The Magazine

America at War

Reprinted from The Weekly Standard on the anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole.

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

From our October 30, 2000 issueFrom our October 30, 2000 issueTHE DUST FROM THE RUBBLE of the Berlin Wall had barely settled when, in December 1989, George Bush inaugurated the post-Cold War era by sending thousands of American Rangers and paratroopers to Panama to arrest a petty tyrant and drug dealer whose thugs had threatened U.S. soldiers' lives. In the decade since, the frequency and duration of scattered U.S. constabulary missions abroad has increased dramatically--threefold, by Pentagon reckoning. But as the response to the attack on the USS Cole demonstrates, America's understanding of its new, quasi-imperial role in the world has failed to keep pace with events.

The immediate reaction to the bombing of the Cole was telling. President Clinton denounced a "cowardly act of terrorism." An American president these days has difficulty recognizing an assault on a U.S. Navy vessel in a foreign port for what it obviously is: an act of war. Almost anything short of a conventional armored invasion across an international border is now regarded as terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or even genocide--something entirely irrational, as opposed to a calculated political act. And the proper response to today's unconventional assaults is seen to be legal and moral: Terrorists should be "brought to justice" and ethnic cleansers made to stand trial in the Hague; our military forces should be employed in a disinterested, evenhanded way on "humanitarian" missions.

But lumping together the wide variety of unconventional attacks on Americans and U.S. interests under the rubric "terrorism" has created confusion. It has distracted attention from essential distinctions among types of terrorist acts. Some terrorist attacks--like that on the Cole or the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 U.S. airmen--target U.S. military forces. Others--like the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993--target civilians, reflecting a different strategy on the part of the attacker. Some terrorist acts are the deeds of lone malcontents, like Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber; others are part of a coordinated long-term strategy in pursuit of a political agenda shared by a broad-based and determined enemy.

Failing to see that we are at war, we also fail to see our enemies. President Clinton described those who attacked the Cole as "cowardly." In fact, their operation was clever and well planned, and it culminated in an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice and courage: According to news reports, the two commandos in the rubber boat stood to attention and saluted each other just before they detonated their explosives. If these had been Americans laying down their lives, their story would be fit for a John Wayne movie. Likewise, in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu that killed 18 Army Rangers and ultimately drove Americans out of Somalia, hundreds, if not thousands, of Somalis were killed and wounded.

Not only are these anti-American warriors brave, they are increasingly well organized, well armed, and well trained. "Globalism," it turns out, favors not only international businessmen, but also international drug lords and guerrillas. These may be "non-state actors," but they benefit from state sponsorship, and they can form alliances of convenience with governments hostile to the United States or simply take advantage of weak or failing states. New information technologies, along with old-fashioned weapons proliferation, make the resort to violence both tempting and effective.

Curiously, those most resistant to these lessons include the leaders of the U.S. armed forces, both in uniform and out. To them, constabulary duties are far less glamorous and honorable than the conventional wars they signed up for, and far more ambiguous. These missions do not take place on a well-defined battlefield and drive to a clear end. As a result, despite their frequency, the Pentagon has done almost nothing to adapt its operations, its forces, or its budgets to the new reality.

Our military leaders cling to the mantra that their job is to fight the nation's wars, the neat and clean conventional wars they prefer. And when, inevitably, there comes a Khobar or Cole-style attack, the Defense Department retreats into denial, blaming the catastrophe on an "intelligence failure" or on the need to accommodate the political sensibilities of our regional allies.

But there must be better ways of responding to these challenges.