Even before the smoke cleared from the recent US missile attacks we were told to brace ourselves for a newly declared “war on terrorism,” the “war of the future.” From the lips of Bill Clinton, from his Secretaries of State and Defense, from his National Security Adviser, from Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike, we were informed that the Tomahawk missiles targeted on the supposed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and the alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan were but the opening shots in what would be a prolonged twilight struggle against the shadowy forces of fundamentalist terror.

For all its rhetorical burnishing, from the legal, moral, even geopolitical perspective, this latest pyrotechnic spasm is a gift to America’s worst enemies, has no prospect of achieving positive results and tramples on the United Nations charter. President Clinton’s newly declared war is much more about the past than the future. It is one more example of a long-established pattern of adopting thuggish and reactionary clients, elevating them from political marginality to power and influence, then dropping them and bombing them when it becomes expedient. The focus of our recent fury, Osama bin Laden, was a beneficiary of the US covert war in Afghanistan. His “terrorist training camps” were built for the fundamentalist anti-Soviet mujahedeen, the “freedom fighters” we armed in the eighties.

That’s not to deny that bin Laden and his followers are violent extremists who might very well have had a hand in the bombings of the two US embassies in East Africa. But it is reckless, and an insult to our intelligence, for this Administration to stuff complex social and political movements into the pigeonhole of “terrorism.” Terrorism is not an ideology or creed. It is a political-military “strategy”–one that is reprehensible. Instead of trying to stampede Americans into supporting its version of a national security jihad, the Administration should ask itself why there is growing anti-Americanism in the Arab world. What is it that drives groups of true believers to immolate themselves in embassy-leveling blasts? How can the security of US citizens be better protected without relying on the law of the jungle?

The search for those answers would begin with a reassessment of US Middle East policy. The argument that terrorist attacks are beyond the pale of civilized behavior and that nations have the right to defend themselves against them would have more resonance on the streets of Damascus and Cairo if Washington responded to Israel’s behavior the same way it does to that of some of that country’s neighbors.

The Administration’s regional policy must be broadened by a more forthcoming and positive US outreach to forces in the Arab world favoring a realistic engagement with the West. We must also seek a balanced US foreign policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. Rather than vengeance, the United States should offer the Arabs respect for their concerns and interests.

When President Clinton claims to declare war on terrorism, the Arab reaction is: If only he would–not only by condemning, say, the Israeli authors of the 1996 massacre of 107 Arab civilians at Qana in Lebanon, but perhaps by making a credible attempt to capture and prosecute Gen. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic for the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims.

Relations between the United States and the Arab world are sinking to an all-time low. President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s decision to ease the pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to make good on the Oslo peace accords will only further inflame the region. And if US intelligence did, as is claimed, know for some time that Afghanistan was providing bin Laden refuge and sustenance, why has US policy tilted toward the Pakistani-Saudi policy of supporting and financing the Taliban?

The military action ordered by President Clinton must be unequivocally condemned. Such “demonstration strikes,” aimed at satisfying the public’s and the pundits’ demand for revenge and action, have negligible military value. The Soviets spent years trying to wipe out the same camps targeted by our one missile strike.

These sorts of actions not only invite retaliation, they elevate the intended targets to the status of mythical heroes of resistance, isolating moderates and undermining their careful attempts in Iran and elsewhere to move their nations a step back from militant theocracy. American pundits might downplay any Wag the Dog implications of these attacks, but what other conclusion can millions of ordinary Muslims reach than that Clinton was trying to divert attention from his domestic woes?

Most important, the unilateral missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan are illegal and immoral–violations of international law and the UN charter. They reinforce the notion that Washington considers itself Cop of the World, a rogue superpower appropriating the right to bomb anyone at will. This ties in with US maneuvers this summer to sabotage the founding of an effective international criminal court, despite the wishes of the majority of the UN General Assembly.

“Deep structures of conflict cannot be resolved successfully without abandoning the terrorist discourse and moving toward some sort of peace process,” says Princeton political scientist Richard Falk. “Such moves, as we see in Israel and Northern Ireland, bring no guarantee of immediate peace, but at least it begins to shift the struggle to the political terrain. To only inflict pain rather randomly and without accountability, as the US has, is especially provocative when it is done with weaponry that involves no risk to the perpetrator, in this case with cruise missiles fired against countries lacking a retaliatory capability. Such violence by states resembles the one-sided structure of torture and is certainly itself an advanced form of terrorism.”

Nearly a decade after the demise of the cold war, it would be tragic to return to Us-versus-Them foreign policy making. The world is at a volatile juncture as conflict intensifies between a globalized market and traditional and more developed societies. The deepening global crisis demands new and innovative thinking–a willingness to jettison outmoded dogmas. If, however, our national leadership continues to indulge in the swagger of unilateral hubris, the Administration’s rhetoric may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may not be commencing exactly the war our leaders have declared as our future. But bloody and protracted war it will be nevertheless.