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Our Only Defense

June 2024
4min read

President Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks has been exactly right. The country is reaping the benefits of staffing the national security team with seasoned veterans of large reputation. Without shrillness they have announced a determination to respond against not just the terrorists and their organizations but the states that have trained, financed, supported, and harbored them. As the administration goes forward to carry out this de facto declaration of war, it must bear in mind three important principles. First, it cannot depend on the sprawling bureaucracy to produce the plans and operations to carry out this campaign. Second, it must prevent the natural tendency to focus obsessively on “getting” bin Laden. Third, it must overcome a long legacy of the failure of American governments to follow brave words against terrorists with firm deeds.

On October 23, 1983, 241 servicemen were killed in a suicide bomb attack against the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon. President Reagan vowed swift retaliation. The whereabouts of the perpetrators and their trainers were exactly known. Behind them were the governments of Syria and Iran, for whom they worked. The bureaucracy met, worried, studied, analyzed, and delayed. Nothing was ever done. There followed a succession of aircraft hijackings, bombings, and killings of Americans.

In October 1985,3 terrorist team working for Abul Abbas seized the cruise ship Achille Lauro and executed an American. They escaped to Egypt, where they were allowed to depart with Abbas himself on an airliner. In an operation brilliantly executed by the 6th Fleet, carrier aircraft intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Sicily. There the Italian government took the perpetrators from American custody and quietly released Abbas, in a tacit deal to keep terrorism away from Italy. Again, nothing was done.

Outside attacks always have brought Americans together: Pearl Harbor comes to mind—but consider Lexington too.

Encouraged by an unbroken record of successes, Muammar Qaddafi’s network carried out increasingly brazen attacks against American aircraft, civilians, and land targets. President Reagan initiated the first successful and effective retaliation against a principal source of terrorism. In 1986 a series of naval operations culminated in the joint Navy-Air Force strike against Libya and, indeed, against Qaddafi himself in his compound, killing his daughter. Except for the Lockerbie bombing, which had apparently been set in motion before the strike, Qaddafi has been largely quiescent since those strikes.

It was only the extreme provocation of his invading Kuwait in 1990 that moved the United States to action against one of the greatest fomenters of terrorism against the United States, Saddam Hussein. Although the campaign itself was most ably prosecuted by the United States, we then committed one of the worst blunders of the postwar era by leaving Saddam in power, thus handing him—and, more important, the entire international terrorist network—a strategic political victory.

President Bush’s current team participated in these operations, and they have presumably learned the lessons of the blunders. They now must carry out an effective plan to deal with the sources of financing, training, support, and harboring of the total terrorist network. Since these supporters fall into three categories, each must be addressed differently. There are friends like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates that have permitted substantial funding to flow from their countries to finance terrorism as a tacit payment of protection money, and have allowed terrorists to move freely in their territories and to travel on their passports. That must cease immediately. The next category is terrorist supporters like Pakistan, Syria, and Iran. They continue to provide substantial funding and allow training bases and diplomatic support. In this case, if our immediate demands to cease and desist are not met, military operations such as mining and blockade may be needed, along with the physical destruction of nuclear facilities, unless they are submitted to permanent international inspection.

A third category is that of the actual co-conspirators, bin Laden, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. Nothing less than decisive and complete military action to remove these sources of evil is sufficient.

Needless to say, this concerted war against terrorism will be complicated and difficult, and we may be sure that the bureaucracy will provide endless obstructions to decisive action in each case, as it has in every terrorist crisis past. But the bureaucracy does respond to leadership, and, to expedite this response, certain actions should be taken. A new intelligence agency should be established, as the Office of Strategic Services was at the beginning of World War II. It should be free of the burdens of decades of witch-hunts and bureaucratic bloat that afflict the CIA, which should be relegated to technical collections and analysis. A new, lean organization is needed to freely recruit and operate intelligence agents and brilliant intelligence thinkers and analysts, who today are unable to get through the sieve of CIA recruitment.

The Vulnerability Exploitation Committee, which was so successful in the Reagan years, should be re-established immediately, under the National Security Council. This committee can range through the bureaucracy, pulling out creative ideas, of which there are many, on how to attack the terrorist system where it is most vulnerable. The President should rescind the Executive Order that prohibits the targeting of heads of government. Our Special Forces, our strike aircraft, and our precision missiles should be targeted at the terrorists themselves as well as at the leaders of organizations and states that sponsor them. While their families and innocent civilians should never be targeted, it may sometimes be necessary to accept such casualties to kill the perpetrators. Terror must be used to counter terror. The guilty parties should not know another moment’s peace or security.

Each of the services has unique capabilities that can be brought to bear in this broad campaign. The resources of the Navy and the woefully underfunded Coast Guard should be harnessed, not only in securing our borders but in carrying out the broadest possible range of naval operations against the sponsoring states. As a strong—and cost-free—signal, the Coast Guard should be transferred to the Navy Department, as it was in previous wars. The Army has unique intelligence capabilities, and of course operations in Afghanistan could possibly require the fullest range of Army capabilities. The Air Force can provide precision strikes against point targets and massive saturation bombing of others. The capacity of the Marine Corps to forcibly enter any coastal area and vertically assault any area inland should be used to strike fear into all the terrorist bases in Yemen, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan.

None of this is to suggest that diplomacy, coalition building, and the United Nations should not be employed to the fullest, as they were in Desert Storm; but they will succeed only to the extent that they are backed by usable force.

We have today the military capability to carry out the full spectrum of operations needed to destroy the terrorist underworld. The only defense against future attack is offense.

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