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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you have the right attitude,...

Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: how come Ed Miliband’s tuition fee ‘cut’ is so popular, then?

John Rentoul
Carrie's son Jack on holiday in the Carribean  

As a parent of a child with autism, this is what I want you to know about my family

Carrie Cariello
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn