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Special Coverage: America At War
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America At War:

With Clifford D. May
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002; 2 p.m. EST

What obligation do American's have to fight international terrorism? How does one define who is and who is not a terrorist? Is the Bush administration on the right track?

Clifford May, President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and former Director of Communications for the RNC, was online to discuss the war on terrorism.

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is a nonpartisan research institute created after Sept. 11 to focus on "the ideologies that drive terrorism and the policies that can most effectively eradicate terrorism."

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Cottage City, Md.: Many third world nations view our 'war on terrorism' rather cynically. First, they have already experienced decades of terror themselves without the first world nations being much exercised about it. Secondly, they see America as a nation that has promoted warfare in the third world in its proxy wars against the USSR and who currently supplies many of the arms used by terrorists as well as a major market for the blood diamonds that keep many terrorists in business. We have refused to restrict our arms sales, and we have taken no action against the blood diamonds. How will we change the perceptions in the third world about our real intents?

Clifford May: That's a good and tough question. There is really nothing we can do today to make up for having tolerated terrorism directed at others in the past.

But we can, and should, work to abolish terrorism in the present and in the future. We can and should side with those who oppose terrorism, and against those who practice terrorism.

An analogy can be made with slavery. For countless centuries, otherwise civilized people tolerated slavery and even defended slavery.

But at a certain point in our moral evolution, we realized slavery was wrong and we abolished it. Not only was slavery abolished in Europe and America, the British navy made a practice of seizing slave ships on the high seas and freeing slaves (which is how, for example, Freetown, Sierra Leone got its name.)

Of course, there are still places where slavery is practiced -- Sudan comes to mind -- but civilized people now understand that slavery is wrong.

Similarly, we need to agree that no matter what the cause, intentionally slaughtering innocent men, women and children can not be the solution.

Annandale, Va.: When can we declare victory and go home? It sounds like the President's answer is "never" because he has defined an impossible mission -- the complete eradication of terrorism. That, of course, will never happen, and the degree of success will be limited by any actions that do not address the underlying political and economic corruption that give rise to, and foster, radicalism. From a purely military view point, the prospect of sending our forces into places like the West Bank, Chechnya, and Somalia (again) is not pleasant, but would be required to pursue the impossible mission established by the President.

Clifford May: Also a good question. I would argue that in the last century we defeated two profoundly anti-democratic movements: Nazism and Communism.

Now there are still a few neo-Nazis around, and North Korea and Cuba remain Communist states. But they don't count for much. Essentially, we've defeated them.

Fighting global terrorism -- the newest threat to democratic societies -- is likely to be similar. We'll never be able to stop someone from strapping a home-made bomb to his stomach and blowing himself and a few others up in a restaurant.

But the kind of sophisticated operation that was put together to kill thousands of innocent people on 9/11 -- that we can stop by prosecuting the war on terrorism relentlessly and comprehensively.

Another way to look at it: There will always be crime, but that's no reason to get rid of our police force. Rather, it's a reason to improve our police force.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think it was wise for Bush to single out Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as terrorist states in his address last night? It obviously ignited a chilling response from the countries today. With these countries it seems any such statements reflect the Palestine-Israeli conflict.

Clifford May: I think Bush was putting the regimes in these three countries on notice: Change or you will be changed.

Now we'll see if -- in the aftermath of what we did in Afghanistan -- they take America seriously.

I don't understand your point about the conflict in the Middle East. What is North Korea's investment in that part of the world?

Also, Saddam Hussein's ambition was (and probably still is) to establish an oil-rich, nuclear-armed empire and to challenge what he sees as American "hegemony" in the world. He'd like to conquer Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. (And he attempted to assassinate President G.W.H. Bush for frustrating his efforts.)

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is something Saddam uses for PR purposes in the Arab and Muslim worlds, but I don't believe for a minute that is what motivates him.

Hyattsville, Md.: Sir, by the definition of terrorism on your Web site (The deliberate killing of innocent civilians for a political cause), both the bombing of Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would qualify. In both cases, innocent civilian populations were targeted in order to overthrow an enemy's government. More currently, in the School of the Americas, our military was training Latin American soldiers in how to intimidate civilians through targeted violence. I agree wholeheartedly that killing (or even just raping and torturing) civilians is an evil thing, but I wonder if our hands are clean enough to wash someone else's.

Clifford May: Another great question. I think one can have a good debate on Hiroshima (which was a city that had large military industries) and Dresden (harder to argue).

But the fact that Americans -- and just about everyone else in the world -- may have committed acts of terrorism in the past, should not justify terrorism now or in the future.

After all, we practiced slavery in the past. Does that imply that we need to defend those past practices and that we can't oppose slavery now -- because we don't have "clean hands?"

There is such a thing as moral evolution. In the 21st century, it's time we recognized that terrorism is wrong and worked to de-legitimize it and abolish it.

