Make No Mistake: This Is War

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By Michael Chertoff
Sunday, April 22, 2007

As the rubble of the Twin Towers smoldered in 2001, no one could have imagined a day when America's leaders would be criticized for being tough in protecting Americans from further acts of war.

Now, less than six years later, that day has arrived.

Since Sept. 11, a conspiracy-minded fringe has claimed that American officials plotted the destruction. But when scholars such as Zbigniew Brzezinski accuse our leaders of falsely depicting or hyping a "war on terror" to promote a "culture of fear," it's clear that historical revisionism has gone mainstream.

Brzezinski stated the obvious in describing terrorism as a tactic, not an enemy ["Terrorized by 'War on Terror,' Outlook, March 25]. But this misses the point. We are at war with a global movement and ideology whose members seek to advance totalitarian aims through terrorism. Brzezinski is deeply mistaken to mock the notion that we are at war and to suggest that we should adopt "more muted reactions" to acts of terrorism.

The impulse to minimize the threat we face is eerily reminiscent of the way America's leaders played down the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary fanaticism in the late 1970s. That naive approach ultimately foundered on the kidnapping of our diplomats in Tehran.

A sensible strategy against al-Qaeda and others in its ideological terror network begins with recognizing the scope of the threat they pose. Al-Qaeda and its ilk have a world vision that is comparable to that of historical totalitarian ideologues but adapted to the 21st-century global network.

Is this actually a war? Well, the short answer comes from our enemies. Osama bin Laden's fatwa of Feb. 23, 1998, was a declaration of war, a self-serving accusation that America had somehow declared war on Islam, followed by a "ruling" to "kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military . . . in any country where it is possible to do it."

Since then, bin Laden and his allies have sought to carry out acts designed to strike at our global system of security, safety and economy. I am reminded of that every day when I see threat assessments and other evidence of a militarized and networked foe.

Measured by intent, capability and consequence, fanatical Islamist ideologues have declared -- and are prosecuting -- what is, by any objective rendering, a real war.

Intent: Today's extreme Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda do not merely seek political revolution in their own countries. They aspire to dominate all countries. Their goal is a totalitarian, theocratic empire to be achieved by waging perpetual war on soldiers and civilians alike. That includes the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Capability: The fanatics' intent, while grandiose, is not entirely fanciful. Islamist extremists such as those in al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated groups from North Africa to Iraq and South Asia are fighting for and sometimes achieving control of territory in which they can train; assemble advanced, inhumane weaponry; impose their own vision of repressive law; and dominate local life. To be sure, as Brzezinski observes, the geographic reach of this network does not put them in the same group as the Nazis or Stalinists when they achieved first-class military power. But without relentless vigilance and effort from the civilized world, Islamist extremists could gain control of a state or establish a network of radical "statelets" in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Consequence: The events of Sept. 11 highlight the dramatic difference between the consequences of Islamist extremist war-making and those of the political terrorist attacks unleashed against the West in the 1970s. The Sept. 11 attacks were the most devastating single blow ever visited upon our homeland by foreign enemies. The Islamist extremists' plot last summer to blow up multiple transatlantic airlines in Britain threatened a similarly devastating -- but thankfully unrealized -- consequence. Both episodes demonstrate that the terrorist ideologues aim to achieve not only a massive loss of life but also substantial disruption of our international system of travel and trade.

Simply put, our foes have declared their intent to make war, have demonstrated a capability to prosecute war and have laid on us the horrific consequences commensurate with war.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, our allies correctly perceived al-Qaeda's strikes as acts of international aggression. By Sept. 12, the U.N. Security Council had passed a resolution vowing to respond, and NATO began its unprecedented move of declaring the attacks to be aggression against all of its members.

That radical Islamist fanatics have not yet achieved all the elements of state power should not blind us to the global threat they pose. This globalized war has theaters from traditional battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq to the streets and alleys of cities where al-Qaeda-trained killers lurk. Moreover, this war cannot be won by arms alone; "soft" power matters. In these ways, our current struggle resembles the Cold War. As with the Cold War, we must respond globally. As with the Cold War, ideas matter as much as armaments. And as with the Cold War, this war requires our patience and resolve.

Perhaps the rhetoric of war makes Brzezinski and others uncomfortable. But history teaches that the false comfort of complacency is a dangerous indulgence in the face of a determined enemy.

The writer is secretary of homeland security.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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