War Measured

War Measured

Mismanagement and secrecy have stalled the war on terrorism—and at home its effects reverberate against civil rights.


If September 11 was this generation's Pearl Harbor, the Bush Administration's war on terrorism is still in early 1942, when the news from the front was bad, and the home front was panicky and confused. Now the instant-gratification warriors of the press are rushing in to turn things around. Columnists William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer grumble that the Administration is operating under too many constraints. Impatience with the air campaign has sparked calls by the Sunday morning punditocracy to send in substantial ground troops beyond the small contingent already there. Senator John McCain calls for B-52 carpet-bombing. Polls show a rising number of Americans doubt the war on terrorism will succeed.

Our concern is less about fine points of military strategy than about the possibility that the human and political costs of the war might outweigh any gains in national security and undermine America's moral credibility in the fight against the perpetrators of September 11. The bombing campaign may or may not be militarily effective–who knows, since our only information comes from the Pentagon and Al Jazeera–but civilian casualties are eroding support among coalition allies. TV pictures of devastated neighborhoods and wounded civilians fuel anger against America throughout the Arab and Muslim world and provide rallying cries for extremists, who could destabilize fragile governments in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. Sketchy reports from inside Afghanistan suggest that the bombing is turning people's loyalty back to the Taliban–making more difficult any covert operations aimed at capturing the "Evil One." It has sent waves of humanity to huddle on Pakistan's closed borders. As winter sets in, as many as 5 million face dire food shortages.

At home, Congress passes a counterterrorism bill "without deliberation and debate," according to Senator Russ Feingold, the lone senator who cast a historic vote against the ill-named PATRIOT Act. The act grants the Feds sweeping powers that break down the firewall between intelligence-gathering and criminal justice. Nothing in the bill would have prevented the disaster of September 11. And yet Bush and House GOP leaders still balk at passing the one measure that could have: federalizing airport security. Meanwhile, the Justice Department continues to resist legitimate requests for information about the 1,107 people it has detained in connection with the September 11 attacks. Civil liberties organizations and others, including this magazine, have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about those detained, warning that the government's "official silence prevents any democratic oversight of [its] response to the attacks." The government should comply.

Ultimately, the antiterrorism campaign could have disastrous consequences if America alienates its allies abroad and its people at home. The United States must reassure–by words and deeds–the majority of Muslims who oppose the terrorist attacks that the purpose of US military action is not to punish Afghans for the actions of Osama bin Laden. To this end, it should work more closely with the United Nations by curtailing military actions that hamper relief activities and by supporting UN efforts to build a coalition government that represents all parties in Afghanistan.

Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor a multilateral effort against terrorists, including working through the UN. Add to this stepped-up international policing efforts that must be the backbone of any global antiterrorism campaign and financial countermeasures that target identifiable terrorist groups. As Jonathan Schell writes on page 8, "In a war on terrorism–as distinct from a war on a state–it is politics, not military force, that will probably decide the outcome."

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