TCS Daily


Getting Tough With Terrorists Means Getting Tough With its Sympathizers

By Richard Perle - October 9, 2001 12:00 AM

"We cannot fight a war without alienating the enemy and the enemy's sympathizers," former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Richard Perle told Tech Central Station Host James K. Glassman in a prescient interview not long before the United States launched its attacks on Taliban military and terrorist bases in Afghanistan. Perle, a member of Defense Central's E-ring, said outlined the stakes for the United States in its war on terrorism, and the dangers if the nation pulls up short. "A response to an act of terror of this magnitude must be an act of great magnitude itself and it must be decisive. And while going after terrorists, he warned that the nation must prepare its defenses against future assaults of other kinds, such as missiles. "Any notion that we are protected by restraint on the part of our enemies, I think is quite wrong," Perle concluded.

James Glassman: When the planes hit the World Trade Center, what went through your mind?

Richard Perle: That now we would get serious about combating terrorism. Until that moment, the policy and success of administrations was to retaliate against acts of terror by limiting the retaliation to the terrorists and not holding responsible the states that have supported terrorism with minor exception. The result is that there's no cost attached to organizing terror against us.

Glassman: Did you think that it would have been at all possible to get at the roots of terrorism without having this kind of catastrophic attack?

Perle: I'm sorry to say it probably took an attack on this scale to awaken people to the costs of the failure to deal adequately with terrorism. Until now, I think that the administrations - plural -- took the view that the losses we suffered from terrorism, while terrible in all the senses that loss of life and property is terrible, was manageable, and the response was about the right response - not too intrusive, not too challenging, not too expensive. What has changed is our sense of the costs of failing to deal with terrorism and we now realize how enormous the damage can be and as a result, without changing any sense of the balance between the cost of terrorism and the cost of fighting terrorism, our readiness to pay the price of fighting it is going to rise dramatically.

Glassman: You've written, and this is a quote, "an anti-terrorists coalition that has any reasonable prospect of success will be made up of countries that value democratic institutions, individual liberty, and the sanctity of life." Now, many people say though that without the support of such countries as Iran, Syria, maybe Libya, and others that clearly don't fit that description, the coalition against terrorism will risk alienating the Islamic world and might not be successful. What's your response?

Perle: There is no question that if we are going to take robust action against states sponsoring terrorism against the leadership and regimes of those states, we are going to alienate some people. We cannot fight a war without alienating the enemy and the enemy's sympathizers. The price we would pay for what I think in the end would be a futile effort to bring terrorists and supporting countries into the war on terrorism is moral confusion, first of all, and secondly, we would be kidding ourselves if we thought they had anything significant to contribute. Iran has nothing of consequence to contribute to our efforts to end state-supported terrorism, originating in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and other countries.

Glassman: Is it your worry that the Bush administration is going to concentrate too much on building a gigantic coalition that would basically include just about every country except, perhaps, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan in this instance?

Perle: A lot depends on how that coalition is conceived and what its role is in relation to our own war on terrorism. If it is window dressing, if we have a long list of names at the end of the petition and we don't expect much from them, and, more important, we don't accept constraints on our freedom of action that they might prefer, then I think it's harmless, as long as we don't compromise our integrity by including countries we shouldn't be associated with. If on the other hand, in order to build a broad coalition and sustain a broad coalition, we accept restraints on our freedom of action so that we are ineffective in prosecuting the war, we will have confused a coalition as a means and coalition as an end. It is not an end.

Glassman: What do you think specifically the Bush administration is ready to do right now?

Perle: I think the last authoritative broad statement to policy was the president's address to the joint session of Congress, and it was robust, energetic. It seemed to me, it laid the foundation for a campaign aimed not only at individual terrorists and terrorist networks but at the countries that support terrorists and those networks and that permit them to be effective. We will not succeed until terrorists have been driven from the comfort and sanctuary they now enjoy and are forced to sleep in a different place every night devoid of the resources and support that enables them to achieve global reach and devastating effect.

Glassman: How important is it that some kind of military action be taken within a fairly short period of time? By that I would say within a few weeks.

Perle: I think we should move as soon as we have identified appropriate strategies and targets associated with those strategies and have marshaled the forces necessary. I'd rather see us initiate military action a little later and get it right than a little earlier and get it wrong, but something should be done quickly. In the world occupied by our enemies, a response to an act of terror of this magnitude must be an act of great magnitude itself and it must be decisive. Anything less and we will earn the contempt of those who have attacked us and provide the perverse incentive to further attacks.

Glassman: When you say a response of great magnitude, what do you mean by that in specific terms?

Perle: I mean it mustn't look like anything that we've done in the past. In the past, our response, when it was directed at the state sponsors of terrorism at all, and frequently it wasn't, was very limited and largely symbolic. So, for example, after uncovering Saddam's plot to assassinate a former president of the United States on a visit to Kuwait, the response was to lob a handful of cruise missiles into an intelligence headquarters in Baghdad that we were at pains to explain was unoccupied at the moment of the attack, as though it was alright to kill the cleaning crew among the Iraqi secret police but not to kill the Iraqi secret police. It was a weak, pathetic response that can only have encouraged acts of terror on the scale that we're now seeing. We mustn't do anything like that.

Glassman: When the Berlin Wall came down the world cheered the end of the Cold War, but did the toppling of the wall actually open the gates to a more virulent threat of terrorism?

