What Kind of War?
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President Bush has called upon the nation to engage in a "war against terrorism," a war that must be pursued until final "victory" is achieved. Most Americans support tough action aimed at the eradication of Osama bin Laden's terrorist networks and those of like-minded extremists. But it is not a war against terrorism, per se, that Bush envisions, but a war to ensure continued U.S. military dominance in the Middle East.
In thinking about the war to come, it is important to recognize that "terrorism" is not a cause, like communism, or an identifiable organization, like the PLO or the IRA. Rather, it is a strategy. Throughout history, those who are weak in traditional forms of military power have used unconventional tactics, including terrorist attacks, to overcome those with greater military strength. In the world today, many groups are using such tactics -- the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Basques in Spain, the rebel forces in Chechnya, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, Hamas in Israel and so on. There is no evidence that President Bush seeks to make war on all of these groups; rather, he clearly intends to fight those who threaten American interests in the Persian Gulf region.
The United States has, of course, been involved in conflict in the Persian Gulf for a very long time. Ever since the British pulled out of the area in 1972, U.S. forces have been on call to protect friendly governments -- especially Saudi Arabia and the conservative Gulf sheikdoms -- and to resist any threat to the free flow of oil. This was the genesis of the "Carter Doctrine" of 1980, and formed the backdrop for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Since Desert Storm, the United States has amassed sufficient military power in the Gulf area to deter its two leading antagonists, Iran and Iraq, from conducting a direct assault on Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Some 20,000 to 25,000 U.S. military personnel are in the area at all times, and large quantities and arms and equipment have been "pre-positioned" in the area to permit a rapid expansion of U.S. strength.
Although successful in deterring established states like Iran and Iraq, the U.S. military buildup has not succeeded in preventing attacks on U.S. interests by extremists and irregular forces, like the terrorist networks associated with Osama bin Laden. These groups abhor the presence of American military personnel -- most of whom are non-Muslims -- in the vicinity of Islam's holiest sites, especially Jidda and Mecca. They also resent U.S. support for Israel and the continuing U.S.-backed economic sanctions on Iraq, which are said to punish ordinary Muslim Iraqis unfairly.
The anti-American extremists of the Persian Gulf area know they cannot expel the U.S. presence from their midst through conventional military means, so they rely on terrorism. They bombed the U.S.-supported headquarters of the Saudi Arabian National Guard in 1995, the Khobar Towers (a U.S. military apartment complex) in 1996, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000. Now they have struck in New York and Washington.
As claimed by President Bush and many others, the terrorist strikes on September 11 were an act of war against the United States. But they were not mere expressions of anti-American or anti-Western sentiment, as suggested by some. Rather, they were a major assault in the continuing struggle between the United States and its adversaries for control of the Persian Gulf. Now, a new chapter in that conflict is about to unfold.
From all that we are hearing in Washington, President Bush intends a major escalation of this continuing war. "We are planning a broad and sustained campaign to secure our country and eradicate the evil of terrorism," he declared on Saturday. In all likelihood, this will involve air strikes against terrorist camps in Afghanistan, along with commando-type raids to seize bin Laden and his associates. It is also likely to involve punishing attacks on Iraq and other countries that may have harbored bin Laden's teams or assisted them in some manner. Ground troops may be sent into the area to secure key positions (for example, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) and to subdue any resistance to U.S. attacks.
No one can predict where all of this will lead. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prevent the rise of an anti-Soviet regime, only to depart in ignominious defeat some six years later. No doubt U.S. forces will work very hard to avoid the mistakes made by Moscow, but the terrain and the environment are not conducive to American-style high-tech warfare. It is also hard to know whether ordinary Afghans will welcome American troops as liberators or, as in the case of Soviet forces, as alien invaders.
President Bush has received a strong mandate from Congress and the American people to take vigorous action to punish those responsible for last Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington. But he owes it to all of us to be honest about his intentions and -- without going into military details -- to spell out the implications of the various scenarios he is considering. Congress should also be given an opportunity to discuss the relative merits of various military options -- as occurred in January 1991, during the historic Senate debate on U.S. strategy in the Gulf that preceded the onset of Operation Desert Storm.
It is abundantly clear that a campaign against those directly responsible for Tuesday's attacks, aimed at bringing them to justice, is something that most Americans support. But a bloody, protracted war in the wasteland of Southwest Asia would not only fail to eradicate terrorism -- it could produce sharp divisions at home as well.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and the author of "Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict" (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2001).