one scant week, President Bush's red-hot rhetoric about waging a war on international terrorism has launched the nation on a campaign whose complexity, challenges, and unforeseen perils dissuaded earlier Administrations of both parties from acting aggressively against terror for three decades. Certainly, no other Administration had the rallying cry of the World Trade Center, or faced the national security imperative presented by the catastrophic attacks of September 11. With the full measure of U.S. prestige now committed to the endeavor, however, success or failure will determine in fundamental ways the shape and tenor of American life at home--and the United States' place on the world stage--for many years into the future. The stakes could hardly be higher. "What occurred on September 11 will play out over decades, because you can no more win a war on terrorism than you can win a war on history," said Anthony Cordesman, a long-time Middle East and defense expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The American people need to understand that the United States must now use every asset at its command in a campaign that is both very lethal, and above all else, persistent." The fight is no longer just about terrorism, Cordesman cautions, nor was last week's attack a worst-case scenario. "States who possess biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, and who never thought of confronting our conventional military or nuclear strength head-on, have now been shown where our vulnerability lies," he says. "The problems of asymmetrical warfare and terrorism have now been joined, and the battle has begun. I think that struggle will present a challenge and increased risk to every American who was alive to witness September 11, for every single day of the rest of their lives." Fighting Wraiths In retrospect, this is a war long foreshadowed. Myriad national commissions, congressional task forces, and blue-ribbon reports that warned in recent years of a catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States now seem prescient rather than shrill. These warnings all made note of transnational networks of terrorists, fueled by religious or ideological fervor and united in their hatred of the United States, that would seek to inflict casualties so massive as to undermine "our constitutional system of government," in the words of a recent report by the National Commission on Terrorism. In their 1999 book Preventive Defense, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter made a similar prediction: "Even though an instance of catastrophic terrorism has not yet occurred, such an event seems inevitable.... Like the attack on Pearl Harbor, it would divide our past and future into `before' and `after.' The effort and resources we have so far devoted to averting or containing this threat now, in the period `before,' would seem woefully inadequate when viewed with hindsight after an incident of catastrophic terrorism." The Gary Hart-Warren Rudman Commission on National Security/21st Century, which reported earlier this year, echoed Perry and Carter: "A direct, catastrophic attack against American citizens on American soil is likely.... The risk is not only death and destruction, but also a demoralization that could undermine U.S. global leadership." Retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Boyd, the staff director of the Hart-Rudman Commission, recalls that the members of the bipartisan commission reached their dire conclusion after traveling extensively around the world. "As part of our research, we took commissioners to 28 different countries and talked with knowledgeable people in government, academia, and the private sector, just to try and understand the world as they saw it," he says. "The theme we repeatedly heard from potential adversaries and friends alike was that the United States was resented for what we stood for, and that managing that resentment would be a major challenge of the 21st century. Add to that resentment the proliferation of deadly technology and weapons of mass destruction into the hands of people who never in history had the ability to inflict serious damage on a great nation such as ours, and you have a lethal combination." These national security experts were also alarmed by the new strain of terrorists bent on nonnegotiable annihilation, yet scrupulously aware of the U.S. constitutional system and the values and policies that underpin it. These fanatics disdain a U.S. foreign policy driven equally by democratic idealism and pragmatism, and that policy's contradictory support for the Middle East's only democracy--Israel--and for the Arab monarchies that control vast oil wealth. As holy warriors, they see appeasement in the U.S. penchant for avoiding conflict even to the point of seeming to purchase peace. Yet they have capitalized on the West's belief in sovereignty, a notion that leads the United States to respect even the borders of those states that openly harbor its sworn enemies. Transnational terrorist organizations have also closely studied a globe-spanning U.S. military so technologically proficient as to seem invincible in conventional conflicts, yet lacking political support at home to sustain even modest casualties in places such as Somalia and Kosovo. They saw the devotion of a democratic society to freedom of movement, the rule of law, and a sense of fair play. They recognized American discomfort with the shadow world of clandestine operations in our unwillingness to grant intelligence agents a license to kill. In short, Osama bin Laden and a loosely affiliated network of transnational terrorist organizations have gone to school on the United States. What Americans treasure most and view as strengths, they have targeted as weaknesses and vulnerabilities to exploit. "These terrorists believe that they can defeat any force in the world because Allah is on their side, which is why I believe the United States will soon be on a real wartime footing," said Robert Blitzer, a former counter-terrorism chief for the FBI. "They learned a lot of tricks and lessons during their war in Afghanistan with the former Soviet Union, which they humbled--and they applied them in last week's attacks. That was a tight, clean operation with superb operational security. They kept their mouths shut. And the way it was conducted leads me to believe they have sleeper cells all over the world ready to strike again. So our backs are against the wall now, and we can no longer afford to be complacent." The Coalition On the cover of its September 10 issue, Time magazine ran this headline for its story on Secretary of State Colin L. Powell: "Odd Man Out." The thrust of the article was that despite all the expectations and Powell's "dazzling" presence, others were overshadowing his star in the Bush Administration. Now, an Administration that entered office just nine months ago exhibiting a distinct unilateralist bent in foreign affairs, and looking to extract itself from what it viewed as various