The Magazine

Lost in the Wilderness

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Set aside for a moment the amazing equivalence implied in Powell's statement: the suggestion that Palestinian terror and Israel's military response are equally to blame for the current crisis. And never mind that Powell is quite wrong in insisting that the Israeli operation will accomplish nothing. On the contrary, the Israeli military campaign, which has rounded up over a hundred known terrorists, uncovered weapons caches and bomb-making facilities, and revealed the paper trail showing how Arafat and the Palestinian Authority work with the terrorist cells, could well have a substantial impact in reducing the frequency of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. Will it end terrorism against Israel once and for all? Of course not, but neither will the American operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere end terrorism against the United States once and for all, as the Bush administration has repeatedly reminded us.

The most startling thing about Powell's comment is what it implied about our war on terrorism. If Israel's "response to terror" is counterproductive, does the same principle hold true for our actions against Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and others? Is our "response to terror" no solution, too? After September 11, the left said about America's war on terrorism what Powell is saying about Israel's war on terrorism: that it could never succeed, that it would not address the "root causes" of terrorism, that it would not address the anti-Western and anti-American anger that was seething in the Muslim world, that killing Islamic radicals and Afghans would only create more terrorism. Critics of President Bush's war on terrorism have been saying all along that "the response to terror is no solution." It is a sign of how lost this administration is today that Secretary Powell has unwittingly mouthed the logic of the administration's harshest critics.

The Bush administration will not find its way back out of the wilderness until it remembers the key principles of the war on terrorism. The question is not whether terrorists claim to be acting on behalf of a legitimate cause. Do the Palestinian people have legitimate aspirations? Of course they do. And Islamic fundamentalists also have aspirations which might be called legitimate. They think their countries should be run according to Islamic law. They think the West is poisoning their culture. They wish the Saudi royal family were out of power.

The question, though, is not what people want; it is what they do. If they kill innocents, if they murder civilians, if they walk into hotels and blow up Jews celebrating Passover, or if they fly passenger jets into the World Trade Center--that is terrorism. And that is what we are fighting against. Unfortunately, in the interest of currying favor with the Arab states, the Bush administration has seriously blurred the purpose, the meaning, and the justification for our war on terrorism. Instead of demanding that Israel halt its war on terrorism, President Bush should be demanding a return to clarity by his own advisers.


The big winner in the current fiasco will probably not be Yasser Arafat. We believe Arafat's days are numbered as a major player in the Middle East. No, the victor right now seems to be Saddam Hussein. Thanks in large part to the administration's mishandling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--which began with Vice President Cheney's trip to the region almost a month ago--the Arab states are much less inclined to be helpful in any effort against Iraq. Now, we've always believed that most Arab states will have no choice but to go along once President Bush makes his decision. We still believe that. But there's reason to wonder whether Bush will be wary of challenging Arab opinion on Iraq for some time. In recent days, the administration has behaved as if it is petrified of the "Arab street" and potential instability in the Arab world. Administration officials seem to have convinced themselves that "moderate" governments in Jordan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of being toppled--hence the sharp administration turn against Israel. We have no way of evaluating the administration's fears, but if it is so afraid of instability in those countries today, what are the chances it will risk an invasion of Iraq six months or even a year from now?