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The New Twilight Struggle.

Old Echoes of Vietnam in a New War against Terror

IT WAS NOT ABOUT US; IT WAS ABOUT THEM. THAT IS THE first thing to understand about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Many motives may have figured in the minds of those who directed this atrocity. Perhaps they hate us, as some pundits say, because we are rich, or because of our liberal and secular culture, or because of our support for Israel--but none of these reasons is fundamental. The basic objective of the terrorists is to destroy the Middle Eastern governments that are friendly to the West and replace them with radical Islamic regimes. Osama bin Laden has said that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, defiles Islam and is justification for jihad. Though cloaked in the language of religion, this comes close to the heart of the matter. Bin Laden and company want to see their version of Islam dominate the Arab world, if not the entire Islamic world. As President Bush said to the joint session of Congress, we happen to be in the way.

Certainly the grievances of the Palestinians are a rallying point exploited by extremists and terrorists of many stripes. But it is nonsense to assert, as King Abdullah II of Jordan has, that the tragedy in this country would not have happened if only Israel and Palestine had reached a peace agreement last year. Moves toward peace have always provoked more terrorism, not less. Moreover, the operation that culminated on September n was under way for years.

The radical Islamic movement is born of the failure of much of the Muslim Arab world to modernize. Arab socialism as a path to modernity reached a dead end in the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, and Arab nationalism proved equally barren. The corrupt elites that control the government and the economy of many countries have squandered oil riches and left the Arab masses in grinding poverty. Nowhere in the Arab world are there real democracies.

For some Muslims--often middle-class or privileged ones--the failure of their societies is unbearable. And rather than blame themselves, they look to external causes and seek solace in religion. The response of a few is to try to return to a 10th century of their imagination in search of a fundamentalist, militant, even apocalyptic Islam that has never existed. It matters not that acts of terror and suicide are antithetical to Islamic tenets.

The strategy of those who perpetrated this attack on America is to provoke a U.S. response that they can represent as a holy war against Islam, thus gaining additional recruits and undermining the legitimacy of moderate Arab states that cooperate with us. No one questions that retaliation is essential; the perpetrators and their supporters cannot be allowed to get off scot-free. But the retaliation must be measured and discreet, or we may drive more people into the arms of the extremists and also lose the enormous sympathy and support the tragedy has generated for us around the world. The Bush administration seems fully aware of this trap but finds it difficult to avoid.

While the president has sensibly counseled patience, his rhetoric has raised expectations to unrealistic levels: "The enemy is terrorism itself." Our aim is to "root out terrorism everywhere." This is an impossible objective. Are we going to go after the IRA and its agents in the United States? How about Basque separatists? We have no dog in that fight. Or the Tamil Tigers? Sikhs of Kashmir? Chechens? The Kurds in Turkey or--closer to home--the Zapatistas? No, we are not. By the time he spoke to Congress, the president had qualified his language. We are now targeting "terrorists of global reach."

Even so, we will have to be painfully discriminating. Radical and terrorist organizations in the Middle East often help one another, even across ideological lines. Besides al-Qaeda, are we going to take on Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the various Algerian terrorist groups? Some of them, such as Hamas, are directly engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Are we going to become combatants in that conflict? Not a good idea if our strategic goal is to defend moderate Arab states against a radical Islamic takeover.

Aside from protecting our people, every action we take must be measured against the goal of thwarting the control and domination of the Middle East by Islamic radicals--and enhancing the survival of states that are willing to cooperate with the West. Retaliation, capturing terrorist leaders, destroying safe havens--all of this must support and be subordinate to that overarching objective.

WILL WE PREVAIL? THE ANSWER TO THAT IS ALL about us and not about them. Despite the outpouring of patriotism, many commentators have questioned whether Americans have the attention span to pursue the long, horizonless war we have declared. But the problem goes far beyond our collective attention-deficit disorder. We are ill prepared, psychologically and perhaps even militarily, for the kind of war that must be waged.

The September 11 attacks have frequently been compared to Pearl Harbor. As a wake-up call, certainly. For the struggle ahead, however, Vietnam provides a much closer analogy as well as an object lesson.

First, there is the danger of "Americanizing" the conflict with Islamic radicals. When the United States moved into Vietnam in force, it turned a struggle among the Vietnamese into one with America. Apart from Israel, the battle against Islamic radicals has largely been waged within such countries as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Syria. In order to thwart bin Laden's efforts to turn these inter-Arab struggles into a war between America and Islam, we must depend on our friends in the Middle East to bear the principal burden in this fight.

