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War Games

When President Bush declared war on terrorism just after September 11, he promised something very important: America would not merely punish the terrorists; it would punish the states that sponsor them. And so when Bush stood before Congress two weeks ago, he issued an explicit ultimatum to the Taliban, the medieval fanatics who harbor Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network. "The Taliban must act, and act immediately," Bush vowed in his speech. They must "close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure" or "share in their fate."

The Taliban, unsurprisingly, has not backed down. But there are signs that Bush may. With each additional invocation from a Bush surrogate, the "war on terrorism" seems to shrink in scope and moral purpose. "Military force will be one of the many tools we use to stop individuals, groups and countries that engage in terrorism," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a New York Times op-ed last Thursday, "... but this is not a war against an individual, a group, a religion or a country." In recent days Secretary of State Colin Powell has gone further, questioning whether "we should even consider a large-scale war of the conventional type." In other words, we're not really fighting a war against states, using weapons and soldiers, so much as a metaphorical war--a "war-like" effort--in which military operations play a vastly reduced, largely complementary role.

Practically and morally, this is lunacy. The Bushies worry that a war on terrorism would prove messy and difficult. But a "war" on terrorism would be just as messy and difficult, and would hold out no chance of really solving the problem. Consider what would happen if we pursued bin Laden and his lieutenants simply as criminals. Because American officials have no jurisdiction in other sovereign countries, they would be at the mercy of foreign governments--governments that, in the past, have proved far from helpful in anti-terrorist efforts. The Saudis, for example, were notoriously resistant to our attempts to bring to justice the Khobar Towers murderers. The government of Yemen continues to impede our investigation into the attack on the USS Cole. Treating September 11 as a police rather than a military problem may actually give the United States not more room to maneuver, but less.

At various times, Rumsfeld has called on men and women dressed in "bankers' pinstripes" and "programmers' grunge" to wage the conflict against terrorism in the world's electronic databases. But while perfectly appropriate as a subsidiary measure, the cyber "war" will not be effective on its own. As Michelle Cottle explains this week ("Eastern Union," page 24), if you limit Al Qaeda's cash flow, it will simply find other ways to transfer money. In fact, Rumsfeld's suggestion that programmers and bankers can beat terrorism sounds like a relic of the globalization mania of the late 1990s--a refusal to recognize that the threats that September 11 brought home are not primarily technological and financial, they are political and military.

This is not to say that overthrowing the Taliban would be easy. But it would be far more effective. Lately Colin Powell has been implying that if Kabul hands over bin Laden, the United States will make peace with the regime. But that would probably keep bin Laden's infrastructure intact. Quite likely, some successor terrorist group would simply take Al Qaeda's place--utilizing the same camps with the same regime's quiet blessing. Were the Taliban replaced with a friendly government, however, international terrorism would lose its primary base of operations. Al Qaeda is almost completely reliant on the Taliban--for freedom to operate training camps, freedom to move across the border, and freedom to transport arms and other supplies. With the Taliban gone, those freedoms would disappear, and the United States could not only strike a blow against bin Laden, but also make sure his followers didn't rebuild his network.

But the problem with the Bush administration's new rhetoric is not only practical, it is moral; it threatens to undermine America's outrage and sense of purpose. The way Rumsfeld and Powell have been talking, the war on terrorism sounds like the war on drugs--a battle against a morally ambiguous, multi-causal plague directed at no particular nation. But the enemy today is not ambiguous, it is not abstract, we are not complicit in its evil, and it is not directed at "the international community"--it is directed at us. Which is why President Bush was right the first time: Fight the war on terrorism with guns. Go after both the terrorists and the regimes that protect them. And save the metaphors for the victory speech.