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DoD Policy Official Explains Terror War Strategy

By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 16, 2004 – The U.S. strategy in the global war on terror boils down to changing the way terrorists live, rather than changing the way U.S. citizens live, the undersecretary of defense for policy said in an April 14 speech in Chicago.

Douglas J. Feith spoke at the University of Chicago's student-run political union.

He said the aim of the war on terror, as defined by President Bush, is to "defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life as a free and open society." This, Feith said, meant the nation no longer could rely solely, or even primarily, on a defensive posture.

"If we tried to do so," he said, "we would have to clamp down drastically across America, intruding grossly on the privacy rights and other civil liberties of Americans. As terrorist attacks occurred, U.S. officials would continually be under pressure to move toward police-state tactics to sacrifice our freedom and change our way of life."

The alternative, he said, is striking terrorists abroad, where they do much of their recruiting, training, equipping and planning. "Given that our aim is to preserve our society's liberties, we have no alternative to a strategy of offense," Feith said. "In other words, we concluded that in dealing with the terrorists we had either to change the way we live, or change the way they live."

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, showed that threats previously dismissed as wild speculation or only remotely possible had become the new reality.

"Before 9/11, terrorism was commonly viewed as political an action intended to influence or persuade," Feith explained. "Many discussed terrorism as a form of 'political theater,' a way that terrorist groups used shocking actions to call attention sympathetic attention to a cause.

"According to that view," he continued, "the terrorists, adhering to Machiavelli's dictum that it's better to be feared than loved, nonetheless still wished to avoid being hated."

That view could hardly explain the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. "The terrorists who killed 3,000 ordinary people at the World Trade Center, where 10 times that number worked on a daily basis, would have been pleased to have killed them all or many times more than that, if they had had the means to do so," Feith said.

He offered three possible motives for al Qaeda and other terrorists who target the United States today: suicide attackers hoping to obtain benefits in the next world, a nihilistic desire for death and destruction, and a hope of destroying our nation's unity and sense of purpose, ultimately collapsing political order and making resistance impossible.

He said the goal of defeating the United States may seem preposterous, "but it may seem achievable to those who credit the Soviet Union's collapse to their own resistance in Afghanistan, not to mention as a manifestation of divine favor for themselves."

At the root of the U.S. strategy in the war on terror, Feith said, is the president's bold and radical departure from previous policy. Feith cited four terrorist acts against the United States to illustrate his point: the 1993 first World Trade Center bombing, the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 destruction of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

"The U.S. government's response in those cases was to use the FBI to investigate," Feith said. "Our government was looking for individuals to arrest, extradite and prosecute in criminal courts. President Bush broke with that practice and with that frame of mind when he decided that 9/11 meant that we are at war. He decided that the U.S. would respond not with the FBI and U.S. attorneys, but with our armed forces and every instrument of U.S. national power."

Feith said he thought the decision to depart from past practice was "momentous," and that it showed proper comprehension of the problem.

"It looks obvious in retrospect," he said, "but that's often the case with grand insights. At the time the president decided to respond to 9/11 by going to war, he was departing radically and boldly from many years of a different policy."

Defining the enemy, Feith said, became a key question for policy makers. "The enemy is not a state or group of states; it's not a traditional type of enemy we have faced in war," he said. "The enemy is not a discrete, hierarchical organization either. Rather, the enemy is a far-flung network of terrorist organizations and their state and non-state sponsors.

"Terrorist organizations rely on state sponsors for safe haven, funds, weapons and other types of support," he continued. "We cannot win the war on terrorism if we do not cut off state support for terrorist organizations."

The danger of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists was another essential part of policy makers' thinking in forming the nation's strategy, a consideration that took on "greatly intensified urgency" after the Sept. 11 attacks, Feith said.

"The terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center would gleefully have killed 10, a hundred or a thousand times the number of victims on 9/11 if they could have -- if they had had access, for example, to biological or nuclear weapons," he said. "It's a significant coincidence that the list of key state sponsors of terrorism overlaps so extensively with the list of problem states that are pursuing WMD capabilities."

