We Fight Now Because We Didn't Fight Then
This was George Bushs warning to the international terrorists and their sponsors:
"The United States will be firm with terrorists. We will not make concessions. . . . If we find states supplying money, weapons, training, identification, documents, travel, or safe haven for terrorists, we will respond. Our aim is to demonstrate to these countries that supporting terrorism is not cost-free. . . . We will bring terrorists to justice. We will . . . identify, track, apprehend, prosecute, and punish terrorists. Terrorism is crime, and terrorists must be treated as criminals.
That muscular vow wasnt uttered after last weeks atrocities. It was made in November 1988 by then-Vice President George H. W. Bush, who put it in writing, over his signature, on the first page of the Defense Department compendium "Terrorist Group Profiles. Two months later, he was sworn in as the 41st president, and if anything seemed clear, it was that he would bring to the Oval Office a cold view of terrorism and a steely commitment to fight it.
He didnt. Like Ronald Reagan before him and Bill Clinton after, Bush did little to stop international terror. The result of that failure was to convince Islamist fanatics that America was weak and gutless, and to feed the audacity that led to the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history.
As vice president, Bush had seen terrors effects: He went to Beirut in October 1983, a few days after a car bomb blew up the U.S. military barracks there, murdering 241 Marines. The Reagan administration, he said, was "not going to let a bunch of insidious terrorist cowards shape the foreign policy of the United States. But that was exactly what the Reagan administration did. Soon after the bombing, American forces quit Lebanon. And 18 years later, we have yet to "identify, track, apprehend, prosecute, and punish the killers who butchered those Marines.
Or the ones who had earlier butchered 49 Americans at the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Or the ones who hijacked TWA 847 in 1985 and killed U.S. Navy diver Robbie Stethem. Or the ones who kidnapped CIA Officer William Buckley that same year and tortured him to death. Or the ones who hanged Marine Lieutenant Colonel William Higgins in 1989. Or the ones who seized one U.S. citizen after another -- Terry Anderson, Thomas Sutherland, Alann Steen, Frank Reed, and Joseph Cicippio, among others -- and held them hostage under brutal conditions.
None of these outrages aroused the fury of the U.S. government. Despite all the American blood on their hands, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah were allowed to operate without hindrance, while the regimes in Damascus and Tehran that financed and sheltered them were never forced to pay a price for their hostile behavior.
Even when the United States did retaliate for terrorist attacks, its response was mild and ineffective. To avenge the destruction of Pan Am 103 and the slaughter of 259 innocents in December 1988, the United States was content to prosecute two Libyan operatives who had been involved in the bombing. More hirelings were put on trial after the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. When terrorists blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Washington lobbed a few cruise missiles at training camps in Afghanistan and a chemical plant in Sudan.
What the U.S. government should have done was root out and destroy the terrorist groups mounting these attacks. It should have leveled economic, diplomatic, and military penalties against the dictatorial states backing them. It should have behaved like a great power enraged by the murder of its citizens. Instead, it did next to nothing. And vicious men saw and drew the obvious conclusion.
That wasnt all they saw.
They saw the United States label Saddam Hussein "worse than Hitler and assemble a vast army to fight him -- only to stop the war when his troops were on the run, leaving him as ruthless and dangerous as ever. They saw how Saddam violated the terms of the cease-fire and resumed his quest for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons -- and how the United States drew line after line in the sand, then failed to defend any of them.
They saw Americans cut and run from Somalia because some of their soldiers were killed there. They saw Washington dither for years about how or whether to stop the bloodshed in the Balkans. They saw how easy it was for the Chinese to acquire military secrets, and how surprised Americans were when India and Pakistan went nuclear. They saw that nothing bad happened to nations on the State Departments list of terror-sponsors. They saw a government so unwilling to give offense that it scrapped the term "rogue states in favor of states of concern.
All this and more the vicious men saw. And they concluded that America was rich but cowardly, mighty in arms but weak in spirit, unwilling to fight for its principles or to risk its sons in battle. America, they decided, had gone soft. And so the time had come to attack.
Jeff Jacoby writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.