"What we're doing is sending a message against the people who were responsible for planning this operation. ... [If] anybody asks the same people to do it again, they will remember this message."
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin
Believe it or not, there was a time — not so long ago — when American presidents wouldn't hesitate to act if a single American was threatened, much less actually injured or killed.
Such a case occurred 20 years ago today.
To put it in context: A couple of months earlier, former President George H.W. Bush — the man Bill Clinton had beaten in the previous year's presidential election — was in Kuwait to commemorate the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War. Seventeen people were arrested and charged with conspiring to kill Bush with explosives that were hidden in a vehicle.
No explosions occurred. No one was hurt. But Clinton was convinced, largely because of information gathered and analyzed by American foreign and domestic intelligence operatives, that the plot originated in Iraq — and 20 years ago today, he used American military might for the first time, ordering nearly two dozen cruise missile strikes on Iraqi intelligence facilities.
The strikes were meant both as retaliation for the plot and warning not to attempt anything like it again. But Clinton didn't shoot first and ask questions afterward. He explored numerous options, even those he felt did not go far enough. Eventually he selected one on the recommendation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I felt we would have been justified in hitting Iraq harder," Clinton wrote in his presidential memoirs, "but [Colin] Powell made a persuasive case that the attack would deter further Iraqi terrorism and that dropping bombs on more targets, including presidential palaces, would have been unlikely to kill Saddam Hussein and almost certain to kill more innocent people."
Most of the missiles hit their intended targets, but a few overshot, and eight civilians were killed.
"It was a stark reminder," Clinton wrote, "that no matter how careful the planning and how accurate the weapons, when that kind of firepower is unleashed, there are usually unintended consequences."
The occasion of this anniversary has led me to think about two recent events that tell me much of what I need to know about U.S. policy in the 21st century.
First, the evasive stance taken by Barack Obama and the members of his administration after the deadly attacks on the embassy in Benghazi last year tells me the executive branch is not willing to stand up for Americans abroad, be they dead or alive — unless there are clear benefits in doing so.
Second, Obama's recent argument in a speech at the National Defense University that the war on terror must end as all wars do shows a staggering naivete. Rhetorically, it sounds good, but the problem is that the war on terror is not a conventional war with armies and generals. It cannot be resolved in conventional ways — if, in fact, it can be resolved at all.
When you are dealing with terrorists, you are not dealing with anything as organized or concentrated as a single army or nation. Your enemies could be from anywhere on the globe — including your own back yard — and as long as even one is on the loose, so is the danger.
Sympathizers with the opposition have always been around — there were Nazi and Japanese sympathizers in America during World War II — but they weren't generally viewed as combatants unless they took some kind of aggressive action.
By the very nature of their activities, terrorists must be regarded — automatically — as combatants.
The idea that America can arbitrarily declare the war on terror over is as imperialistic as any I have heard, and it tells terrorists around the world, OK, we're going back to sleep now. It harkens back to a time when the prevailing attitude was that we were always in the right; therefore, we were entitled to impose our will on others. We — and only we — could decide when a war began and when it ended.
It was the same attitude — the concept of manifest destiny — that directed the westward expansion in the 19th century. America is entitled to seize what it wants.
American imperialism — as well as hubris — is what the terrorists really would like to see destroyed.