The alternative is to say that since terrorism has been tolerated in the past, it must be tolerated now.

But if that's the case, why merely tolerate it when others do it to us? Why not practice terrorism against others?

The answer: Because that leads us on a race to the moral bottom.

Mt. Rainier, Md.: Mr. May, I hope that FDD will more precisely define exactly what a terrorist is, and what an act of terror is, as versus someone who is fighting repression and authoritarianism. I am discouraged that countries such as Russia, China, Zimbabwe, Uganda, etc., are gleefully taking up the war against terrorism to redefine their enemies as terrorists. Since our country began in acts of rebellion that led to a war of rebellion against a government by no means as oppressive as many, I think we should have some sympathy for people who are fighting for freedom.

Clifford May: We should define terrorism simply and with moral clarity. Terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent men, women and children for political purposes.

Targeting non-combatants must be seen as wrong - no matter the cause, no matter the perceived injustice.

There are many ways to redress grievances. But fighting injustice through the use of such injustice must be condemned.

To put it very bluntly: If I have a conflict with you, it cannot be right for me to murder your child to settle that conflict.

Suwanee, Ga.: I understand that the UN is working on a package similar to the Patriot Act but is also having trouble defining "Who is a Terrorist." Can you addrss this?

Clifford May: Yes, the problem at the UN is that too many of the regimes do not want to define terrorism with moral clarity.

They want to craft definitiions that excuse terrorism by those on their side, while condemning those they despise for practices that may or may not actually be terrorism.

I'm hopeful that the Bush administration and Congress will insist that the UN adopt a meaningful definition and that we will push the UN toward outlawing terrorism internationally as a crime against humanity under that definition.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What should we be doing to maintain a positive image to Arabs, Muslims, and people outside the United States in general to better educate them of the positives of American goals? I believe we should be reaching out to others at times when it appears to them we are attacking them. No wonder they demonstrate against us because they've been taught we are out to destroy their way of life. What can we do to better reassure people that terrorists are the American enemy and that we respect their lives, cultures, religions, etc?

Clifford May: I don't believe that most Arabs and Muslims approve of terrorism.

But you're right -- in many parts of the world, not least the Arab and Muslim worlds, the media and the schools teach hatred of America, of Israel, of Christians, Jews. Hindus and other "infidels."

Of course we should respect other cultures -- but anyone who knows anything about America knows that we are the most tolerant and diverse society on Earth.

At the same time, certain freedoms are fundamental. Where religious freedom is denied -- where there is strong religious intolerance -- terrorism is likely to breed.

And when women's rights are totally denied -- as they were in Afghanistan and continue to be in some Muslim countries -- that, too, has to be a cause for concern.

I'm hopeful that last night, when people around the world saw the new leader of Afghanistan recognized and praised by President Bush, they began to see that we're not against any culture, nation or religion.

But I hope they also understand that America will no longer tolerate terrorism and the regimes that support terrorism.

Washington, D.C.: I appreciate your comments on the moral justification for attacking terrorism. However, how do we get there as a matter of U.S. law? Do you think Congress can declare war on a non-nation state? Alternatively, is something open-ended like the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in order (although I understand Daschle and others have expressed reservations about this)?

Clifford May: As I'm sure you know, Osama bin Laden actually declared war on us -- openly and publicly in a newspaper in London a few years back. (We just didn't take him seriously.)

I think the Bush Doctrine does declare war on terrorists and the regimes that harbor terrorists.

Congress might want to consider giving the Bush Doctrine more formal backing, but it's not absolutely necessary. Bush is following long precedent -- remember that Thomas Jefferson went to war with the Barbary pirates, also non-nation actors.

From the standpoint of international law, fighting the terrorists who have attacked us can be seen as an act of national self-defense.

Mt. Rainier: It is terribly disheartening that Americans had to die in a terrorist attach before we declared 'war' on terrorism. Your points regarding slavery and growing moral knowledge are well-taken, but didn't we really know before that terrorism is evil? Given the human proclivity to self-interest, will we be able to control our own arms industry and our own off-shore banking that support terrorism?

Clifford May: I think you're right, and I think we have been sort of in denial for quite a few years. (Most Americans also knew that slavery was evil long before 1865.)

I think we can reform the international banking system that is used to fund terrorists.

As for the arms industries, I'm confident that we can control domestic suppliers.

More difficult is to control regimes like North Korea which manufactures missiles and other weapons solely to sell to terrorists and rogue regimes.

Bergenfield, N.J.: We, as a country, continually dancing around the issue that Saudi Arabia is exporting its fundamentalist problems. There would be no Saudi Arabia if not for the U.S. intervention in the Gulf War. Why are we concerned about pressuring the Saudi government to provide at least intelligence aide?

