The Magazine

The Coalition Trap

Oct 15, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 05 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

CAN THE UNITED STATES WIN A WAR ON TERRORISM while winking at some terrorists and cozying up to nations that support them? Can the United States effectively fight terrorism and reward terrorism at the same time? You shouldn't have to ponder those questions very long. The certain answer is no.

But the Bush administration isn't certain. In its effort to build the broadest possible coalition of nations in support of the narrow objective of destroying Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network in Afghanistan, the administration now runs a real risk of making so many compromises with terrorists and their sponsors that the fundamental goals of President Bush's war on terrorism will be sacrificed.

Consider the compromises with terrorism the United States has already made. Under the secretary of state's direction, the Bush administration has been actively courting Iran. Now Iran has been the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism for over two decades. It supports the Hezbollah terror organization, with a long and bloody record of terrorist actions against Israel and Americans. Whatever openings may come in Iran under the more moderate President Khatami, the men who hold real power in Tehran still sponsor terrorism as a key tool of Iranian foreign policy. And Khatami himself still supports Hezbollah. That is why, in the effort to woo Iran, the Bush administration has, incredibly, decided to soft-pedal any criticism of--let alone take any action against--Hezbollah. When the White House released the list of terrorist bank accounts it intended to freeze, accounts related to Hezbollah (among others) were absent. Can one plausibly claim to be fighting a war against terrorism if Hezbollah is off the target list?

There's more. This past week the Bush administration backed a mission to Iran by British foreign secretary Jack Straw. Among the messages Straw delivered to the Iranians was this: "I understand that one of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine [sic]." You may have thought that the only people who think the September 11 attack was related to lack of progress in the peace process are American college professors and European intellectuals. As the New York Times's Thomas Friedman and others have pointed out, Osama bin Laden and his gang don't give a hoot about the peace process.

But now, amazingly, the Bush administration, driven by the secretary of state's coalition-building strategy, has linked the September 11 attack with the peace process. President Bush's declaration this past week that he favors a Palestinian state was designed to firm up wavering Arab support, such as it is, for the war on terrorism. We doubt it will have much effect on Arab leaders, who are with us or against us for reasons largely unrelated to the peace process. It certainly will have no effect on the Iranians, as Jack Straw learned when the Iranians rebuffed his overture.

But let's assume that the message was really designed to appease the so-called "Arab street." Will it? No. In fact, it will have the opposite effect. Just think for a moment about the message the president, at the secretary of state's direction, was really (if inadvertently) sending: Terrorism works. Prior to September 11, Bush had said not a word about a Palestinian state. After September 11, he was declaring it his vision. To the Arabs and Palestinians who danced and cheered as the twin towers fell, Bush's statement told them they were right to celebrate. Kill enough Americans, and the Americans give ground. Bush's statement last week was thus not a blow against terrorism. It was a reward for terrorism. It tends to make bin Laden a hero to the Arab masses, and it will teach a generation of radical Arabs that progress in the war against Israel and the West can be achieved through the killing of Americans.

How could the president have blundered in this way? We fear that his understandable admiration for Secretary of State Powell, the man, has clouded his judgment about Powell the strategist. But Powell has made bad strategic judgments before, the most egregious being his well-documented effort to avoid going to war against Iraq in 1990, and his insistence on leaving Saddam Hussein in power in 1991. Then, too, Powell was preoccupied with coalitions, resistant to the use of American military might, and hostile to regime change. Of course then, Americans had not been attacked. Now that they have, our most basic strategic imperatives should be obvious: We must severely punish the aggression against America, and we must either deter or destroy other enemies considering or planning such acts. Moral clarity is indispensable to the strategic clarity needed to pursue a successful war against terrorism of the sort the president outlined.