Therefore, he said, the main strategic threat in the war on terrorism is the nexus among terrorist organizations, their state sponsors and weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. strategy for confronting the threat, Feith said, is "to organize and help lead international efforts to deny terrorist groups systematically what they need to operate and survive." The terrorists' needs, he added, are safe havens, leaders, finances, ideological support and access to targets, and weapons especially weapons of mass destruction.

The United States has taken three useful, though not entirely distinct, types of action to implement the strategy, Feith said: disrupting and attacking terrorist networks, protecting the homeland and countering ideological support for terrorism in what he called a battle of ideas.

"The war on terrorism will never end if all we do is disrupt and attack terrorist networks, because while we are doing so, new terrorists are being recruited and indoctrinated -- probably faster than anyone on our side can capture or kill them," Feith said. "If we're going to avoid placing ourselves on an ever-accelerating treadmill, our strategy must aim to stem the flow of people into the ranks of the terrorists. Doing this requires a focus on the widespread ideological support for terrorism."

As precedents, Feith noted that fascism and Nazism were discredited and the collapse of the Soviet empire caused communist totalitarianism to lose most of its following in the 20th century. A 50-year campaign led by the British in the 19th century, he added, changed the way the world thought about the slave trade.

"As President Bush has said, the world should view terrorism as it views the slave trade, piracy on the high seas and genocide -- activities that no respectable person condones, much less supports," Feith said.

To win the battle of ideas, he said, the United States is working to de- legitimize terrorism and support the success of models of moderation, especially in the Muslim world.

"The ideological struggle within the war on terrorism is in large part a civil war between extremists and their opponents in the Muslim world," Feith explained. "In the war on terrorism, the U.S. is not fighting the world of Islam. On the contrary, we are allied with the many millions of Muslims who do not want to be dominated by the kind of extremists who follow Osama bin Laden.

"Democratic reform and the success of democratic institutions in the Arab world and the Muslim world generally are essential parts of the strategy to defeat terrorism as a threat to our own freedom," he said.

Feith noted that in the two and a half years since the global war on terror began, the United States and its coalition partners have:

  • Ousted the Taliban regime and supported the new government in Afghanistan;

  • Provided training in counterterrorist operations to local forces in the Philippines, Yemen, Colombia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia and elsewhere;

  • Fostered international cooperation on law enforcement, intelligence, interdiction of terrorist finances and maritime interdiction operations in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Horn of Africa, in the Pacific and elsewhere;

  • Killed or captured terrorist leaders and key operatives, including two-thirds of al Qaeda's known leadership;

  • Liberated Iraq from the Saddam Hussein regime and worked to launch Iraqis on the path to freedom; and

  • Induced the Libyan government to declare, dismantle and abandon its programs for and stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Operation Iraqi Freedom, Feith said, has eliminated a safe haven for terrorists. Noting that Saddam encouraged Palestinian suicide bombings by offering to pay $25,000 to the bombers' families, he said the Iraq operation also has eliminated a source of financial and other types of support for terrorists.

Feith said Iraq no longer is a possible source of WMD technology, materials and training for terrorists. "By the way, this point is not negated by our not yet having found Iraqi stockpiles of WMD or the possibility that Saddam secretly destroyed all the stockpiles before the war," he added.

Feith said much remains to be done in Iraq, and he acknowledged that the United States has had "a rough week or two" there. "Our losses weigh heavily," he said, "but there is no cost-free option for America in Iraq."

He cited the "tenacity, creativity, courage and willingness to sacrifice" that U.S. and coalition forces have shown in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terrorism.

"Among our forces," he said, "there's a phrase that has become common as a byword: 'Failure is not an option.' Those forces give us protection, insight and inspiration. Failure is not an option."

Contact Author

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith

Related Sites:
Transcript of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith's Speech to the Political Union, University of Chicago, April 14, 2004

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