The Indianapolis News
August 20, 1999
Alan W. Dowd

On August 20, 1998, two weeks after terrorists attacked the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the president declared war on terrorism, punctuating his rhetoric with a volley of 75 cruise missiles aimed at Osama Bin-Laden, the suspected mastermind of the bombings.

The attacks leveled a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and razed a chemical weapons facility on the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan.

But the chemical weapons plant turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant, and Bin-Laden emerged from the rubble unscathed. In fact, a year after withstanding a mighty blow from the U.S. Navy, Bin-Laden has been catapulted into a mythic hero status among radical Muslims. And today, CIA Director George Tenet concedes that Bin-Laden’s network could virtually strike at will against American targets.

This episode in the war on terror reveals that the terrorists are winning and the United States is on the defensive, a fact underscored by the president’s reactive $2 billion plan to build bigger embassies with bigger walls around them.

Moreover, the president’s tardy decision to strike back at terror came after an unprecedented period of terrorist aggression against the United States. Consider what has transpired during the Clinton presidency, in addition to the twin attacks in East Africa, which murdered 224 civilians and injured more than 5,000:

In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed by a Middle-Eastern terrorist cell based in New York, killing 6 Americans, injuring 1,000, and shattering the peace of mind of millions.

In 1995, a federal building was destroyed by anti-government terrorists in Oklahoma City, murdering 168 Americans and maiming 500.

In 1996, a terrorist truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. military’s Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The blast claimed 19 airmen and injured 200 others. Bin-Laden is also suspected in that attack.

The Olympic games were marred by terror for the first time in two decades, when a nail-laden bomb ripped through Atlanta’s Olympic Park, killing two and injuring 120.

All of this occurred against a bloody backdrop of global terrorism: The IRA struck several times in the mid-1990s before swaggering to the peace table. Algerian terrorists lashed out in France and Greece. A wave of terrorism paralyzed Russia in 1997.Terrorists killed scores in India and hundreds in nearby Sri Lanka. Terrorists released deadly chemicals in Tokyo, stormed the Japanese embassy in Peru, and rocked London with car bombs.

To be fair, Bill Clinton shouldn’t bear sole responsibility for this wave of terror, but one wonders why it took him so long to realize we were at war. The terrorists did not become more prone to anti-American violence last August. Indeed, the world was a dangerous place long before Bill Clinton ascended the presidency.

Terrorists, like any enemy, probe America for weaknesses. When they find one, they exploit it. The president exposed plenty such weaknesses in his first term, from the reversals in North Korea and Iraq, to the empty threats in Bosnia, to the retreat from Somalia, to the outright appeasement of China. The terrorists took notes and then took American lives.

The president’s response has ranged from hyperactive law enforcement initiatives to ill-thought pardons.

In 1994, for example, the president backed legislation that strengthened the government’s eavesdropping and wiretapping powers. In 1995, the president called for loosening centuries-old laws which limit the U.S. military’s role in domestic law enforcement. And this summer, he offered clemency to a Puerto Rican terrorist group responsible for 130 bombings in the 1970s and 1980s.

If the president wants to wage a real war on terror in his last 16 months at the helm, he should follow the example of the last two-term president, Ronald Reagan, who won more battles against terror than he lost.

Reagan was elected amid what was then the most infamous act of terror ever committed against Americans, Iran’s takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Through third-party channels, Reagan demanded the release of the hostages by the beginning of his term, leaving the consequences of Iran’s failure to comply deliberately and chillingly vague.

The Americans were released within two hours of his swearing-in.

Of the few ways to defuse terrorism, intimidation is the least costly and most effective. Of course, intimidation presupposes that the terrorist or his sponsor fears the unspecified consequences. Thus, a president with no track record, like Reagan in 1981, has a better chance of ending or deterring terrorist activity than a president with an inconsistent record, like Bill Clinton.

When intimidation fails to deter terrorists, the president must be prepared to punish those who harbor them, since most terrorists place little value on life--even their own.

As Reagan illustrated in Libya, after Libyan-trained terrorists bombed a Berlin disco filled with American servicemen, hitting the sponsor-country is often more effective than hitting the terrorists themselves. Libya’s army of terrorists stayed clear of Americans after U.S. warplanes pounded Tripoli and Benghazi, targeting not the Berlin bombers, but vital organs of military and political power. Bill Clinton did not do that by attacking an empty factory in Sudan and a sand-swept village in Afghanistan.

Finally, freedom shouldn’t become a casualty of the war on terror. As Reagan warned, "Regardless of their humanitarian purpose, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have chosen a downward path leading to totalitarianism." Our government was founded to secure the blessings of liberty--not to eavesdrop on law-abiding citizens.

The fact that we are free is the very reason terrorists can so easily attack us. And it’s the major reason they want to attack us: Terrorists despise the free society built within America and the democratic society being built around the globe. To them, these symbolize not progress and achievement, but infection and imperialism.

Bin-Laden and his foot soldiers intend to destroy our way of life, but they can’t succeed without our help. By waging a phony war overseas, tapping the nation’s telecommunications grid, forgiving those few terrorists who are caught, and perhaps deploying the Marines on Main Street, the president is unwittingly advancing the terrorists’ cause--not America’s.