The Magazine

Sovereignty Amidst Terror

Every terrorist lives in a nation-state, which is accountable for him.

Oct 1, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 03 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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To those who regard all this as anachronistic, we should be more forthright. The terror menace has reached the scale it now has because too many countries—including our own—have been too willing to replace the historic claims of sovereign states with ineffectual and hypocritical international "understandings."

So the Palestinian Authority, which is not recognized as a sovereign state (and does not even claim to be one), is allowed to send delegates to international forums as if it were. Israel is told that it cannot interfere in "Palestinian territory," but the Palestinian Authority is not responsible for terrorist actions launched from that territory.

What is true for "Palestine" is true, in greater or lesser degree, for Syria, Libya, Iraq, and other sponsors of terror. We do not hold them to the standard of sovereign states. We have allowed them to connive with international terror, so long as they keep it below a certain acceptable level—and target it away from Europe or North America. Now it may be that states that have sponsored terror at a deniable distance have lost control of the most fanatic terrorist cells.

But the principle remains: If states do not suppress international terrorist operations on their own territory, they are failing in their most basic obligations. The victims of this failure are entitled to take up necessary policing duties on their own. Or they are entitled to regard host state failings as justification for war—against the sponsoring or negligent states. The United States now stands in the front rank of the victim states. And in war, toppling the other side’s government is a time-honored tactic. Let this be clear.

We may not replace the dictatorships of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad with a western-style democracy. But we can hope to see them replaced with regimes that know the price of their independence is reliable cooperation in suppressing terror attacks on outsiders. That is the duty of sovereign states. That’s what we should be fighting for. It is more than enough.

Jeremy Rabkin teaches international law at Cornell University.