hunting bin laden
Hard Target; We Can't Defeat Terrorism With Bombs And Bombast by Raymond Close
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This article originally appeared in The Washington Post August 30, 1998. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Raymond Close has been associated with the Middle East for sixty years, including thirty-seven years as a resident of Arab or Muslim countries. His family have been teachers, businessmen and diplomats in Arab countries continuously for four generations -- beginning in 1851. A 1951 graduate or Princeton University, Raymond Close was an Arab affairs specialist for the CIA for twenty-six years, and an independent consultant on the region since his retirement from the U.S. Government in 1977.

My first job for the CIA's clandestine services 46 years ago was to organize a network of informants in the squalid Palestinian refugee camps of southern Lebanon -- some, ironically, barely a stone's throw from where my grandfather and great-grandfather established American mission schools more than a hundred years ago. The camps and the squalor are still there, no longer breeding grounds of communism as they were in the 1950s, but of the threat called terrorism.

Most of us accept the premise that terrorism is a phenomenon that can be defeated only by better ideas, by persuasion and, most importantly, by amelioration of the conditions that inspire it. Terrorism's best asset, in the final analysis, is the fire in the bellies of its young men, and that fire cannot be extinguished by Tomahawk missiles. If intelligent Americans can accept that premise as a reasonable basis for dealing with this nemesis, why is it so difficult for our leaders to speak and act accordingly?

After the military strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan, U.S. officials justified their action by citing Osama bin Laden's "declaration of war" on everything American. But to launch missiles into countries with which we are technically at peace -- and to kill their citizens -- is to declare that the United States is free to make its own rules for dealing with this international problem. What standing will we have in the future to complain about any other country that attacks the terrority of its neighbor, citing as justification the need to protect itself from terrorism? Did those who authorized these attacks think through the long-term implications of this short-sighted and dangerous precedent?

Let's get down to practical realities. The new threat we face is often stateless, without sovereign terrority or official sponsorship. Friendly governments around the world -- especially those with large Muslim populations such as India, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Gulf states and the new republics of Central Asia -- share a common need for internal and regional stability. Terrorism is a weapon that threatens all civil authority. This set of circumstances provides an unprecedented incentive for intergovernmental cooperation, even among states that may differ on other basic issues. But the fight against a silent and hidden common enemy requires infinite patience and tact on the part of law enforcement agencies and intelligence services. It demands absolute secrecy, mutual trust and professional respect. If the United States loses its cool without warning, if it is seen by others as a loose cannon that resorts to sudden violent action on a massive scale, the critically needed cooperation will not be there.

My hunch is that the next time we call for help (from Pakistan, for instance, whose very competent police work was evidently vital to the investigation of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings), the officials of that country's intelligence service who are responsible for discreet liaison with the CIA or the FBI will be conveniently "out to lunch." My ex-colleagues at the Agency, and the experienced professionals at the Bureau, must be worried about this. They live on shared confidence. They know how hard it is to develop trust, and how quickly it can evaporate.

In declaring a full-scale war on terrorism, the Clinton administration seems tempted to emulate Israel's failed example. This is understandable, but wrong. Israel's situation is totally different from ours in every imaginable way. The state of Israel has been committed for 50 years to a policy of massive and ruthless retaliation -- deliberately disproportional. "Ten eyes for an eye," the Israelis like to say. And still their policy fails, because they have not recognized what the thoughtful ones among them know to be true -- that terrorism will thrive as long as the Palestinian population is obsessed with the injustice of their lot and consumed with despair. Wise and experienced Israeli intelligence officials have conceded to me that the brilliantly "successful" assassination of a Palestinian terrorist leader in Gaza a couple of years ago led directly to the series of suicide bombings that helped bring Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to power -- and may thereby have set back Israel's chances for peace for many years to come.

Even those who approve in theory of using military retaliation as a weapon against terrorism would agree, I think, that launching unmanned missiles at distant targets as ill-defined as "the infrastructure of terrorism" is neither an effective military strategy nor a credible deterrent against future criminal acts. This will be even more true when the adversary is armed some day with cheap, do-it-yourself weapons of mass destruction. In our understandable frustration, are we resorting to a modern form of the same "gunboat diplomacy" that proved so counterproductive for the dying European empires at the end of the 19th century?

Over several years, the United States has tried vainly to control Iraq's behavior by launching similar kinds of stand-off strikes against Saddam Hussein. Throwing rocks at him from a safe distance at least had the merit of making us feel good, and we justified it by protesting that "we had to do something!" Very recently, our policymakers concluded that this wasn't working. It was costing us a small fortune, severely weakening the overall combat readiness of our armed forces, straining relations with our allies, abetting the interests of our antagonists and economic competitors, and probably only strengthening the grip that Saddam Hussein holds on his suffering people.

So when Saddam Hussein again defied the U.N. inspection regime a few weeks ago, we mumbled some weak excuses and pretended we hadn't noticed. Now, by launching attacks against suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan and threatening more violent retaliation in the event of further incidents, we have started down that same dead-end road -- committing ourselves to actions that we may be unable or unwilling to take under unpredictable future circumstances. This move, seemingly inspired more by exasperation than cool reason, violates basic rules of both diplomacy and warfare.

President Clinton and others have labeled all Islamic terrorists as members or "affiliates" of the "Osama bin Laden Network of Terrorism. " This is, of course, the common mistake of demonizing one individual as the root of all evil. In fact, elevating bin Laden to that status only gives him a mantle of heroism now and, more ominously, will guarantee him martyrdom if he should die.

Informed students of the subject have known for years that although the various militant Islamist movements around the world share a common ideology and many of the same grievances, they are not a monolithic international organization. Our recent attacks, unfortunately, may have inflamed their common zeal and hastened their unification and centralization -- while probably adding hosts of new volunteers to their ranks. We are rolling up a big snowball.

The worst nightmare of our strategic military and security planners is that a small and weak enemy could hold us hostage by possessing a weapon of monstrous power, yet so insignificant in size and appearance that we cannot see it, cannot locate it, and therefore cannot attack and destroy it. The recent military strikes sent the message again, loudly and clearly, to all who would count themselves as our enemies: Accelerate your efforts to acquire new and deadly high-technology weapons -- and manufacture and store those weapons in hard shelters in the midst of your civilian population. American policymakers and military planners have an obligation to evaluate every proposed action by the standard of whether it will help postpone the day when this nightmare may come true. I believe our leadership failed to do so before last week's operations.

Meanwhile, the bombing, portrayed as necessary to forestall additional terrorist acts, has produced a level of public alarm in Washington that is precisely what the terrorists hoped to inspire. We forget, of course, that if the terrorist has any outstanding quality besides vengefulness and cunning, it is patience. He may strike back next week, next month or next year. The ludicrous image of four-star American generals emptying their pockets of coins and keys before passing through the metal detectors at the Pentagon seems to me starkly symbolic of the futility of retaliatory violence. What have we done to ourselves?

What worries me most, in the final analysis, is that our attacks on the targets in Afghanistan and Sudan were reminiscent of what we call "vigilante justice" in American folklore. This kind of policy weakens our leadership position in the world and undermines the most effective defenses we will have against the terrorist threat: a commitment to the rule of law, dedication to fairness and evenhandedness in settling international disputes and a reputation as the most humanitarian nation in the world.

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