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Widening War on Terror Reveals New Complications - 2002-05-28

As the war on terrorism widens, it is more difficult to keep it in focus. al-Qaida operatives are thought to be in some 70 countries. The pursuit of them leads inevitably to complications in defining that war and finding ways to win it.

The horrific September 11, 2001, assault on America required an immediate response, and that was done. In an astonishingly short time, U.S. forces routed the Taleban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

In a sense, say analysts, that was the easy part. What follows is the war on terrorism, sharply defined by U.S. President George W. Bush but less focused as it is fought and encounters the world's complexities.

There are wars within that war, notably the conflict between India and Pakistan and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle - not to mention a host of lesser disputes.

These have seriously complicated the war on terrorism, says Robert Litwak, director of international studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of Rogue States and U.S. Foreign Policy. "The Bush administration has sought to execute a clearly delineated war on terrorism, starting with President Bush's speech in which he discussed states that are either with us or against us," he said. "As the administration has implemented its policy, it has had to deal with some of the complexities and contradictions of the world. These have been realized most acutely in the context of the Arab-Israel dispute."

President Bush has continued to try to keep the war in focus. On his European trip, he called the terrorist threat a totalitarian successor to Hitler and Stalin.

This is a mistake, says Robert Higgs, a senior analyst at the Independent Institute, an economic and political research organization in California. He thinks mislabeling an enemy leads to the wrong kind of actions against it. "The president is attempting to do what many presidents have done before, which is to demonize the enemy by evoking symbols of the best accepted demons - Hitler and Stalin," he said. "It is clearly overwrought, and I do not think a lot of people are buying the message, but that does not prevent the president from trying."

To be sure, the comparison is inexact, says Mr. Litwak. Hitler and Stalin had the power of a state behind them. Today's terrorists are stateless.

But he thinks tough presidential rhetoric has its uses. "It is an instrument of political mobilization for the administration," said Robert Litwak. "They also feel that it has yielded some dividends. For example, the tough talk vis-a-vis North Korea is pointed to as a factor that has contributed to bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table."

In combating terrorism, says Mr. Higgs, military force is only one instrument and not always the most useful one. There is a danger in taking action without sufficient thought. "Even the superpower that the United States is today has its limits, and clearly a leading limit springs from lack of intelligence about who these terrorists are, where they happen to be at the moment, what they plan to do next," he said. "Just roaming around the world with military forces does not avail very much in terms of actually allaying the threat."

In The New York Times, Serge Schmemann writes that "terrorism lurks wherever there are grievances, failed states, chaos and despair. The arms and alliances that won World War II and the cold war are not sufficient to meet the new challenge of secretive global networks or rogue operators. They will require forms of international cooperation, anticipation and perception yet to be devised."

One of the major problems of the U.S. war on terrorism is disentangling it from other wars that could divert or undermine it. The India-Pakistan conflict is one such threat; the Israeli-Palestinian another. Many countries have used the occasion to crack down on internal opposition.

While fighting the war on terrorists, you have to make sure they are the right terrorists, says Paul Henze, a veteran U.S. government analyst of foreign affairs. "Everybody jumps on this bandwagon and labels the people that they particularly do not like or that they are oppressing or that are causing them some difficulty - terrorists," he said. "We have to be very careful not to be drawn into that. We have to be particularly careful these days not to support Russian oppression of Chechens and Russian maneuvers against other countries such as Georgia and some of the Central Asian countries."

Robert Higgs, of the Independent Institute, is not sure the United States is exercising suitable care. "Clearly, governments such as the Philippines are happy to have U.S. money and perhaps happy to have U.S. assistance in suppressing some insurrectionists within the Philippines, but one must doubt that this has any important connection with terrorist threats against the United States," said Robert Higgs.

But some U.S. involvement in other struggles is inevitable, says Robert Litwak, director of international studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center. In building support for the war on terrorism, the United States must accommodate the needs of its allies; for example, Spain. "The Spanish concern has been on Basque separatists, and I note that that United States recently froze accounts of some Basque-related groups," he said. "This is good in and of itself, but it is also of assistance to the Spanish government and will perhaps increase their willingness and their motivation to cooperate with us."

No nation is more important in this cooperation than Russia, says Paul Henze. And what a change! Moscow was entirely uncooperative during the cold war - a haven for terrorists who were beyond reach there. "You do not have Moscow as a place where people can run off to if everybody else rejects them," he said. "For a long, long time, if an authoritarian leader or an oppressive regime did not like what the United States or the West in general was saying or doing, it always tried to run off to Moscow and very often got a hearing there and sometimes got very massive support. That is not happening any more."

With all its complications, this war is winnable, says Mr. Henze. Who knows? We may be winning against the terrorists in ways not yet revealed. "We have tracked many down," said Paul Henze. "We have caught some. We have alerted our friends and allies who are paying much more attention to these problems than they were before because they realize they are in jeopardy themselves if they do not. You have to wait a while to see the full effect of what you are doing. Often, it is only in retrospect that you realize how much you have accomplished. "

In the meantime, Mr. Higgs urges that terrorism, as menacing as it is, be kept in perspective. "This threat really does pale in comparison with others that the American people lived under for decades when the Russians had thousands of nuclear warheads targeted at us'" he said. "Yet we learned to have a certain amount of composure in the face of that terrible threat, and I believe it would well serve us to regain our sense of composure and our appreciation of the real proportions of the terrorist threat we face currently."

We can live with this threat, says Mr. Higgs, and we will live.