More than a metaphor, fight against terror is a real war

In an interview published in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Sen. John Kerry raised what may become the fundamental issue in the coming elections: Is the war on terror a real war or a metaphoric war like the war on drugs or the war on poverty?
In an interview published in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Sen. John Kerry raised what may become the fundamental issue in the coming elections: Is the war on terror a real war or a metaphoric war like the war on drugs or the war on poverty?

In the Times article, Kerry used his experience as a prosecutor to discuss the battle against terror as primarily a law-enforcement proposition aimed at reducing the terrorist menace to the level of a nuisance rather than a global threat. His view is in keeping with that of his likely secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke, also expressed in the story, that the fight against terror is a war only in the metaphoric sense.

But while terrorists are criminals, the war on terror cannot be pursued through the criminal-justice system. Without their nation-state sponsors, terrorist gangs have much in common with the Cali drug cartel in Colombia. They can inflict limited damage and local mayhem, but they cannot knock down buildings in downtown Manhattan or wreak havoc worldwide. But it is when coupled with the energy and resources only a nation-state can provide that terrorists become massively empowered and ultimately dangerous.

For that reason, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all designated North Korea, Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban as nations that sponsor and harbor terrorists. In those nations, terrorists find official protection, secure borders within which to base operations, a population that can be conscripted into service, an export-import trade that can be used to smuggle weapons, intelligence and diplomatic missions worldwide to assist in planning, and a large budget often animated by oil revenue to use for financing terror.

Until the Times article, Kerry differed from Bush only in the tactics to use in pursuing terror and on the question of whether Iraq was a distraction or an integral part to the war on terror. But the article has created an entirely different, and very wide, division between the two candidates.

If terrorism is akin to the war on drugs, it should be fought through a global interconnection of intelligence and police resources aimed at finding and capturing known and wanted terrorist leaders and at foiling their plans. This view of terrorism, echoed by Al Gore and other Democrats, is akin to saying that one must attack enemy ships at sea but not the harbors in which they find dry dock and sanctuary.

But Bush grasps the essential point that terrorists are fungible. A new crop will appear even as the old and known terrorists are gunned down. Pursuing the terrorist is going after the capillaries. Attacking the nations that harbor and sponsor them is like going for the jugular.

By toppling terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and bringing sufficient pressure on Libya to cause it to renounce terrorism, Bush has put three of the seven sponsors of terror out of business. By maintaining a strong American presence in Iraq and, hopefully, by establishing a stable democracy there, he brings tremendous pressure on Iran and Syria, two other key sponsors.

Hopefully, this strategy will also press the Saudis to pursue terrorism more vigorously. And by demonstrating American resolve, the administration also ratchets up the pressure on North Korea.

But for John Kerry, these nations are not the targets; individual terrorists are. There is no need for war, only a requirement that we round up the suspects and lock them up. Kerry’s worldview of terror has not been change significantly by Sept. 11.

Subsequent to the attack, he wants to devote more resources to the same task: rooting out terrorists. But does not redefine the mission as a war against nations rather than just an operation against criminals.

And to Kerry’s charge that Saddam did not attack us on Sept. 11, I would reply that Hitler did not attack us on Dec. 7, 1941, either. But we undertook the mission of ridding the world of fascist nations after Pearl Harbor and, indeed, gave priority to winning the war in Europe even though neither Germany nor Italy was among the attackers of Dec. 7.

Strategically, Kerry has opened up a major new substantive issue with his Times interview and has handed Bush a most potent new tool.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.

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