Waging the New War on Terrorism

Brief Analyses | Government | National Security

No. 374
Thursday, October 04, 2001
by Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.

We are now at war. President Bush and the U.S. Congress have made that clear and the public has evinced so far overwhelming support for their leaders' calls for waging a long, patient and difficult struggle against both those who attacked us so brutally on September 11 and those who support global terrorism.

That's the relatively easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to wage this war - and against whom precisely. Fortunately, if the Bush Administration adheres to the president's description of the problem and the solutions as laid out in his address to a Joint Session of Congress, it has a road map that should prove to be a reliable guide for success in this epic struggle.

Specifically, Mr. Bush declared on September 20, "The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it and destroy it where it grows…. Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

The president then spelled out what that meant: "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime…. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism."

Toppling Hostile Regimes.

We are, in short, not only seeking out people with no known forwarding address, who live and operate in the shadows and lash out in unpredictable ways from ever-changing launching points. We are also at war with people who do have capital cities, security apparatuses and infrastructures. And without the latter, terrorist networks would function, if at all, only at far greater risk of detection, interception and preemptive action before they are able to launch their deadly attacks.

This reality opens up an important new approach for the United States for waging the fight against international terrorism: toppling hostile regimes.

To be sure, putting entrenched, tyrannical regimes out of business can be difficult and risky. It requires a coordinated political, diplomatic, military and economic strategy to weaken, delegitimize and, finally, end the tyranny of the ruling elites. Still, if the following sorts of tools are employed, such a strategy can work. In any event, given present and foreseeable circumstances, it must be tried.

Step One: Commitment.

Mr. Bush appears to have already taken the first step needed to adopt a successful strategy aimed at toppling hostile regimes by making a clear and determined commitment to such a course of action and mounting a dedicated, sustained effort to implement it. The president must be on guard against the temptation to shrink from this course of action in the interest of making expedient "marriages of convenience" with some of the very regimes most closely associated with state-sponsorship of terrorism (e.g., Syria, Iran and Sudan).

He must also refrain from another, nearly as dangerous, mistake: deferring to some future "second stage" decisive action against governments like Iraq that may well have been directly involved in the September 11 attacks and that are - thanks to their involvement in proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - becoming more dangerous by the day.

Step Two: Delegitimizing Regimes.

A second prerequisite must be a concerted effort to delegitimize the ruling clique. In the 1980s, President Reagan depicted the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire" - an extraordinarily effective means of defining the nature of the problem and establishing solidarity with those enslaved by the USSR.

Step Three: Economic Measures.

Another important component of any successful strategy to topple hostile regimes must be the effective use of economic measures. These should be calibrated to weaken the ruling elite and, wherever possible, to empower the opposition:

  • Freezing the financial assets of terrorist leaders, their organizations and support networks - something President Bush's executive order of September 24 did to more than two dozen entities, but more remain to be targeted.
  • Serving notice on foreign entities tempted to engage in proscribed trade and financial transactions that calibrated U.S. import controls will be imposed upon them if they do so.
  • Limiting or denying access to the U.S. debt and equity markets to those foreign entities conducting sanctioned commercial activities with the targeted country.

Step Four: Military Action.

In all likelihood, bringing about the downfall of hostile foreign regimes will require as part of a comprehensive strategy some form of military action. After all, dictators typically control the majority, if not virtually all, of the weapons in a country. Unless that monopoly is broken in one fashion or another, uprisings against ruthless and determined despots usually go the route of the post-Desert Storm challenge to Saddam Hussein's rule, leading to the wholesale slaughter of the insurgents. In circumstances where indigenous freedom fighters are prepared to offer resistance to rogue state regimes, the military option can be exercised without a significant commitment of U.S. armed forces personnel.

In certain high priority instances, such as Iraq, where the possibility exists of creating a provisional government that would bring an end to Saddam's ongoing, covert weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and other malevolent behavior, the United States may wish to consider providing more direct military support - including air cover. Clearly, there are circumstances in which the use of U.S. ground forces may be the only way to end a threat posed by a terrorist-sponsoring state, although it is desirable that they be employed only as a weapon of last resort.

Benefits of Victory.

Bringing about the downfall of even one of the odious governments that enable and sustain terrorists - and, importantly, ensuring that it is replaced with one that respects its own people's desire for freedom from such brutality, directed at both them and us - would make a signal moral and functional contribution to the war effort. If properly conceived and pursued, such efforts should enjoy enormous popular support from those who want an end to the brutal suppression of their lives and liberties by rogue state dictators at least as much as we do.

There is, moreover, a decent chance that such an outcome would cause a ripple effect elsewhere in the fraternity of terrorist-sponsoring states. At a minimum, freedom fighters in other states would be inspired and encouraged to take on their regimes. And, as President Bush evidently appreciates, governments preoccupied with matters of internal security and political control tend to be less capable of organizing, directing or otherwise supporting terrorism elsewhere.

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently President of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

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