Clifford May: Saudi Arabia has, indeed, been playing a dangerous game.

It has exported extremism and anti-Americanism.

It appears to have been paying what amounts to protection money to terrorists.

Its policies on religious freedom are not really distinguishable from the Taliban's. It's policies on women's rights are also troubling.

It is my belief that Saudi Arabia is in need of serious reform, and if that reform is not achieved our relations will suffer in the months and years ahead.

New York, N.Y.: As a liberal Democrat, I was encouraged by the "Powell" portion of Bush's speech last night, the section that sought to address the economic and political aspirations of people in the Arab and Third Worlds that are often thwarted by repressive regimes, which repression tends to seed terrorism. In my opinion, a truly transformational approach to the issue would entail supporting democratic movements, even when they are opposed to the U.S.'s traditional allies, i.e., right-wing dictatorships such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I think we should be moving in that direction anyway. What do you think?

Clifford May: I see your point and I think it's a very tough issue. Certainly, we should assist nations to become more free, more democratic and more prosperous.

Take Algeria: One can argue that no nation in the world has suffered as much from Islamic extremism as has Algeria -- more than 100,000 dead.

I suspect most Algerians would like to improve their lives with more freedom, prosperity and democracy.

But what if free elections would bring to power a Taliban-like regime that would dismantle democracy immediately after that election?

Over time, we helped democratize both Spain and Russia. Neither are perfect nations, but there has been improvement over the days of Franco and Stalin.

Can we do the same for nations in the Third World? That should certainly be the goal.

Indianapolis, Ind.: I've never heard of your organization. How is it founded and where can we find out more about it? I think Americans should be suspicious of groups with "warm fuzzy" names. Besides, we already have an organization for Defending Democracy -- it's called the White House. Seems to me many of these think tanks (especially conservatives) are simply riding a popular president -- all of them trying to get a piece of a good thing. By the way, I'm a Republican.

Also what are your credentials to support your expertise on how Defending Democracy is accomplished?

Clifford May: The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy was organized right after 9/11.

We're non-profit, non-partisan and, we believe, non-ideological in our approach.

Our board includes people like Jack Kemp (R) and former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D).

Our web site is

Our contributors are, at this time, all individuals who care deeply about this issue and the problem of defending democratic societies that are threatened by global terrorism. (What could be more critically imporant than that?)

Our purpose is to be a think tank devoted exclusively to studying terrorism, the ideologies that drive terrorism and (most importantly) the policies that can eradicate terrorism.

Those involved do not need to agree on everything. We do agree on a few fundamentals:

- That America should lead a comprehensive and ultimately decisive war against terrorism.

- That one man's terrorist is not another man's freedom fighter. Terror can and must be defined with moral clarity: It is the intentional killing of innocent civilians for political purposes.

- And we believe that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right -- where there is extreme religious intolerance, terrorism is likely to breed.

As for me, I'm a former NY Times foreign correspondent, and a graduate of Columbia University's School of International Affaris. I'm not sure I'm an expert on defending democracy but we have a growing list of research fellows who are studying the issue from many angles.

(And I'm a Republican, too.)

Sterling, Va.: The President seemed to frame the war along the lines of a broad campaign for democratic ideals. Doesn't this force us into a choice between eventually confronting our near term "allies" (like Russia and Egypt) or betraying those ideals for help?

Clifford May: I think we need to speak to the world with a clear voice.

We need to be a nation that promotes freedom and democracy in the world. (Prosperity is likely to follow.)

We need to be a nation that stands by other democratic societies, and by nations that are moving in that direction.

We also need to say clearly that we won't tolerate regimes that seek to slaughter our citizens.

In other words, we need to say: "We are a nation that defends its friends and destroys its enemies. You decide which you choose to be."

Pittsburgh, PA: Mr. May, From what I've read and heard, the roots of al Qaeda lie in Wahabism and its network of fundamentalist Islamic schools throughout the world (most notably in Pakistan). Unlike Nazism and Communism which were political ideologies, with Wahabism we're dealing with a religious doctrine. What steps can the U.S. and its allies take to combat the jihadist adherents within Wahabism without alienating (and possibly inflaming) the rest of the Muslim world?

Clifford May: Yikes, how do I answer this?

I think it's fair to say that Islamism, or Islamic fascism, or Jihadism, is an ideology based on Wahabism or Islamic fundamentalism -- but it's not identical with it. (Some would even say that Jihadism has hijacked Islam.)

To be candid, I think if we defeat Islamic fascism -- as we've begun to do in Afghanistan -- this ideology will quicky run out of steam.

As Osama bin Laden said in one of his video tapes: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they naturally choose the strong horse."

It is democracy, not Jihadism, that is the strong horse. We just need to demonstrate that clearly.