Perle: I think that threat was always there and the skill, the efficiency, the tradecraft now possessed by terrorist networks in many cases has its origin in the training and sponsorship of the KGB and East German intelligence and other adversaries of this country during the Cold War. I don't think the two things are unrelated. On the contrary, I think one of the awful consequences of the Cold War was that terrorist organizations were given sanctuary and encouragement, and the regimes supporting them were given money and technical assistance.

Glassman: Sort of on the same subject, you said, "The Soviet leadership was rational in the sense that it would not undertake a suicidal act, that it probably not even take risks so extreme that it could lead to a nuclear war. I don't think we have any such confidence with Kim Chong-il." What needs to be done to keep regimes like that of North Korea in check?

Perle: I believe we have to make it clear to them that if they take action against us, we will take action against them, with a view to ending their regimes. Precisely how we go about that will vary from one regime to another. In the case of Iraq, for example, there is an opposition to Saddam. It should be armed, equipped, trained and assisted by the United States, together with the direct application of American military power to enable them to succeed. In the case of North Korea, we should leave the leadership in no doubt that if we catch them engaged in acts of terror, it is their territories, their headquarters, it is their military installations that will be the object of our retribution. They will think twice when the benefits of terrorism against America are meager for most of these governments. But the costs have been even smaller. If we can now raise the costs to an appropriate high level, I think we will price a number of countries out of the support for terrorism market.

Glassman: By the way, what do you think are the benefits to Osama bin Laden or people like that, Iraqi supporters, Iraqi participants in this kind of an attack. What exactly are the benefits to people like that?

Perle: They're not things that you or I would normally consider benefits. In the case of Saddam, it's vengeance and hatred. In the case of bin Laden, it's a combination of hatred and a desire to remove the obstacle to his ambition, which is to overthrow the royal family in Saudi Arabia and spread his vision of the way Muslins should live -- and eventually the rest of us, by the way -- in places that he cannot defeat now. Because in his view, the United States stands in the way of his victory over what we frequently refer to as the moderate Arab states. It is interesting that Osama bin Laden himself in defining the enemy put the United States first, the Saudi royal family second and Israel only third.

Glassman: In other words, if Israel came to some kind of accommodation with the Palestinians that was pleasant to Arafat, you don't think any of this would end?

Perle: On the contrary, I think a result of that sort would be seized upon by our enemies as evidence that only violence can succeed in achieving their objectives. It's for this reason that I think it was a dreadful mistake for the American Secretary of State to pressure Ariel Sharon to accept a meeting with Yassar Arafat, who has spent a lifetime managing terror against Israel because that will be seen, I am quite sure, in the Arab world as a validation of the attack on the United States. The logic is very simple: if you want the United States to pressure Israel, attack the United States.

Glassman: Just two last questions about missile defense. Many critics of missile defense have actually seized on this with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as evidence that the real threat is not missiles but different sorts of terrorism. They argue there's no need to build a missile defense, that really we should worry more about biological weapons or the commandeering of planes, that sort of thing. What's your response to that?

Perle: Of course there is no one threat. There are many threats, of which terrorism as we saw it in New York and Washington is one variety. There are others, but there is also the threat of the ballistic missile and the fear of the biological and chemical warhead, and we know that our enemies are working assiduously applying significant percentages of their meager resources to the acquisition of these weapons. Sooner or later, one or more of these is going to succeed. If we wait until they have succeeded before we erect a defense, we'll be in the position we found ourselves in on the 11th of September, when we had no defense in place at the moment that terrorists chose an operation against which we did not have a defense. Prudence dictates that we look at the full range of threats to which we might be subjected. We are a rich enough country to defend ourselves both against ballistic missiles and against terror. The good news is that the defense against ballistic missiles is a technological challenge, and we know how to do those things. I'm much less certain that we know how to protect an open society against suicidal maniacs.

Glassman: How much time do you think we have until a regime like the ones that you've talked about and written about has the technology to strike us from a distance with a missile?

Perle: We don't know the answer to that, and there's a history of our having been surprised. Frequently our estimates have looked at the efforts of individual countries working alone, and the intelligence community studies the component parts of a system that could damage us - technology, technical talent, in the case of nuclear weapons, nuclear material test facilities and the like, and it draws conclusions from that evidence. What we now must understand is that just as terror networks involve different organizations assisting one another, we face the same threat with respect to missiles. The Chinese, the North Koreans, the Pakistanis, others have elements of what a terrorist organization or a rogue state would need, and if they get together it becomes very difficult to predict when, by trade among them, they will be able to put all of the elements together so it could be much sooner than we think. In any case, whether it's two years, three years, or five years, doesn't matter much. If we don't get started now on a missile defense, we won't have one that's effective even at the outer edge of the estimates.

Glassman: One last question. The kind of outrageousness of this act on Sept. 11 -- such a kind of affront in a way that previous terrorist attacks have not been to the established norms of civilization -- does that make you worry that the use of biological and chemical weapons and the use of other weapons of mass destruction are much more likely? Essentially do you think whatever constraints there were, if there's such a thing as moral constraints against these kinds of actions, are now off?

Perle: I don't think there are any moral constraints among the perpetrators of this. I think they intended to do the damage they did. I rather suspect that they're disappointed that more people were not killed. On a normal day and even slightly different circumstances, it could have been two, or three, or four times what, in fact, happened and there were undoubtedly some other targets planned as well. So, any notion that we are protected by restraint on the part of our enemies, I think is quite wrong. They will do whatever they can to inflict injury. The greater the injury, the more effective they consider themselves to be and it simply raises the level of the challenge we face.

Glassman: Thank you, Richard Perle.

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