Council on Foreign Relations: Progress in the Global War on Terrorism

U.S. Department of Defense Speeches, November 13, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Council on Foreign Relations: Progress in the Global War on Terrorism


My talk is about the war on terrorism. I'd like to start with a personal story.

September 11 in Moscow

On September 11, 2001, I was in Moscow with my colleague J.D. Crouch, discussing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an ancient text. As we were leaving the Defense Ministry in the late afternoon, the world entered a new era, for that was when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

We asked the US European Command for the means to get back to Washington despite the general shutdown of US air traffic. EUCOM provided us a KC-135 tanker, which met us in Germany. We collected there a handful of other stray Defense Department officials also stranded by the suspension of commercial air traffic to the US. These included Under Secretary Dov Zakheim; Assistant Secretary Peter Rodman and his deputy, Bill Luti; and General John Abizaid, then on the Joint Staff and now Tommy Franks' successor as the Commander of the Central Command. All of us were frustrated to be away at such a moment and grateful to be getting back fast to the Pentagon, which was still smoldering.

Strategizing at 30,000 Feet

In the KC-135, we conferred and wrote papers about how to comprehend the September 11 attack as a matter of national security policy.

President Bush's statements even then showed that he thought of the attack, in essence, as an act of war, rather than a law enforcement matter. That point may now seem unremarkable, but think back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and to the attacks on Khobar Towers in 1996, on the US East Africa embassies in 1998 and on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. When such attacks occurred over the last decades, US officials avoided the term "war." The primary response was to dispatch the FBI to identify individuals for prosecution. Recognizing the September 11 attack as war was a departure from established practice. It was President Bush's seminal insight, the wisdom of which is attested by the fact that it looks so obvious in retrospect.

We in the KC-135 chewed over such questions as what it means to be at war not with a conventional enemy but with a network of terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. How should we formulate our war aims--how define victory? What should be our strategy?

As we mulled all this, the airplane's crew invited us to the cockpit to look down on the southern tip of Manhattan. We saw smoke rising from the ruins of the twin towers. Aside from sadness and anger, the smoke engendered an enduring sense of duty to do everything one could to prevent further attacks.

When we landed in Washington on September 12 we were primed to join the work the President had already gotten underway to develop a strategy for the war.

That work has held up well since September 2001.

The President and his advisors considered the nature of the threat. If terrorists exploited the open nature of our society to attack us repeatedly, the American people might feel compelled to change that nature--to close it--to defend ourselves. Many defensive measures come at a high price--that is, interference with our freedom of movement, intrusions on our privacy, inspections and an undesirable, however necessary, rebalancing of civil liberties against the interests of public safety. In other words, at stake in the war on terrorism are not just the lives and limbs of potential victims, but our country's freedom.

It isn't possible to prevent all terrorist attacks; there are simply too many targets in the United States to defend--too many tall buildings. It's possible, however, to fight terrorism in a way that preserves our freedom and culture. So the conclusion was that our war aim should be "to eliminate terrorism as a threat to our way of life as a free and open society."

Because the United States can't count on preserving our way of life by means of a defensive strategy, there was and is no practical alternative to a strategy of offense.

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