From CIAO's Board: Commentary on the Terrorist Attacks against the United States

Stephen M. Walt
September 2001

Harvard University

To win the war against terrorism, which President Bush has called the "first war of the 21st century," the United States must target the right enemy and enlist the right allies. We won the Gulf War in 1991 because we focused on Saddam Hussein and were backed by a diverse international coalition. But we lost the subsequent campaign to keep Iraq disarmed because we no longer had a clear objective and our international support evaporated. The lesson is clear: if we go after the wrong enemy and fail to maintain broad international support, we will lose this war too.

Who is the enemy? It is the terrorists who attacked America on September 11, in all likelihood the Al-Qaeda organization founded by Osama bin Laden. The enemy also includes any states or groups that directly support Al-Qaeda. They are the enemy because they have declared war on the United States and will undoubtedly try to strike again.

In their initial statements, some members of the Bush Administration seem to be calling for a global war against all forms of terrorism. A global approach would be a grave error, because it would divert resources from our campaign against Al-Qaeda and force us into conflicts with disparate groups like the Muslim separatists in Indonesia, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the "Real IRA" in Northern Ireland, or even Palestinian groups like Hamas. It will also encourage these groups to support each other, thereby making our task more difficult. A war against every dissident group that has used violence in recent years will also reinforce the image of the United States as a global bully and ensure that new Bin Ladens emerge. Instead of launching a global jihad against every terrorist everywhere, the United States should employ a strategy of "divide and conquer," concentrating our efforts on the groups that have attacked us.

Which allies do we need most? Although support from our NATO allies and other traditional friends will be useful, it is not the key to victory. Instead, support from Russia and from the Arab and Islamic world is the essential ingredient for stamping out terrorist attacks against the American homeland.

Russia’s help is critical for several reasons. We need Moscow’s cooperation to ensure that its sprawling and loosely-controlled nuclear arsenal does not fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda or other like-minded groups. A group skilled enough to organize these devastating attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center is surely a threat to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. It is therefore imperative that the United States do more to help Russia place its nuclear arsenal and chemical weapons stocks under reliable control. In particular, the Bush administration should reverse its decision to cut funding for the Nunn-Lugar denuclearization programs.

In addition, Russia has a long history of involvement in Afghanistan and long-standing ties to Iraq, Iran, and the Central Asian republics. It is therefore a potential source of intelligence and influence in a region where our own contacts are limited. Should we be forced to engage in direct military action against Afghanistan, access to Russian bases could be invaluable. If we are really serious about winning this war, in short, we need a new relationship with Moscow.

To gain the help we need, the United States should quietly shelve its plans for NATO expansion and a national missile defense. These initiatives may have seemed attractive when we didn’t need Russian cooperation, but they are dangerous follies in an era when Russian backing is essential. Strategy is all about setting priorities, and winning this new war takes precedence over missile defense or bringing a few more states into NATO.

It is equally vital that the United States rebuild its relationship with the Arab and Islamic world. We are not at war with Islam or with the Arab peoples; we are at war with an extremist fringe. To isolate, infiltrate and eliminate that fringe, we will need sustained support from other Arab or Islamic societies. Unfortunately, our ability to obtain broad-based Arab and Islamic backing is hampered by the belief that the U.S. has been insensitive to their concerns in the past. To win against Al-Qaeda, and to ensure that new terrorists do not emerge, we need to persuade the Arab and Islamic worlds that their suspicions of the United States are ill-founded.

As a first step, the United States must take a more even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This effort requires that we first reaffirm our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security within its legitimate pre-1967 borders. But we must also press Israel to offer the Palestinians more generous peace terms than it offered last year. In so doing, we should make it crystal-clear that we do not support Israel’s expansionist settlements policy, that we do not think this policy is in Israel’s long-term interest, and that we are equally sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people. If this is indeed a war for "democracy and freedom," as President Bush has said, then these cherished principles apply both to Jews in Israel and to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The United States should be willing to do more to ensure Israel’s security–thereby denying Al-Qaeda one of its core objectives–but it must also do more to help the Palestinians obtain a viable democratic state.

This shift in policy will understandably leave many American Jews uneasy. But they should recognize that it is neither in America’s nor in Israel’s interest for the United States to be estranged from the Arab and Islamic worlds. They must also come to realize that denying the Palestinians their legitimate rights has not made Israel safer. It is not good for Israel when terrorists attack the United States and it is not good for the United States when terrorists attack Israel, especially when weapons of mass destruction might one day be involved. A strategy that successfully ended Arab or Islamic extremism would leave both Israel and America safer, which is why American Jews should support this new approach.

Finally, President Bush should remind the nation that Arab-Americans and American Muslims are not responsible for this tragedy. We now need the support of all our citizens, and a witch-hunt inside the country will cripple our efforts to build the alliance against Al-Qaeda and discourage loyal Americans of all backgrounds from helping us identify potential enemies at home and abroad.

These measures are not kowtowing to terrorism. Rather, this new strategy is necessary to build a broad global coalition in support of our primary objective: the decisive defeat of those who have attacked America, and whose willingness to kill the innocent is a threat to every civilized society. Winning a war always requires sacrifices, including the sacrifice of entrenched attitudes that our country can no longer afford.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University


Stephen M. Walt
Kirkpatrick Professor of International Affairs
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Bruce Jentleson
Professor of Public Policy, Duke University
Director, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy

Response by Etel Solingen
Professor of Political Science
University of California, Irvine

Response by Stephan Haggard
Professor, Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies
University of California, San Diego
Steven Weber
Associate Professor of Political Science
University of California, Berkeley

Robert Keohane
James B. Duke Professor of Political Science
Duke University

Jack Snyder
Robert & Renee Belfer Professor of Political Science
Columbia University

Anders Stephanson
James P. Shenton Associate Professor of the Columbia Core
Columbia University

Stephan Haggard

Stephen M. Walt

Allan Goodman
Institute of International Education (IIE)

Helen Milner
Professor of Political Science
Columbia University

Stephan Haggard

Jack Snyder

Steven Weber

Robert Keohane

Response by Stephan Haggard
Response by Robert Keohane
Peter Katzenstein
Walter S. Carpenter Jr. Professor of International Studies
Cornell University

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