The United States can supplement its intelligence capabilities, provide material support and training, and perhaps even conduct special military operations on a selective basis. But we must take care not to undermine the political legitimacy of the moderate Arab governments, or they could fall from within as we defend them from without.

Second, there is the problem of finding the enemy. The Vietcong hid in the jungle, in tunnels, in sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and among the people. Despite massive defoliation, saturation bombing, incursions into Cambodia and Laos, and prodigious intelligence efforts, we seldom found them. Similarly, Islamic terrorists hide in the mountains, operate from sanctuary states, and move invisibly among the Arab people. Identifying them will require better intelligence, but the information will infrequently rise to the standard of certainty. Rooting them out, therefore, will inevitably involve killing the innocent and those only peripherally involved. Does America have the stomach for what in Latin America is called a "dirty war"?

Third, there is the question of sanctuaries. In the Vietnam War, we bombed but never invaded North Vietnam, the principal sanctuary. Will we need to invade Afghanistan in order to depose the Taljban and chase the terrorists from their havens? As the Russians amply demonstrated, this would be a massive undertaking. And what of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran, all of which harbor and support terrorists? If they do not respond positively to the lesson being readied for Afghanistan, can we--will well we--invade them all? Neither the U.S. military nor the American people are ready for war on such a scale.

We might try to bomb the sanctuary countries into acquiescence. It worked in Yugoslavia but, unfortunately, not in Vietnam or anyplace else. Iraq is just the most recent example of how a bombing campaign alone will probably only strengthen the control of the targeted regime. And the likely civilian destruction will radicalize more people throughout the region.

The fourth lesson of Vietnam concerns the corrosive effect on popular support of what is now called "asymmetric warfare." The small victories that characterized the conflict in Vietnam were hard to measure and uninspiring. Our government had to resort to the infamous "body count" to show any semblance of military success. The defeats were seen on TV in America's living rooms and were psychologically devastating.

The battle with terrorist organizations will be even more frustrating. Capturing or killing Osama bin Laden would be satisfying but would not necessarily stop acts of terror against us. U.S. victories against terrorist cells will be small affairs and often kept secret to preserve intelligence assets and protect our Middle East allies from adverse public reaction. So other than our initial retaliation, there may be little to put on television to show that we are winning.

On the other hand, our defeats--and we must expect defeats despite all our efforts--may again involve massive loss of American lives and be displayed on television for everyone to see. This "asymmetric" impact will test Americans' resolve as never before.

Finally, against this backdrop of operational difficulty and potential public frustration, we need to consider whether the American people will support this fight over the long haul. Vietnam offers no guidance in this respect since we were never attacked at home. Indeed, it is sobering to realize that the fatalities inflicted on Americans in one day, September 11, amount to more than 10 percent of American deaths in a decade of combat in Vietnam.

Naturally, we want to fight back because we have been attacked. But once the initial round of retaliation is completed, will the public remain steadfast? In the Gulf War, we fought for the principle that aggression shall not stand; but we were also fighting over oil, and that became controversial. A quick and almost painless victory silenced such criticism. Now we will be fighting for the principle that terrorism will not be tolerated--and to preempt a future and worse conflict between the West and a radical Islamic Middle East. But oil is not irrelevant to our interests in the region. In a long, drawn-out campaign against terrorism, this could become a source of doubt in the eyes of many Americans.

Perhaps this is why the president has reached back to the rhetoric of the Cold War and said that we are fighting for freedom. This also is an eerie echo of Vietnam. And freedom is hardly what friendly Arab governments seek under the circumstances.

This war is fully justified by our strategic interests. Despite daunting obstacles, it is by no means doomed to failure; America has enormous resources and worldwide support. We must conduct the war, however, in a way that ensures that this support--above all, on the home front--remains strong. The administration needs to start by being candid; this, too, is a lesson of Vietnam. We may be able to disrupt the terrorists' operations, keep them on the run, neutralize their key leaders, undermine the governments that provide sanctuary--in short, we should be able to control and minimize the level of Islamic terrorism--but it seems unlikely that it can be eliminated entirely.

Can we sustain our commitment in such a struggle? Can the generation scarred by Vietnam accept the casualties and moral compromises that the battle against terror inevitably entails? Can the subsequent generations of Americans who have little or no knowledge of the Vietnam War learn its hard lessons? If so, we can prevail.

It's all about us.

DAVID AARON, who served as deputy national security adviser During the Iran hostage crisis, is a senior international adviser at Dorsey and Whitney LLP in Washington, D.C.
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Publication:The American Prospect
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 22, 2001
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