foreign policy quagmires, is engaged in the largest coalition-building exercise since World War II. Taking the lead in assembling that unprecedented international coalition of more than 100 nations--better than three times the size of the Gulf War coalition--Powell now seems poised to put his indelible stamp on the Bush legacy. This rapid reversal of fortune is just one more way that September 11 has cast the world in a new and altogether unfamiliar light. As Powell searches for what he referred to on September 19 as a "new strategic framework," the U.S. foreign policy apparatus and its web of alliances and well-worn relationships have been thrown into a profound state of flux. In response to the September 11 strikes, NATO, for the first time in its history, has invoked Article 5, under which member countries pledge that an attack on one nation by outside forces is considered an attack against the entire alliance. Some experts believe the crisis has the potential to push Russia, India, Indonesia, and other nations that are threatened by their own radical Islamic movements closer to the United States. Longtime supporters of terrorism, such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan, are likely to face intense pressure to dismantle the terrorists' infrastructure and expel known terrorists. The United States and a still undetermined "coalition of the willing" might well find themselves at war with Afghanistan and Iraq, especially if early intelligence reports of possible Iraqi complicity in last week's attack are substantiated. Meanwhile, nations such as Pakistan that have carefully straddled the line between antagonism and friendship toward the United States because of the need to placate their own large Islamic fundamentalist populations are being forced to make a difficult and possibly destabilizing choice: Are you with the United States, or against it? "In one sense, it will be easier to identify the state sponsors of terrorism than the terrorists themselves. We know where Kabul, Baghdad, and Damascus are," said Richard Betts, director of the Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University in New York. "On the other hand, we have to be very careful, because emotions are running high in America at the moment, and there's immense pressure to strike out at something tangible. Are we talking about going to war and overthrowing the governments of any countries who refuse to stop sponsoring terrorists? That's not clear yet." Clearly, the White House wants to avoid repeating the mistake the Clinton Administration made in 1998, when it launched cruise missile attacks against bin Laden in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Many experts dismissed that strike as not only ineffectual in signaling U.S. resolve, but also as counterproductive because it inflamed Arabs on the street. By contrast, the Bush Administration has focused on deliberately constructing a broad international coalition against terrorism, with varying depths of commitment and cooperation. The flurry of diplomatic activity in Washington in the past week underscores how critical the Bush Administration views the emerging coalition to its chief aim of "delegitimizing" terrorism. Often, international terrorist organizations have thrived in a climate of official denial and unofficial tolerance and complacency, in which U.N. resolutions denouncing terrorism pass overwhelmingly with a wink and a nod, and in which U.S. allies continue to conduct business as usual with nations the State Department identifies each year as terrorist sponsors. "This is not the Gulf War coalition, where we all mobilize our military forces and march off to war for 100 days," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at a September 19 news conference. "There are going to be a lot of different fronts in this war, some on the information side, some on the financial side, and some on the military side and others. I think we are going to have broad support, and different countries are going to play different roles. There are going to be countries that you may never hear of their contribution, but it might actually be the most important contribution in locating this [terrorist] network. So this is a different kind of coalition." "By mobilizing political and spiritual will at home and abroad in building this coalition, I think Colin Powell and the Bush team have shown an awareness of the need to exercise all elements of U.S. power and prestige synergistically in response to this crisis," said David Abshire, a former NATO ambassador and the director of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington. By persuading NATO to quickly invoke the Article 5 clause, he notes, the Bush Administration "has trumped NATO members who have been weak-kneed in combating terrorism in the past, such as France. When I was NATO ambassador and we struck back at Libya for a 1986 disco bombing in West Berlin that killed American service members, France denied our aircraft over-flight rights." Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who held a fractious NATO alliance together during the air war against Serbia in 1999, believes maintaining the current coalition will prove more difficult the closer the United States moves toward military action. Clark told National Journal: "It will prove both difficult and crucial to hold the coalition together, however, because nations have different views and perspectives on the terrorist problem, and they will demand genuine consultation. During the war over Kosovo, for instance, the United States didn't bomb every target we wished to, out of deference to some of our allies. This campaign may require similar compromises." Middle East Policy The Administration's diplomatic determination was on clear display in a long, difficult talk that Powell had on the night of September 17 with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In the days after the terrorist strikes, Sharon had signaled his intent to use the U.S. preoccupation with the tragedy as an opportunity to isolate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as someone in league with the terrorists. The morning after the Powell call, Arafat and Sharon announced a broad cease-fire. Faced with the all-important task of garnering the support of moderate Arab regimes in the Middle East for the anti-terrorist coalition and possible military action to come, the Bush Administration has clearly taken to heart the warnings of leaders in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia that the Palestinian intifada and low-intensity warfare between Israel and the Palestinians over the past year was dangerously inflaming the region. "I do think we have to do something about the situation in the Middle East," Powell said in a September 17 news conference. "I never lose sight of the fact that one of the underlying, continuing problems we will have--and we had it before September 11, and we're going to have it for the foreseeable future--is that we have to get back to