The appearance of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Richard Cheney before the September 11 commission will again fuel criticism that before the terrorism attacks, the Bush administration had been too focused on other issues, such as missile defense, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, rogue states and other rival rising powers. Yet such developments posed far greater threats to American security than did al-Qaeda, and still do.
Polls show American fears of terrorism have recently increased, no doubt a result of the September 11 commission hearings. In Europe, fears were heightened by the March 11 attack on Spanish commuter trains and a rash of plots elsewhere. This was followed by a broadcast on Arab satellite networks of a tape by Osama bin Laden offering a "truce" to European.
European governments were quick to reject Osama's offer, but militants are likelier to see the hurried withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq as a truer sign many Europeans can be frightened by the bluster of some madman hiding in a cave.
The most important thing to remember about terrorism is that it is the weapon of the weak. The September 11 commission hearings have been compared to the investigations into the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The casualty counts on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, were similar, but there the similarity ends. In 1941, there was a surge of enemy conquests across vast areas of the world. And when the United States counterattacked, it was against an empire with fleets of ships and aircraft and millions of soldiers. Al-Qaeda has no such capabilities.
Even the thwarted terrorist plot in Jordan, which might have killed thousands with its mix of explosives and toxic chemicals, was a weak effort as there were no al-Qaeda legions assembled to march into Amman to seize power. The cure for terrorism is to refuse to be intimidated, and always hit back.
Osama bin Laden's objective on September 11 was not to capture New York. He wanted the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East, clearing the way for establishment of radical regimes that could mobilize the much greater resources available to states (and empires).
A recently captured terrorist manual "Targets Inside the Cities" by Abdul Aziz al-Moqrin, al-Qaeda's operational chief in the Gulf, lists among the strategic objectives of attacks "to help mujahideen to gain experience and qualifications to lead their nations later on."
Without larger resources, al-Qaeda cannot change the balance of power in the world. Wars are about politics, and politics is about the control of territory and people who are organized by states. Al-Moqrin was last reported fleeing from Saudi troops in the mountains northeast of Riyadh.
When President Bush came into office, many of the problems that had been glanced over in the 1990s — when it was naively felt a more harmonious "new world order" was taking shape, were coming to a head. North Korea's nuclear ambitions were breaking containment. Pyongyang was also shipping rocket engines to Iran for testing, aiding both countries to expand their offensive capabilities. Iraq was using its UN "oil for food" program to support a diplomatic effort to wiggle out of the box it had been placed after the 1991 Gulf War. There was a rapid, global proliferation of ballistic missile technology, along with the means for nuclear, chemical and biological warheads.
On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane was rammed by a Chinese interceptor over international waters. This triggered a crisis with Beijing, whose rising power was again demonstrating the historical link between economic growth and expanding ambition. China was also at the center of the proliferation of WMD technology.
Though September 11 has heightened concern over WMD terrorism, such weapons won't be developed from scratch by some ad hoc gang of dissidents in a cave. It will be states who fund such programs. When Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear program, dealt in the tools to enrich uranium, his clients were Iran and Libya, probably North Korea and possibly Brazil and Egypt — entities able to use what he sold.
The invasion of Iraq, meant to topple a regime with a long history of WMD involvement, was not a "diversion" from the war on terrorism but an action against a higher level of threat.
The battle for the future of Iraq, a country with the resources to be a major regional power, is vital. The Iranian mullahs know this, and have been backing the uprising of radical Shi'ite cleric Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr. Who rules in Baghdad is much more important than who is hiding in a cave somewhere.
Terrorism must be vigorously combated, but it cannot be the only focus of policy. There are dangers lurking in nearly every corner of the world that, left unchecked, could not only threaten lives on a scale orders of magnitude beyond terrorism, but change how people live and are governed for generations. America's defense and foreign policy team must be active on multiple fronts if the nation's security is to be protected. Myopia is not the kind of vision needed.