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Debating the Future of the War on Terrorism - 2002-06-18

There are starkly opposing views on how to wage the war on terrorism. Some would broaden it to include most forms of terrorism. Others think it should be focused on the immediate threat. As the war on terror nears the one year mark, the debate over its goals and its future has become increasingly critical.

In a speech to the International Democrat Union in Washington, President Bush told the conservative group that the United States may have to engage in a preemptive war against terrorists.

"Do not do it," warns Ivan Eland, director of defense studies at Washington's Cato Institute. "Although things have gone well so far, the war is becoming dangerously out of focus," he warns, adding that, "Instead of facing down the enemy at the gates ... al-Qaida, who has attacked U.S. soil ... the administration is now rattling the saber against all other terrorist groups and rogue states: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, etc."

At a Cato meeting on Capitol Hill, Mr. Eland noted that most of the terrorist groups cited by the State Department do not threaten the United States. Their targets are local and regional. That is true of the Basque separatists in Spain, the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the so-called "real" IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Why make unnecessary enemies of them?" asks Mr. Eland.

Charles Pena, a Cato defense analyst, would say the same for Iraq, adding that, "There are very few terrorist groups supported by Iraq to begin with, and none of them have directed an attack against the United States or U.S. targets for more than 20 years. I do not think you can justify expanding the war on terrorism to include Iraq unless new evidence comes to light."

This is obsolete thinking, contends Ralph Peters, a longtime writer on intelligence and international affairs. He says terrorism is increasingly integrated, with IRA members turning up in Colombia, al-Qaida operatives in Indonesia, etc.

"We do see that terrorists move around the world," he said, "Without exaggerating the connections, they certainly are there. Some are direct and virulent. Others are more tenuous, almost happenstance. But you cannot simply wish them away. If you do not preempt the terrorists, they will attack you."

Mr. Peters says the United States must be prepared to act alone, if necessary, even in defiance of international law, which he believes no longer applies in a terrorist era. "If we do not take this war to the terrorists of the world, the terrorists of the world will bring it to us," he said. "They imagine God is whispering in their ear and telling them to kill, and that is no exaggeration when we speak of the extremists. The nonsensical notion that we can somehow appease them by ignoring them is absolute folly."

Not appeasement, but deterrence is the appropriate policy, says Mr. Eland. It has worked against the far more dangerously armed Soviet Union and China, he contends, "Previously, the United States has not attacked oppressive anti-U.S. regimes with weapons of mass destruction; namely, the Soviet Union and China. Stalin and Mao killed many more people than any of these small, poor countries that we call the 'axis of evil.'"

Fearing an attack, these weaker countries may resort to the weapons of mass destruction the United States is intent on suppressing. In fact, Mr. Pena says, the doctrine of preemptive war may appeal to Saddam Hussein.

It fits his philosophy very well, Mr. Eland says. "If he knows he is going down, knows his regime is going to be taken out the way the Taleban was, if he knows he is going to die, what does he have to lose by using chemical, biological or possibly a nuclear weapon either against U.S. forces or against Israel?"

To be sure, Saddam Hussein is unpredictable, says Ralph Peters. We must be the same to keep him off balance. Patience and strategy are needed, as is military might, in the war on terrorism.