Make No Mis­take: This Is War

Michael Chertoff

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

As the rub­ble of the Twin Tow­ers smol­dered in 2001, no one could have imag­ined a day when Amer­ica’s lead­ers would be crit­i­cized for be­ing tough in pro­tect­ing Amer­i­cans from fur­ther acts of war. Now, less than six years later, that day has ar­rived. Since Sept. 11, a con­spir­acy-minded fringe has claimed that Amer­i­can of­fi­cials plot­ted the de­struc­tion. But when schol­ars such as Zbig­niew Brzezin­ski ac­cuse our lead­ers of falsely de­pict­ing or hyp­ing a “war on ter­ror” to pro­mote a “cul­ture of fear,” it’s clear that his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ism has gone main­stream.

Brzezin­ski stated the ob­vi­ous in de­scrib­ing ter­ror­ism as a tac­tic, not an en­emy [“Ter­ror­ized by ‘War on Ter­ror,’ Out­look, March 25]. But this misses the point. We are at war with a global move­ment and ide­ol­ogy whose mem­bers seek to ad­vance to­tal­i­tar­ian aims through ter­ror­ism. Brzezin­ski is deeply mis­taken to mock the no­tion that we are at war and to sug­gest that we should adopt “more muted re­ac­tions” to acts of ter­ror­ism.

The im­pulse to min­i­mize the threat we face is eerily rem­i­nis­cent of the way Amer­ica’s lead­ers played down the Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini’s revo­lu­tion­ary fa­nati­cism in the late 1970s. That naive approach ul­ti­mately foundered on the kid­nap­ping of our diplo­mats in Tehran.

A sen­si­ble strat­egy against al-Qaeda and oth­ers in its ide­o­log­i­cal ter­ror net­work be­gins with rec­og­niz­ing the scope of the threat they pose. Al-Qaeda and its ilk have a world vi­sion that is com­pa­ra­ble to that of his­tor­i­cal to­tal­i­tar­ian ide­o­logues but adapted to the 21st-cen­tury global net­work.

Is this ac­tu­ally a war? Well, the short an­swer comes from our en­e­mies. Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of Feb. 23, 1998, was a dec­la­ra­tion of war, a self-serv­ing ac­cu­sa­tion that Amer­ica had some­how de­clared war on Is­lam, fol­lowed by a “rul­ing” to “kill the Amer­i­cans and their al­lies — civil­ians and mil­i­tary . . . in any coun­try where it is pos­si­ble to do it.”

Since then, bin Laden and his al­lies have sought to carry out acts de­signed to strike at our global sys­tem of se­cu­rity, safety and econ­omy. I am re­minded of that ev­ery day when I see threat as­sess­ments and other ev­i­dence of a mil­i­ta­rized and net­worked foe.

Mea­sured by in­tent, ca­pa­bil­ity and con­se­quence, fa­nat­i­cal Is­lamist ide­o­logues have de­clared — and are pros­e­cut­ing — what is, by any ob­jec­tive ren­der­ing, a real war.

To­day’s ex­treme Is­lamist groups such as al-Qaeda do not merely seek po­lit­i­cal revo­lu­tion in their own coun­tries. They as­pire to dom­i­nate all coun­tries. Their goal is a to­tal­i­tar­ian, theo­cratic em­pire to be achieved by wag­ing per­pet­ual war on sol­diers and civil­ians alike. That in­cludes the use of weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

The fa­nat­ics’ in­tent, while grandiose, is not en­tirely fan­ci­ful. Is­lamist ex­trem­ists such as those in alQaeda, the Tal­iban and as­so­ci­ated groups from North Africa to Iraq and South Asia are fight­ing for and some­times achiev­ing con­trol of ter­ri­tory in which they can train; as­sem­ble ad­vanced, in­hu­mane weaponry; im­pose their own vi­sion of re­pres­sive law; and dom­i­nate lo­cal life. To be sure, as Brzezin­ski ob­serves, the ge­o­graphic reach of this net­work does not put them in the same group as the Nazis or Stal­in­ists when they achieved first-class mil­i­tary power. But with­out re­lent­less vig­i­lance and ef­fort from the civ­i­lized world, Is­lamist ex­trem­ists could gain con­trol of a state or es­tab­lish a net­work of rad­i­cal “statelets” in the Mid­dle East, Africa and Asia.

The events of Sept. 11 high­light the dra­matic dif­fer­ence be­tween the con­se­quences of Is­lamist ex­trem­ist war-mak­ing and those of the po­lit­i­cal ter­ror­ist at­tacks un­leashed against the West in the 1970s. The Sept. 11 at­tacks were the most dev­as­tat­ing sin­gle blow ever vis­ited upon our home­land by for­eign en­e­mies. The Is­lamist ex­trem­ists’ plot last sum­mer to blow up mul­ti­ple transat­lantic air­lines in Bri­tain threat­ened a sim­i­larly dev­as­tat­ing — but thank­fully un­re­al­ized — con­se­quence. Both episodes demon­strate that the ter­ror­ist ide­o­logues aim to achieve not only a mas­sive loss of life but also sub­stan­tial dis­rup­tion of our in­ter­na­tional sys­tem of travel and trade.

Sim­ply put, our foes have de­clared their in­tent to make war, have demon­strated a ca­pa­bil­ity to pros­e­cute war and have laid on us the hor­rific con­se­quences com­men­su­rate with war.

In the af­ter­math of Sept. 11, our al­lies cor­rectly per­ceived al-Qaeda’s strikes as acts of in­ter­na­tional ag­gres­sion. By Sept. 12, the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil had passed a res­o­lu­tion vow­ing to re­spond, and NATO be­gan its un­prece­dented move of declar­ing the at­tacks to be ag­gres­sion against all of its mem­bers.

That rad­i­cal Is­lamist fa­nat­ics have not yet achieved all the el­e­ments of state power should not blind us to the global threat they pose. This glob­al­ized war has the­aters from tra­di­tional bat­tle­fields in Afghanistan and Iraq to the streets and al­leys of cities where al-Qaeda-trained killers lurk. More­over, this war can­not be won by arms alone; “soft” power mat­ters. In th­ese ways, our cur­rent strug­gle re­sem­bles the Cold War. As with the Cold War, we must re­spond glob­ally. As with the Cold War, ideas mat­ter as much as ar­ma­ments. And as with the Cold War, this war re­quires our pa­tience and re­solve.

Per­haps the rhetoric of war makes Brzezin­ski and oth­ers un­com­fort­able. But his­tory teaches that the false com­fort of com­pla­cency is a dan­ger­ous in­dul­gence in the face of a de­ter­mined en­emy.

In­tent:

Ca­pa­bil­ity:

Con­se­quence:

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