Gullsgate, Minn.: If we use totalitarian means to presumably assist in the establishment of more democracies, but end up supporting and supplying totalitarian governments with military weapons and training, where are we, and what do we represent, in the greater democratic picture?

Clifford May: We should not use totalitarian means. We should support democratic societies and those that aspire to become democratic societies.

We should destroy the terrorists that attack us and change the regimes that support them.

And we should allow other nations to defend themselves from terrorism.

Democratic societies are our true friends -- with others we have, at most, alliances of convenience.

Bethesda, Md.: Doesn't the U.S. only fight terrorism when it suits our interests? If not, why did/do we support the Contras in Nicaragua who terrorized civilians, Israel who terrorizes Palestinian civilians (bulldozing homes, shooting indiscriminately, assasinations, jailing without trials) and the IRA (they raised money here)?

In other words, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Clifford May: In the past, we have not always made it clear to our allies that terrorism is a means we condemn -- no matter the ends.

The Contras fall into that category -- they were fighting communism and we should have made it clear that under no circumstances were they to terrorize civilians as part of that effort -- that they'd lose our support if they did.

Israel has responded to terrorism -- bulldozing houses that were used by terrorist snipers, for example, and taking other measures that are certainly tough --- but can not really be categorized as terrorism.

To the best of my knowledge Israel has never intentionally killed innocent civilians. If they ever do, we should condemn the act. But too often the criticisms of Israel represent a confusion of the firefighter with the arsonist.

Similarly, what the US has done in Afghanistan and what the US is doing with the detainees in Guantanamo is very tough -- but it ain't terrorism, it's counter-terrorism.

There has been support for the IRA but not by the US government. And, I think, after 9/11, it is no longer supportable to think of IRA terrorism as romantic or justifiable.

Arlington, Va.: Mr. May,
Since Sept. 11, we've heard repeatedly both though the press and our political leaders that Islam is a "religion of peace" and should not be a target in the war on terrorism. While targeting an entire religion would be morally wrong and ineffective, isn't there a danger in promulgating such a simplified world view? Islam is not monolithic. Don't we make ourselves vulnerable by publicly ignoring other popular, dangerous, traditional interpretations of Islam?

Clifford May: Well, you're right.

I think the point is that most Muslims do not support the Islamic fascism and terrorism. Most see it as a perversion of Islam.

But it would be welcome to hear Islamic religious authorities saying this loudly, clearly and repeatedly.

Leesburg, Va.: What did you think of Bush's speech?

Clifford May: I was very encouraged by it.

He clearly grasps how serious is the threat from terrorism and from Jihadism.

Neither the Nazis nor the Communists managed to kill thousands of Americans on American soil.

Alexandria, Va.: Many in the Moslem world continue to argue that America's failure to support them constitutes a "root cause" of terrorism, as if America is more likely to support people if they attack us.

How can we make it clear to the relatively uneducated masses in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia et al that terrorism does not pay?

Clifford May: Very simply:

By defeating destroying terrorists and terrorists regimes.

Alexandria, Va.: Some argue that if they ethnically profiles illegal immigrants in search of terrorists that we have compromised our democratic values.

Do foreigners have a right to immigrate to a democracy illegally?

Is it consistent with democracy to make it more difficult for some foreigners to enter the U.S. illegally than it is for other foreigners?

Clifford May: We should restrict immigration from those countries that harbor terrorists or support terrorists or fund terrorists.

That's not racial profiling. It's common sense.

No one has a right to immigrate to America.

A nation that doesn't control its borders is not a nation. (That's not original but I forget who said it first.)

Alexandria, Va.: Once upon a time one could see influential talking heads like Robert Novak and Peter Jennings espouse Iraqi and Palestinian causes.

Now it seems as if the only American supporters of anti-Israel causes are buffoons like the indicted James Traficant of Ohio and James P. Moran of Virginia.

Has the 9-11 terrorism destroyed sympathy for Islamic causes in this country?

Clifford May: I'm not sure what the Iraqi cause is. Saddam Husssein's cause is to become dictator of an oil-rich, nuclear-armed empire.

The cause of the Iraqi people is probably to be liberated from Saddam Hussein's oppression.

Similarly, Yasser Arafat's cause appears to be the destruction of Israel.

The cause of the Palestinian people ought to be to have an independent state that lives in peace with Israel as its neighbor.

I'm suspect you insult many Muslims when you suggest that the success of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat are "Islamic causes."

Clifford May: I just want to thank everyone who submitted a question over the past hour and a half.

These were excellent questions -- they made me think very hard and realize how much more I have to learn.

This is the first time I've participated in such a forum. It's been fascinating.

Our web site is new -- but we're adding content all the time. Come visit at

We welcome input -- and contributions, naturally.

My thanks to the Wash Post and to everyone who participated.

Even if you didn't all agree with everything I said, I hope you do agree that this was a healthy, provocative and productive discussion.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company