No one should doubt the right of the United States and its President to take action in defence of its own citizens. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident whose organisation is believed to have been behind these attacks, had after all declared war on America. He can hardly complain if they reply in kind. If US intelligence was, as it claimed, given proof of plans for further attacks on its citizens then the US could claim this as a preventive, as much as punitive, strike.
But the fact remains that the world's leading power and the guardian of international law has launched unilateral military attacks across national boundaries, in the territories of nations whose governments were not directly responsible for the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. It has asked for no international sanction for its efforts (although, sadly, Tony Blair has rushed to voice his approval). The President has sought no prior Congressional approval. Nor has Washington yet produced any public evidence for the reasons it has given for its actions.
That raises two problems. One is the moral one. America owes its status in the world partly to military superiority but also to its status as upholder of law and democratic values. Despite all the temptation to go get the Real IRA while turning a blind eye to the methods, the Irish and British prime ministers have after all insisted that any pursuit of the perpetrators of violence has to be legal. And rightly so. The law is not there to make life more convenient for those who uphold it or to guarantee that there will not be renegades who ignore it, but to provide the rules by which ordinary citizens and nations should conduct themselves.
The second question is the practical one. We must presume that the US evidence against bin Laden is strong enough, and that it has proof of its allegation that a chemical plant in Sudan was all part of the plot. One presumes that Washington had sought the tacit support of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia before launching the strikes. But we have seen too much of what has happened in the Middle East - and Iraq for that matter - to believe that air strikes alone are very effective as a means of suppressing terrorism. Israel has spent a decade bombing the villages and camps of southern Lebanon to defeat Hezbollah, and has succeeded only in increasing the determination to its foes.
The same must apply to these operations. If the strikes had killed bin Laden and wiped out his immediate supporters, then the world would probably accept the efficacy of the actions, in private at least, while many a force would be cowed by US superiority.
If, as seems to be the case, the attack has not been really effective then the terrorists will simply return, ever more determined to show the world that they have not been defeated even by the American giant. World support, already doubtful last night, will evaporate like water in the desert. The hard truth about strikes such as these is that, if at first they don't succeed then you can't try, try and try again. The battle becomes a game of bravado in which the smaller man will have most of the advantages and eventually claim the role of victim.
Clinton has now returned to Washington amidst suggestions that he is preparing for more air strikes. If he does, then we're on a roller coaster in which few in Clinton's country, or among his allies, can have much confidence in his judgement or his motives.Reuse content