Rules of Engagement

The Nation, October 15, 2001 | Go to article overview

Rules of Engagement


As this is written, we wait and wonder what the military response will be to the inchoate enemy the President summoned up in his speech to the nation on September 20. Despite the near-unanimous celebration of it by the mainstream media, we were left with troubling questions. The President told the nation it was at war, "a lengthy campaign unlike any we have ever fought," its aim the total "disruption and...defeat of the global terror network." But he failed to clearly identify the enemy or specify any limits on the means to be employed, including avoidance of unnecessary civilian casualties. Osama bin Laden was denounced as the prime suspect, but no evidence of his guilt was adduced that night, and the Administration has yet to produce it.

Bush said that this war would bring to bear "every resource at our command"--diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, finance. But the military option overshadowed all. And there was no mention of applying international law or working with the United Nations, which could lend international legitimacy to the fight against terrorism, giving political cover to Islamic nations who join it.

The President pledged not to wage war on Islam but then proclaimed, "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." He thus broadened the scope of his war to include, potentially, sanctions or even attacks on nation-states deemed not to be "with us," although state-sponsored terrorism has not been implicated in the World Trade Center attack. Since most of the countries thought to harbor terrorists are Islamic, the possibility of action against them sparking a backlash in the Muslim world remains.

A wider war against Afghanistan will heap more misery on that war-ravaged theocracy without fostering the secularization and democratization it so desperately needs. The threat of war has already unleashed a flood of refugees that could destabilize other shaky states in the region, primarily Pakistan, a nuclear power. Bush's black-and-white worldview could justify eliminating Saddam Hussein, a project pushed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

We support an all-out but carefully targeted effort to neutralize identified terrorist networks. This may involve a limited military response, like attacks on terrorist bases, but primarily it should rely on such nonmilitary means as exchanges of intelligence among nations, coordinated investigations by law-enforcement agencies in affected countries and pressure on financial institutions and governments to cooperate in cutting off terrorist-group funding.

Beyond this kind of international campaign, the United States should re-examine the role its foreign policy has played in creating the pools of anti-Americanism that breed terrorists. Not that reciting the dismal litany of US interventions and realpolitik "explains" this tragedy; or that America somehow deserved to be attacked on September 11 because of past policies.

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