Bush Waited, Deliberated — and the U.S. Gets It Right


Oct 8, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on October 8, 2001.

With the first attacks on Afghanistan, the United States—joined by Britain—has achieved the first requirement of its anti-terrorism campaign by demonstrating the wisdom of the adage: "If you wound a king, you had better kill him."

America, whose soul was wounded but certainly not killed on Sept. 11, has begun to avenge the murder of its people and those of more than 80 other nations. It has also reaffirmed the credibility of its commitments, not just to its own interests and those of friends and allies but also to its basic human values. The Taliban—and, in time, Osama bin Laden and his terror network—will be taught a powerful lesson.

In the past month, President Bush has gone about this campaign with intelligent deliberation, understanding that it is as much or more about politics as military power. He has drawn on some fortunate experience of the 1990s, otherwise a sleepy decade in U.S. foreign policy. The first Bush administration learned in the Persian Gulf War that the United States could not pursue a conflict in the Middle East on its own or simply in military terms. Faced by Saddam Hussein, who claimed that he represented the Arab street against the "Zionists and imperialists," former President Bush put together a coalition of 31 states, including four Muslim countries, to give the lie to Hussein's claims. The current administration has followed suit, resisting pressures to lash out rapidly far and wide, thereby refusing to play Bin Laden's game of getting the U.S. to cause massive civilian casualties and perhaps radicalizing an entire region. Instead, the president has patiently built a broad coalition that includes support from more than 40 countries. Bush immediately sought support at the United Nations; he has fostered nonmilitary cooperation in intelligence and police work and in controlling the flow of funds to terrorists; and he has repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. has no quarrel with Islam or its peoples. The enemy is Bin Laden and other perverters of the Prophet Mohammed's message.

The 1990s also saw the post-Cold War renaissance of NATO. The Europeans came to understand that U.S. engagement and leadership in Europe remain critical to them and that the alliance has continuing responsibilities, both to guarantee stability on the Continent and to stop conflict in the Balkans. In pursuing the latter, the U.S. and the allies learned to integrate the instruments of military power, political and economic development and religious and cultural understanding into a single package, which is being applied by an informal strategic alliance of NATO and the European Union in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

The reorientation of NATO toward dealing with ethnic and religious conflict, plus lessons learned from war in the Balkans, is thus standing the Bush administration in good stead in the struggle against international terrorism, and especially in gaining unanimous allied support for the strikes in Afghanistan. Experience in the Persian Gulf War and the Balkans has provided the basic framework for getting right today's U.S. campaign.

President Bush has asked for patience and he has warned that the U.S. cannot expect to succeed without casualties. And as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday, in "the long-term battle, there is no silver bullet."

But the 1990s were not completely successful in preparing the United States for today's and tomorrow's tasks. International terrorism in its new and virulent form emanating from the Middle East—its roots, its methods, its consequences and the tools needed to defeat it—is different from anything we have faced before.

Simply understanding what is happening in the region and how to master its challenges will require a major reorientation of U.S. attention and a rebirth of strategic thought paralleling the great spurt of analysis in the early years of the Cold War. It will require the U.S. to rethink relationships throughout the region and to harness the best intellectual, political and cultural resources and insights in America. We cannot afford to repeat a cardinal mistake of Vietnam, to brush aside the knowledgeable in favor of the instant expert.

In the "long, twilight struggle" that lies ahead, President Bush can count on the support of all Americans, regardless of political perspective. At a time like this, patriotism trumps politics.

Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at RAND, was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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