President Bush tells us that the nation is at war. It isn't. Congress didn't declare war, but it came close. With reference to the War Powers Act, Congress authorized the President to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized or aided the terrorist attack that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." The President was further authorized to take necessary steps to prevent any future acts of terrorism.
As it turns out, the chosen language and tone are not new. We have heard it all before. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorized the President to "take all necessary means to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression." Senators Morse of Oregon and Gruening of Alaska voted "no" in 1964 for the express reason that the resolution was overly vague and would likely to cause America to back into a war without ever deciding to do so. History shows they were right, as the resolution led to Vietnam -- most certainly a war, although we never officially recognized it as such. Likewise, what the Congress passed last week fails the test of explicitness and for that reason could lead to the same result.
While Congress attempted to narrow the President's action to the committed atrocities, this resolution reads much like the broad authorization that it gave LBJ to oppose further aggression, whatever that might be. And that would be the President's call, as we came to discover.
Charles Krauthammer, columnist for the Washington Post, argued last week for an outright declaration of war. That President Bush is now telling us that we are at war, even though technically we aren't, might give pause. Moreover, as was the case nearly 40 years ago, the Congress, by not taking the bold step, has neatly positioned itself to bail out irresponsibly if the campaign goes sour.
Krauthammer saw the problem coming from the outset: "Secretary of State Colin Powell's first reaction to the day of infamy was to pledge to 'bring those responsible' to justice. This is," wrote Krauthammer, "exactly wrong. President Roosevelt did not respond to Pearl Harbor by pledging to bring the Japanese naval aviation to justice. He pledged to bring Japan to its knees."
Last week, Congress was not prepared to go that far.
Krauthammer's argument, while compelling, is also problematic. Go to war against whom? He urges us to declare war against radical Islam; Bush says it is against terrorism itself. War, to my knowledge, has never been declared against a religious sect or an "ism"; rather it is always declared against a nation state. If we were to act on Krauthammer's idea, we would need such an enemy -- people who at least can sign surrender papers. The President's assertion that that we, indeed, are at war, requires him to answer the same question.
Today, a week after the attacks, we aren't even certain who did this terrible act. We have never faced before, even imagined, this depth of evil. Perhaps, however, we know where to begin. As the mounting evidence points to the awareness, even deep involvement of Osama bin Laden, we must launch a major effort to find him and his closest colleagues, some of whom have been in the terrorism business for two decades.
But if Bob Baer, a 17-year veteran of the CIA in the Middle East, whose opinions were included in a recent story by Salon.com's Jeff Stein, is correct, bin Laden may have been little more than the man with the money.
"I'm not saying he's not involved," Baer said of bin Laden, "I'm just saying that he could not coordinate this alone. He's got a bunch of yahoos around." And who is Baer's candidate? "The Islamic Jihad in Lebanon are the pros," he said.
What if Baer is right? What if the President sends troops to Afghanistan to find and locate and "bring to justice" bin Laden, when all the while the truly guilty are planning their next operation over in Lebanon?
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said last week in an interview with Margaret Warner of the NBC Nightly News that the calling up of reserve troops was primarily intended to ensure internal national security. The President's rhetoric sends a different message.
The concern for many parents becomes personal in a hurry. How many would send their son to the mountains of Afghanistan on the offchance that he might contribute to the capture of one terrorist who might not even be the right bastard? We have a boy who is soon to turn 15. Boys who turned 15 in 1965 were in Vietnam three years later. We aren't prepared to send our boy to risk death in the mountains of Afghanistan for a murky set of objectives and moving targets.
What makes our concern all the more serious is that we know that even if that terrorist is the right bastard, experts are now saying that his capture or death won't fix the problem beyond the level of vengeance. And in the wake of vengeance, we will have created a martyr whose followers likely will cause further destabilization. And in perhaps the most chilling analysis, this counterattack we appear to be planning may be the real goal of bin Laden and his cohorts. Perhaps they saw that launching the worst terrorist attacks in human history as the quickest way to light the fuse on a new world war that would ultimately pit all of Islam against the West.
But then again, the President and his advisors, all
their rhetoric notwithstanding, may have some-
thing other than a conventional, immediate counterattack in mind. Perhaps they don't see a ground conflict. We have, after all, so much work to do right here in America. This disaster could have and should have been prevented. After the dust settles, Americans will likely become quite angry at their institutions -- institutions that failed them in their core mission: protecting us from the bad guys. There's an FBI that apparently doesn't have any agents who speak Arabic or Farsi; a CIA that seems to have been adrift since the fall of the Berlin Wall; and an FAA that won't do more than fine airlines for repeated security breaches.
But some of that blame should rightly fall on our own shoulders. We seem to dictate that we want small government, which in this case meant poorly paid, barely trained security staff at airports. The $40 billion we're now going to spend to rebuild and prepare for what's next could have paid for a lot of airport security. In England, similar jobs pay very well and are handled by the government. Some jobs' effectiveness, it turns out, need to be judged by much more than just low cost. Our nation's airport security, we know now, was so weak as to be almost worthless.
No doubt our entire intelligence effort needs to be rethought and reformed, too. We never have been able to get a fix on intelligence gathering. In the hands of a paranoid Nixon administration, it succumbed to one kind of dysfunction. In the hands of adventurers like William Casey and Ollie North, another. Under Clinton, it was just more bureaucracy for its own sake, with fewer agents out in the trenches and more sitting behind desks.
And as for immediate military action, we can hope that behind his rhetoric the President has in mind a carefully and quietly orchestrated, international dragnet about to descend on terrorist cells and their leaders worldwide. Perhaps he really doesn't plan for that ground war that few can see us winning, but rather a series of commando raids with the full support of a few regimes that until now simply turned a blind eye and went along with the anti-American gag.
We shall see.
We support our President. Lord knows we need
him to be wise and strong -- and we know
that he is caught between many rocks and many hard places. But he must not let this deed lead us into another Vietnam. We must avoid a repeat disaster. As much as he needs to show results, he and his administration face the task of educating the public -- not merely informing, but educating them.
They say the military's fatal mistake, throughout American history, has been to prepare to fight the next war by the rules of the last one. We have learned a lot from Vietnam, but if this current effort is allowed to become another quagmire, drenched in even more American blood, with no clear definition of victory, an American public that seeks obvious and immediate results may not see it as honoring the victims.
We need to accomplish more than scorching land occupied by people who don't need to be bombed back into the Stone Age, for that is their address today. Diplomacy and intelligence need to guide us as much as our anger and yearning for justice.
Wolfowitz, I think, along with Powell, understands all these factors. Wolfowitz spoke to the challenge in last week's interview: "The policies of the last 20 years, whether you think they were carried out effectively or ineffectively, obviously don't work."
This remark is pregnant with meaning, for it is likely that the staying power of the American people -- being "in it for the long haul" -- will depend on a clear understanding of how and why the world has changed.
This mess can come out the way we all hope; America has faced dark days like this before and prevailed. Anyone who thinks the United States will not mobilize and act is no student of history. But if our leaders fail to move our understanding beyond saber-rattling rhetoric, if the public loses confidence and if we don't clean up our own internal failures -- if all this happens, then terrorism wins.