negotiations." Although U.S. pressure has to be evenhanded, many experts believe one of the first casualties of the September 11 attacks was the idea that the United States can afford to take a hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner spent many months in the region as the air commander during Operations Desert Shield and Storm. "We have to remove some of the causes generating a sense of hopelessness so profound that young people fall prey to these false prophets, and that means the United States has a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that wasn't as clear before," said Horner, who also recommends ending the U.S. no-fly zones over Iraq once the current crisis passes as a way to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the region. "In my view, the presence of our forces in Saudi Arabia has helped keep Saddam Hussein in power by making us look like an occupying force and by giving him some external enemy to rail against." Even if the Bush Administration's coalition-building in the Middle East succeeds in isolating the terrorists and their state sponsors in the near term, foreign-policy experts view the attacks of September 11 as a watershed event that warrants a fundamental reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy in the region. A successful long-term strategy, in this view, will have to address some of the root causes of anti-Americanism. "I believe military action will be necessary, but we also have to ask ourselves what U.S. policies over the years have contributed to this degree of hatred toward the United States," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser in the Carter Administration and is a senior counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While it was correct to support Israel when it was threatened as a state, "that doesn't justify an Israeli policy of suppressing the Palestinians indefinitely. I have no doubt that the Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein was morally, unambiguously correct, but I can't say the same thing about sanctions and other policies that have inflicted grave damage on the Iraqi people for the past 10 years," Brzezinski said. "Finally, the policy of supporting the Saudi Arabian royal family was strategically correct, but as the Saudi regime has grown increasingly corrupt, that policy becomes the object of resentment in the region, especially so when some Saudi princes are reportedly paying off these terrorists to be left alone. So dealing with these underlying problems is much more complicated and divisive than a military campaign, because it requires consensus not only in the United States, but also among our friends. I'm not sure we have either." Striking Back While the world has its eye on the movements of U.S. military forces toward Afghanistan, counter-terrorism experts say the first skirmishes of the war on terrorism are already being fought. These skirmishes are evident in the FBI's arrests of suspected conspirators and accomplices in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and the moves by intelligence and counter-terrorism services worldwide to share information on the terrorist cells that bin Laden's al Qaeda organization may have in as many as 60 nations. As its model, the Administration looks to the coalition-building that preceded the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Back then, known state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran and Syria, united with the anti-Iraq coalition, and Western intelligence agencies cooperated fully in a campaign to clamp down on terrorist organizations as part of the prelude to war. And thus, Saddam Hussein's threatened wave of terrorism never materialized. The lesson, say counter-terrorism experts, is that these organizations cannot function effectively when the harsh light of world scrutiny is focused on them. In fact, FBI and CIA counter-terrorism experts point out that they have had significant successes in identifying terrorist cells and in some cases pre-empting terrorism acts in the past. These successes range from the foiling of the bin Laden bombing plot that was timed to coincide with the year 2000 celebrations, to the identification of bin Laden co-conspirators in last year's bombing of the USS Cole, to the arrest of the perpetrators of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. What has been consistently lacking, however, was a willingness to follow these investigations to their uncomfortable conclusions or to take the fight to the terrorists' lairs. As the sizable armada of U.S. military forces heads to Southwest Asia, the Administration is sending the message that the United States is now determined to follow the terrorist trail to its source, be that in the mountains of Afghanistan, the back streets of Baghdad, or the outskirts of Tehran. There is nothing in either the demeanor or pedigree of the members of the Bush foreign affairs and national security team to suggest that they are bluffing. "What has brought us to this point is a policy failure nearly two decades in the making, stretching from the [1983] Marine barracks bombing through the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, the first World Trade Center attack, the bombing of the U.S. Khobar Towers barracks, the bombing of our African embassies, last year's bombing of the USS Cole, and attacks last week which surpass in horror anything I saw in four tours of combat," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former Clinton Administration drug czar and a decorated division commander in the Gulf War. "We have responded to this growing malignancy primarily with rhetoric, even when it was clear that nations such as Iraq and Iran have been behind the attacks," he said. "If we fail to find the political will to take action now, sometime in the next 15 years, democracies will witness millions of people killed by terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. We need to tell nations who support these terrorists to stop, or else we will put at risk all that they most treasure. And we need to display the grim determination to follow through on those threats." In launching their September 11 surprise attack on the most visible symbols of American prosperity and military might, the terrorists counted on their script to unfold as planned. They believed the Achilles's heel of America to be the weak resolve of a privileged and pampered people, so they struck at it in a shattering blow. As scripted, the United States is supposed to lash out in a blind rage, exposing itself not as a superpower to be feared but rather as a corrupt state impotent against the guile and fanaticism of holy war. The coming months and years will reveal whether it was the terrorists themselves who were blinded by hatred and envy into badly misjudging the people among whom they lived. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. and Peter H. Stone contributed to this report.

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