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Reagan's 'good war'.

From the outset, the Reagan Administration made the war against terrorism the ideological centerpiece of its foreign policy. It was an attractive formulation. Terrorism, like treason, never prospers; in the last decade it was particularly abhorred. The hostage crisis was a major factor in Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980, and Reagan found a villain against which Americans could all do battle--his own abstract Great Satan. No need for complicated military deployments in dusty deserts or attenuated struggles in the jungle quagmire. This war could be fought on the cheap, in the media. Just let Jeane Kirkpatrick loose in a U.N. debate, or unleash George Shultz at a conservative convention, and the electronic battlefield would be activated. The networks manned the front, the newspapers and columnists brought up the rear, and the 82nd Airborne stayed safely in its barracks.

The beauty part was that the war against terrorism was unlosable; the reality is that it appears to be unwinnable as well. Rhetorical attacks against terrorism in the abstract have proved useless against acts of terror in the particular. Add the hijacking of the Kuwaiti Airbus and the murder of two of its passengers to the roster of ambushes, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations that have occurred around the world in the past four years. The list grows longer as the Administration's rhetorical response gets more strident. Reagan is bogged down in this fray as surely as his predecessors were trapped in more conventional conflicts.

The failure can be seen on two levels. First, strategic: terrorist acts are by their nature unanswerable, except at unacceptably high cost. The Nazis made a practice of retaliating against entire towns when an act of terror (we called it resistance in those days) was committed. But what with the Third World in turmoil already and American interests threatened by insurencies all over the globe, it would be dangerous for the President to make indiscriminate examples of innocent civilians simply to satisfy

Secretary Shultz's revenge fantasies. In any case, a strategy of vengeance never works. As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admits, the bombing of North Vietnam strengthened the will of the people to resist, rather than weakening their support for the guerrilla armies. And ask any Israeli how much peace has been bought by that government's retaliatory strikes during the last two decades.

The second level of failure is more profound. The Reagan war is inherently illogical and functionally hypocritical. The concept of terrorism--like peace, poverty and war itself--represents a judgment about effects, a statement about symptoms, an interpretation of events. It is not a thing in itself. To win a war against terrorism, Reagan would have to encourage a restructuring of the international order: to give power to those who do not have it, to diminish the domination of those in command, to redistribute resources on a global scale. Obviously, that is not in the cards. Instead, the Administration wages the war by building concrete bunkers around the White House, the Pentagon and overseas facilities, and by threatening force against other governments which may or may not sympathize with terrorists. The fact that Reagan did not launch a single antiterrorist action during his first term indicates how difficult his policy is to effect.

The hypocrisy is that Reagan is not concerned about international terrorism but about international opposition. He defines those he opposes as terrorists. Certainly many on the official list are despicable murderers and irresponsible extremists, but so are some who are absent from it: the Chilean junta, the Salvadoran military, that South African government, the Nicaraguan contras, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, Chun Doo Hwan in South Korea. Closer to home, F.B.I. Director William Webster last week specifically excluded those responsible for bombing more than a score of abortion clinics from being designated as terrorists.

"I'm trying to at least hold the line and not call everything terrorism," he explained ingenuously. So the pro-life bombers of the Army of God are given a lower priority on the F.B.I.'s wanted list because they are not trying "to shift the government," as Webster said. He added, "[Their] objective is social."

No reasonable policy can emerge from hypocrisy and illogic. If the President was willing to give up his rhetoric and get down to cases, he might get somewhere. Then he could begin making concerted attacks against insurgencies of the left, against black revolutionaries, against Third World liberation movements and domestic solidarity groups, against radical feminists and Catholic militants, against Libyans, Iranians, Nicaraguans, Vietnamese, Palestinians, Shiites and Cubans wherever they may be. That would be bloody and awful, but at least he could claim to see light at the end of the tunnel.
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Title Annotation:Ronald Reagan's war against terrorism
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Dec 22, 1984
Words:786
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