While U.S. President George W. Bush was putting most of his energy pushing his grandiose plan for a national missile defense, along came the airplane attacks in New York and Washington, exposing the nakedness of the administration's strategy. It turns out that while the American defense establishment was busy trying to persuade allies and rivals of the importance of the missile defense system - which will require both abrogating treaties on which stability has been based as well as fantastic amounts of money - senior officials ignored the real threats posed to the U.S.
Beyond the humiliating failure of the American intelligence community, which did not spot the wide-scale preparations for the attacks, what happened on September 11 was also the collapse of the American strategic thinking as presented by the Bush administration. The terror attacks showed how out of step with reality post-Cold War American national security policy has been. While the strategists who form the core of the Bush administration were busy building a picture of threats that needed, at any price, to find enemies who would enable the continued massive funding of defense projects, they ignored the terror threats against America that had developed over the past years.
It's enough to look at the 1998 Rumsfeld report, written by the person who would become the defense secretary in the Bush administration, to see how strategic thinking was diverted in the wrong direction. One result of that diversion was ignoring the possibility of a mass terror attack in the U.S., and its accompanying intelligence failure.
The report, which signaled a turning point in American perceptions of strategic threats, put an emphasis on "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq and North Korea deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear weapon payloads against America. That frightening scenario legitimized the development of a national missile defense system against incoming missiles and justified for many people the allocation of more than $100 billion to complete the project. By focusing on the missile threat, other threats were neglected.
Those opposed to development of the missile defense system claimed that the threat was not real and that if a state did want to harm the U.S., it would not do it with ballistic missiles. Last Tuesday, those claims were proven true. Why should a country invest the huge amount of financial resources and technological efforts needed to develop ICBMs, when tremendous damage can be done to the Americans using much, much cheaper methods?
Presumably, the horrible terror attacks, and especially the ease with which they were executed, will refocus the debate on American defense strategies. That debate, which will no doubt be accompanied by investigations and their resulting recommendations for action, will look at two issues: the ICBM threat and the international terror threat.
The government will have to work hard to explain why it's worth investing huge amounts of money in a deployment against the missile threat when the actual risk is very low, and it has been proven that the real threats come from a different direction. It's difficult at this stage to determine how much Bush, whose own prestige was hurt by his odd behavior on the day of the attack, will be able to rebuff the criticism that will grow against his plan for a missile defense system.
As for the challenge posed by terrorism, the picture is much clearer. The awful effects of the airplane attacks will require the administration to declare all out war on international terror. This time the Americans won't make do only with the organizations, but will operate at the national level, dealing with those states that provide shelter to the terror groups.
The U.S. will demand of those nations on the State Department list of countries that sponsor terror, to extradite the terrorists, or put them on trial. Any country that refuses will be declared an enemy, and the U.S. will deploy all its economic and military resources against those countries. That's the only way to remove the terrorist infrastructures that grew over the years with the West turning a blind eye.
Terrorism, which quite a few countries - including the U.S. - regarded with leniency as long as it affected only the residents of the Middle East, became a threat this week to the West's way of life. As such, it will not be able to put up with terrorism, and the U.S. will lead the effort to eliminate it. The high price that terror took from America highlights the mistake of those who believed it was possible to accommodate those who control it and thus maintain a tolerable level of terrorist activity.
As of this week, Israel is no longer alone in the war against terrorism. But it's best to let America lead the way and not use the opportunity to conduct large-scale military action in the territories on the assumption that nobody will protest. Just because the Americans now understand that terror is indeed a threat that cannot be tolerated, doesn't mean that everything goes. It's also worth listening to the echoes of the debate in the U.S. about the missile defense system and ask here in Israel if the billions being spent on a missile defense are worth it, when the real and more likely threats come from another direction.
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