Washington — Jewish leaders applauded last week’s dramatic shift in U.S. policy in the fight against international terrorism, but many worried that the Clinton administration lacks the stamina and political daring needed to lead the American people into what is certain to be a long, ugly and costly war.
The twin cruise missile strikes — against super-terrorist Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that allegedly produced ingredients for the manufacture of nerve gas — represent a shift away from a largely ineffective U.S. policy that emphasized international coalitions over unilateral action.
They also reflected a decision to start attacking terrorists in the countries that harbor them. That shift pleased Jewish leaders who have advocated a more aggressive effort against international
But if U.S. resolve fades when the going gets tough, or if American strategies don’t go beyond relatively antiseptic tactics like cruise missile attacks, terrorists like bin Laden will only be encouraged, they believe.
And while they expect the intensified war against terrorism could draw Israel and the United States together in the short term, they also worry about an anti-Israel backlash as Americans are forced to confront the harsh realities of this new battle.
Last week’s attack aimed at bin Laden, the expatriate Saudi businessman who has invested his vast fortune in a global network of Islamic terror, and this week’s decision to freeze bin Laden’s assets and encourage other countries do to the same, represent only the opening shots in what officials here say will be a long and multi-front battle. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called it “the war of the future.”
As if to punctuate that point, the nation went on high alert in anticipation of possible retaliation. A fleet of new heavy-duty pickup trucks flanked the State Department to provide additional protection against intruders, and Washington’s monuments, museums, airports and subway system were swarming with new security personnel.
In response to the American moves, bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for Holy War Against Jews and Crusaders pledged to wage a “pitiless and violent” war against both U.S. and Israeli targets.
A senior official said this week that the administration is examining a variety of weapons — diplomatic, economic and military — to deploy in the fight against bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. The goal is “to dismantle or disrupt Osama bin Laden’s network and therefore his ability to attack the United States. We obviously are using a number of tools for this purpose.”
There were reports this week that a New York grand jury had indicted bin Laden even before the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn), were working on legislation punishing countries that launder and shelter money for bin Laden and other terrorists. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) and others called on the State Department to add Afghanistan to the official U.S. list of nations supporting terrorism.
Despite the sense of frantic action in Washington, Jewish leaders warned that the war against terrorism will be an arduous and costly one — a global war of attrition — that is likely to shatter the American myth of invulnerability.
The battle “will require true grit, a strong stomach and an ability to outlast our adversaries,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “If it is not sustained, it will just invite more terrorism.”
Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League, warned that “when the costs become apparent, we could revert to policies we’ve followed in the past — which are only periodic reactions to the terror threat, not an ongoing, systematic, sustained effort,” he said.
Administration and congressional officials must prepare the public for what’s ahead, according to Jewish leaders.
“What the administration has to do is create a mechanism for educating the American people about the true nature of terrorism,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who warned that the public could “easily become overwhelmed” by the dimensions of any serious anti-terror effort.
“They have to educate people that this is not a distant danger and that we can just hit remote parts of the world. These groups have tentacles reaching out into our own communities and pose dangers here at home.”
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) said that there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for the president’s actions, but warned that lawmakers may balk at providing the heavy investment of U.S. resources that the battle will require.
“The battle against terrorism is never quick or easy,” he said in an interview. “I’m glad the U.S. has finally taken a page out of Israel’s book by striking back quickly and forcefully because that’s the only language terrorists understand. But it’s just the first of many steps; we have to be in it for the long haul.”
The growing mood of isolationism, he said, has already hobbled American foreign policy. Unless Congress is willing to back its tough rhetoric with significant amounts of money, and unless the administration is prepared to exercise forceful leadership, the war against bin Laden and other purveyors of terror is unlikely to produce lasting results.
Jewish leaders generally dismiss the “wag the dog” theories claiming that Clinton launched last week’s strikes to divert attention from his embarrassing public confession about “not appropriate” activities with Monica Lewinsky, the young former White House intern. But many worry that Clinton’s weakened presidency will make it even harder to sustain the kind of all-out commitment the war against terrorism demands.
“Clinton was right to launch the strikes when he did,” said an official with a major Jewish group here, “even if he was motivated in part by his personal problems. But this is a battle that requires forceful, consistent, confident leadership. It’s far from clear if Clinton has enough credibility left to provide it.”
Some Jewish leaders also argued that the fight against bin Laden and his network is only one front in what must be a much broader war.
“It’s not just bin Laden and its not just terrorism,” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “It’s also the fact that India and Pakistan have set off nuclear weapons; it’s the testing of an advanced missile in Iran; it’s the blowing up of the U.S. embassies in Africa. It’s the fact that people in that part of the world now believe they can get away with a lot more than they did before.”
She predicted strong political backing for a war against terrorism. “But it has to be a smart war, and it must be a war in which we use all the resources available to us,” Bryen said.
That could mean restoring assassination as a tool of American policy, now banned by a longstanding executive order.
Jewish leaders already are working to avert another possible consequence of the new war on terrorists — a perception among the American people that Washington is fighting Israel’s fight.
“Already we’re seeing news commentaries suggesting that bin Laden is motivated by his desire to see Israel get out of the West Bank and Gaza,” said Harris of the AJCommittee. “The obvious danger is that the malicious and naive folks out there will converge on the view that Israel is the root cause of all this, that if only U.S. policy toward Israel changes, we would see a world with no more cries of jihad against the United States.”
Reports that Israel provided critical intelligence assistance in last week’s bombings were quickly muted. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk met with Middle East reporters and emphasized the fact that friendly Arab nations are as threatened by bin Laden as Israel and the U.S.
Still, Jewish leaders were worried.
“Americans simply aren’t prepared for what’s likely to happen if the administration is serious about pursuing bin Laden and others,” said the leader of a major Jewish group. “There’s a real danger that the ‘it’s all Israel’s fault’ lie could prove very alluring when people get tired of the casualties and the cost.”