Facebook Twitter

War’s aims are major

SHARE War’s aims are major

WASHINGTON — There is a tension between President Bush's properly ambitious war aims, which he has stated with minimal ambiguity, and the process he has set in motion to achieve those aims. This tension, which can quickly breed incoherence, then paralysis, arises from the importance placed simultaneously on national self-defense and building a multinational coalition to assist that.

Coalitions can become ends in themselves, particularly if the goal is constant and publicly expressed consensus from a "broad-based" coalition. George Kennan, historian and diplomat, once said that in negotiations, as the number of participants increases arithmetically, the difficulty of reaching agreements increases exponentially. In coalitions, the more numerous the participants, the more they act sluggishly and become hostage to the most reluctant members.

Fortunately, what will be required from members of the coalition of anti-terrorist nations will mostly involve them individually, often secretly, and will include minimal military participation. It will depend mostly on assistance from their intelligence services, banking systems, police, and perhaps basing and overflight permission. This is fortunate because America cannot count on robust support for the most imperative task — punishing culpable regimes and achieving the collapse of at least one of them.

The president, offering an open but soon-to-close window for amnesty, says the United States will consider as hostile all regimes that "continue" to assist terrorists. Some will. Then what?

"I know a lot," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "and what I have said as clearly as I know how is that states are supporting these people." Therefore the Bush administration, which says it has not only drawn America's sword but has cast aside the scabbard, must have the primary goal — far superior to that of pursuing particular terrorists — of causing the collapse of at least one nation's regime that provides sanctuary or other assistance to terrorists. There are two pre-eminent candidates.

Syria is a haven for many terrorist organizations, and such organizations also flourish in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. So the first step is to ask Syria to expel these organizations. The question then becomes: What should U.S. policy be if Syria refuses or — which is indistinguishable, given the president's "you are either with us or against us" paradigm — gives a dusty answer? The answer is that any Syrian recalcitrance should elicit an encounter with the only thing Syria respects — power, such as the destruction of major military airfields, with the aircraft on the ground.

Iraq is rich in targets. Some are as symbolic as were the World Trade Center Towers: Saddam Hussein has more than 40 palaces. Some targets, such as concentrations of armor and troops, or laboratories developing weapons of mass destruction, are of huge practical importance.

Already it is being said that this war is not against any nation. But Jeremy Rabkin, Cornell professor of international law, rightly argues that there is no such thing as a "war" on abstractions, such as conditions, or categories of action, such as the "wars" that have been declared on poverty, smoking, AIDS, drugs — or terror. Rabkin, writing in The Weekly Standard, says "war is a relation between sovereign states." His point is more than merely semantic:

"In the classical conceptions of international law, sovereign states can deny outside powers the right to interfere in their own territory. That's what sovereignty means. But that privilege comes with a price. A sovereign state is obligated to ensure that its territory is not used as a launching pad for attacks on the territory of other states. If the host state won't take action, the victim state is entitled to do so."

The United States acknowledged that principle when it made minimal protests about an 1842 British incursion into U.S. territory from Canada to destroy a ship carrying arms for anti-British rebels in Canada. And when, soon after the U.S. Civil War, Irish nationalists struck at Canada from U.S. territory, the United States apologized, rounded up Irish suspects and offered compensation to Britain. And in 1916 the United States took advantage of that principle when it sent Gen. John J. Pershing into Mexico in response to raids into U.S. territory.

Soon, on campuses, in the media and in Congress (where, in 1991, 47 senators opposed using force to reverse Iraq's aggression against Kuwait), there will be familiar calls to confine the war to minor objectives. But those objectives would mock the president's calculated and correct use of the word "war." When advocates of merely minor objectives are praised as "cooler heads," the pertinent attribute may be cold feet.

Washington Post Writers Group