By Howard Gleckman
President Bush has made a breathtaking promise. "Our war on terrorism," he told a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." And, repeating a theme he has sounded since the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush grimly warned that "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
These are powerful words of extraordinary importance. And they appear to have enormous support within the U.S. Polls show more than 90% of Americans back the President's efforts. Unfortunately, these are vows that the President cannot keep. More troubling, U.S. diplomatic actions since his impassioned speech suggest the White House has no intention of even trying.
John Mitchell, who was Richard Nixon's hard-nosed attorney general, used to tell reporters, "Watch what I do, not what I say." If you apply the Mitchell Rule to the Bush Administration, it's clear that the White House's goals are quite different from its rhetoric. Rather than really trying to end terrorism around the world, it is actually aiming at a much narrower target: To destroy Osama bin Laden and his network. And to pull this off, the Bush White House seems prepared to make peace with the very sponsors of terror it promises to defeat.
The list of countries around the world that harbor, finance, and arm terrorist groups is hardly a secret. The U.S. State Dept. puts out its own annual report on the subject that names, among others, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Libya as leading state sponsors of terrorism. For its own political reasons, the State Dept. leaves two other governments off its list -- Pakistan and Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority -- but their use of cross-border terrorism is evident to anyone who reads a newspaper on a regular basis.
Who is the U.S. trying to enlist in its battle against terrorism? Among others, Syria, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, and Pakistan. It is very likely that the U.S. has already promised a bundle of financial aid to the generals who run Pakistan. And it is a good bet they will use some of those funds to continue their terror campaign in neighboring Kashmir.
It's the same story with Syria. For decades, that country has used radical groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, as an integral part of its foreign policy. These groups, of course, are best known for their almost daily terror attacks in Israel. But their activities go far beyond their war against the Jewish state. Hezbollah, for example, bombed a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1984, killing 241 Marine, Navy, and Army personnel. In 1996, a Saudi chapter of the group participated in the bombing of the Khobar Towers, an apartment building in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 more Americans.
Hezbollah gets weapons and funding from Iran, funneled through Syria. It has free rein to operate in Lebanon, now little more than a client state of Syria. And, not surprisingly, the group has close ties with bin Laden.
The list of countries that, in one way or another, back international terrorism doesn't stop with the obvious cases. It also includes Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, which provide much of the funding for these terror groups. The governments in these countries are terrified of Islamic radicals, so they have made a deal with them. They look the other way while terrorists raise hundreds of millions of dollars from private citizens. In return, the groups agree to operate somewhere else.
Then, there are nations, such as China and France, that without a second thought, sell arms -- directly or indirectly -- to terrorist organizations. Sometimes, the weapons go through Iran, Iraq, or Syria, but all involved know the ultimate destinations.
The White House says things are different now. It even suggests that countries such as Syria, Pakistan, and Iran are going to change their behavior and turn their backs on terror. But people such as Secretary of State Colin Powell know better than that. More likely, these nations will give little more than lip service to the U.S. effort to kill bin Laden. And even that will end once the first civilian casualties are inflicted.
Yet in its effort to buy the loyalty of these nations, the White House has already lifted its long-standing arms embargoes against Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. Think about it for a moment: A decade ago, the U.S. armed bin Laden and the Taliban to enlist their support against what was then our Enemy #1 -- the Soviet Union. Today, we are reaping that painful harvest. Now, we are about to do exactly the same with states such as Iran and Syria -- help re-arm them to fight what we have identified as our new Enemy #1 -- none other than bin Laden himself.
With money, luck, and probably at some cost in American lives, the Bush Administration may kill bin Laden. And the world will be a better place for it. But will it be rid of terrorism? Not likely -- especially since the White House is cozying up to the very states that have made suicide bombings a routine instrument of their foreign policy. Bush has made a promise he cannot keep -- and one we may all regret.
Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Beth Belton