This war needs to be won. But we must be sure of our weapons and our enemies

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The most significant passage of President Bush's television address to the American people, the text of which is published overleaf, dealt with the definition of America's enemies. Mr Bush stated that "we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them". It is not difficult to fathom what he meant by that. Indeed, there is a ready precedent for such a policy. When the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998 by an affiliate of Osama bin Laden's loose confederation of fanatical terrorist micro-groups, the US retaliated by attacking installations believed to have been connected with bin Laden in Afghanistan and Sudan. The aim of "taking out" bin Laden was not made explicit, but it would not have been an unwelcome side-effect.

The most significant passage of President Bush's television address to the American people, the text of which is published overleaf, dealt with the definition of America's enemies. Mr Bush stated that "we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them". It is not difficult to fathom what he meant by that. Indeed, there is a ready precedent for such a policy. When the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998 by an affiliate of Osama bin Laden's loose confederation of fanatical terrorist micro-groups, the US retaliated by attacking installations believed to have been connected with bin Laden in Afghanistan and Sudan. The aim of "taking out" bin Laden was not made explicit, but it would not have been an unwelcome side-effect.

As it turned out, the factory in Sudan that was supposed to be manufacturing a component of poison gas may not have been, and bin Laden himself managed to evade the American rockets. His war with the US was redoubled, with the sickening results we have witnessed over the past few days.

Perhaps the Clinton administration should have done more to go after their quarry. Since he escaped once, was there a case for going after him again? It would have been increasingly difficult, as it would have become more and more obvious that the effort would have been aimed not so much at his organisation as at him personally, a conscious and deliberate policy of assassination.

What the Clinton administration could conceivably have paid more attention to was refocusing America's intelligence resources towards what was a clear danger. Bin Laden, whatever the exact nature of his involvement in these atrocities, has been dropping some very broad hints about his jihad against the US publicly and semi-publicly over the last few years, as specialist journalists have been attesting. It has been said often over the past few days that no one could have foreseen the audacity, let alone the barbarity, of the terrorism. There is a lot in that, but America will always wonder whether more might have been done to assess the threats to her security. Just as the scale of the attacks in New York and Washington echoed events in Pearl Harbor almost 60 years ago, we also know now about the American intelligence failures that preceded the Japanese onslaught against US forces. The CIA, the FBI and the other agencies may have a difficult time in accounting for themselves in front of the American people.

Good intelligence can occasionally prove decisive in dealing with terrorism, as the experience of dealing with the IRA, the Real IRA and the various loyalist paramilitaries shows. The exposure of the IRA's recent mission to Colombia highlights the role that effective international co-operation can play in thwarting even the most professional men of violence. But it can, on its own, never win a war against the terrorist. America's war against her enemies is proving to be different to previous episodes. The clear danger is that it will degenerate into vengeful, unfocussed, indiscriminate attacks on "sponsor" or "protector" nations. The trouble with such campaigns is that they have rarely succeeded in their aim, no matter how satisfying such retribution may feel at the time.

It is not the first time that America has made no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbour them. When President Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli and other targets in Libya in 1986 in retaliation for a terrorist bombing of a Berlin disco frequented by US service personnel, the President's approval rating soared. It seemed to restore America's pride. It was payback time.

From this distance, however, it does not feel so good. We see that it did nothing to prevent terrorist outrages in the succeeding years; Gaddafi's infant daughter, surely an innocent party, was killed, but he remains in place today, free to make as much trouble as he likes. The extremists of Hamas and Hezbollah lived through the the most vengeful punishment that Israel could mete out. Even when Israel was able to "take out" a terrorist leader, there were plenty more willing and able to replace him. And, it bears repeating, bin Laden and his organisation survived the 1993 action against him. America could, once again, behave like vengeful, angry goliath, and the President would reap a short-term political dividend. But history suggests that America would not win by these means. Rather, she would end up as she sometimes has in the past – in the phrase of Richard Nixon, a "pitiful, helpless giant".

None of this is to say that America does not deserve to succeed. It is, though, to question the methods used – and not necessarily because it is futile to answer the murder of innocent Americans with the murder of innocent Afghans or Palestinians or Yemenis or anyone else, although a civilised nation should be judged on how closely it can live up to those nostrums. It is simply a matter of practicality. Wars have to be won with the right weapons and with the right aims. For the sake of his presidency as much as the peace of the world, Mr Bush must state those clearly and simply. In time, he may well find it necessary to distinguish between the terrorists and those who harbour them.

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