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Target One, Target All

Any war against terrorists will not be a succes if it targets some, but ignores others.

by James D. Besser

October 4, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Is President George W. Bush serious about waging a global fight against terrorists and the nations that support them? Or is he just targeting the sprawling network of Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks in Washington and New York?

So far, most evidence points to his targeting the terrorist network, although Jewish leaders are still hopeful that the administration will also turn its sights on groups such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which have caused so much bloodshed in Israel.

But getting U.S. officials to widen their aims will be a tough challenge for Jewish leaders, especially as the nation's outrage fades and the costs of this new war, with its hard-to-define battlefields, become apparent.

Given finite resources and limited support from other nations, the best Washington is likely to do is pursue a multitiered, sequenced campaign against terrorists -- focusing most of its attention on the immediate bin Laden threat, with more nuanced pressure on other terror groups and the nations that support them.

Jewish leaders make a simple argument: any war against terrorists will be unsuccessful if it targets some, but ignores others.

And any effective anti-terror effort must deal firmly with the nations that make this kind of terrorism possible through their state support.

Hamas and Hezbollah did not attack the United States, Jewish leaders argue, but with growing links between anti-Western terror groups, they are important components of the international network. If we exclude them from our war on terrorism, we will be sending out the message that we aren't really serious.

That's why many Jewish leaders were upset with last week's White House order freezing the assets of 27 terror groups connected to the bin Laden network while ignoring all the groups responsible for waves of anti-Israel terror.

That's also why so many are worried that Washington is exploring the possibility of including Syria and Iran in its anti-terror coalition.

"It's exactly the wrong message," said a longtime pro-Israel leader here. "We're saying it's a global fight against terror, but then we court some of the worst state sponsors of terrorism."

But the administration faces unprecedented challenges in this grim war of attrition against a shadowy enemy.

With more than 900 million Muslims in the world, and with Islamic nations controlling much of the world's energy resources, Washington is desperate to avoid a war that will be perceived as the rich West against Islam. (Last week, an Italian official described the war in just such terms, setting off shudders in Washington and protests across the Muslim world.)

To avoid that perception, it has been deemed essential to enlist real support from some Islamic states, especially Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt. And U.S. officials want at least tacit support from many others, which is where Syria and Iran come into the picture.

There is also the question of resources.

Going after Osama bin Laden, his training camps and his worldwide network, will require every last resource of the U.S. military.

It is simply not feasible to wage a multifront war against other terror groups at the same time -- a list that could stretch across the planet, from Gaza to East Timor.

Washington could diplomatically squeeze terror-sponsoring states while focusing U.S. military efforts on bin Laden.

But they believe that would inevitably compromise the plan to include as many Islamic states as possible in the anti-terror coalition.

Some Jewish activists say that once the decision was made to fight in a coalition, it became inevitable that Washington would narrow its focus to the most direct perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The broader the coalition the narrower the objectives," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

That decision has already been made, however, and the administration is not likely to back away from it.

That means Jewish leaders have been forced to adjust their perspective. They still hope for a sustained, broader war on terrorism, but they are willing to accept the fact that it may be a war by degrees. Few openly criticized the omission of anti-Israel terror groups from the frozen-assets list.

"The president said that this is a first step," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "This is not a litmus test of anybody."

Jewish groups will watch closely to make sure the administration follows through, once the effort against bin Laden begins to show some results.

But that won't be easy.

Today the nation is in the grip of a rare mood of unity and national purpose. Sustaining that over time will be a challenge, and it will be doubly hard to build a public commitment to expand the war against terror to groups not directly implicated in the attacks on U.S. soil.

Jewish leaders have to wage a sustained fight to educate the public about some key facts, including the fact that Islamic and anti-American, anti-Western terror groups around the world are increasingly linked.

And they will have to work hard to keep the administration honest on the question of state sponsors of terror.

The current national emergency may justify the approach to Iran and Syria and the coddling of Egypt. But the U.S. effort will count for little if that coalition-building effort gives these nations a free pass on state sponsorship of terror.

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