Three Key Principles in the War Against Terrorism

Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel

Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, grew up in Jerusalem, and spent his high school years in the United States, where his father taught history. In 1967, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and served in an elite commando unit. Wounded in the rescue operation of hijacked Sabena Airline hostages at Ben Gurion Airport and later cited for outstanding operational leadership, he was discharged from the I.D.F. in 1972. Mr. Netanyahu received a B.S. in Architecture and an M.S. in Management Studies from M.I.T., and studied political science at M.I.T. and Harvard University. He was employed by the Boston Consulting Group, an international business consulting firm, and later joined the senior management of Rim Industries. In 1979, he organized an international conference against terrorism under the auspices of the Jonathan Institute—a private foundation dedicated to the study of terrorism and named after his brother, who gave his life leading the famous and daring Entebbe rescue mission. Mr. Netanyahu served as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Israeli Embassy in Washington from 1982 to 1984, and as Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations from 1986 to 1988, when he was elected to the Knesset as a Likud member and became Deputy Foreign Minister. In 1996, he was elected Prime Minister of Israel. Mr. Netanyahu is the author of three books: Terrorism: How the West Can Win(edited 1986), A Place Among the Nations (1992), and Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism (1995).

The following is abridged from a speech delivered at a Hillsdale College seminar in Naples, Florida, on March 19, 2002.

The United States is well on its way to winning the war against terrorism because the United States, under President Bush, has espoused three clear principles.

The first principle is moral clarity. President Bush said in his remarkable speech right after September 11 that there are no good terrorists, only bad terrorists—that terrorism is always evil. In saying this, he was saying that nothing justifies terrorism. It is important to state this point clearly and to elaborate on it, because the main weapon that terrorists use against the West is not bombs or guns, but moral obfuscation: “You’re terrorists, because you kill civilians, too. America, Britain, Israel—all are terrorist states.” We must harden ourselves against this amoral and debilitating charge.

Terrorism is not defined by the identity of its perpetrator. Nor is it defined by the cause, real or imagined, that its perpetrators espouse. Terrorism is defined by one thing and one thing alone. It is defined by the nature of the act. Terrorists systematically and deliberately attack the innocent. That is a very different thing from the unintentional civilian casualties that often accompany legitimate acts of war.

For example, in 1944 the British Air Force set out to bomb the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen. The British pilots missed, and instead of hitting the Gestapo they hit a hospital and killed 83 children and four nuns. That was not terrorism. That did not make Britain a terrorist state. That was a terrible but unintentional accident of the kind that accompanies every war. But terrorists don’t accidentally kill civilians. The deaths of innocents are not an unintentional byproduct of their strategy. Terrorists deliberately target the innocent. They intentionally cross the lines that define the conventions of war that have been developed, in accordance with basic morality, to try to limit and regulate conflict. They willfully try to kill as many innocent civilians as they can. And this is never justified, regardless of the cause.

Going back to World War II, consider this hypothetical: You’re an American officer. You’re fighting for the most just cause in history. But you come into a German village—maybe even a village next to a concentration camp—and you line up the women and children in that village and kill them with a machine gun. You have committed an act of terrorism. You have committed a war crime and you will be judged guilty and executed, and properly so. Not even the most just cause can justify terrorism. It is always illegitimate, always criminal.

Allow me to add one other observation—I think an important one—on this point. It is not merely that the goals of terrorists do not justify their means. In addition, the means that terrorists use tell us something about their real goals. We can see this very simply by looking at what happens when terrorists come to power. They don’t establish free societies. They don’t establish governments that respect human rights. They establish dictatorships that trample human rights. It’s the same whether we look at Cuba or at Iran or at Libya or at Afghanistan under the Taliban. Terrorist movements may talk about fighting for democracy and freedom, but if they’re in the business of terror, you can bet they plan, when they come to power, to grind human rights into the dust.

So again, terrorism is always criminal, whether practiced by Israel, America, or the Palestinian Authority. The deliberate and systematic assault on innocents is evil. Nor do ratios count. In Afghanistan, when the final tally is over, America will probably have killed a lot more Afghans than the number of Americans slaughtered in New York and Washington. But that doesn’t make the Taliban cause just, or America’s cause unjust.

I think the United States is not and will not be cowed by arguments that try to delegitimize its war against terrorism—arguments that equate terrorism with the unintentional killing of civilians. That’s what I mean when I say that President Bush and the American people have moral clarity.

Strategic Clarity

This brings us to the second principle—strategic clarity. I think the United States understands that fighting terrorism doesn’t really mean fighting the terrorists. Of course it is necessary and right to go after them. But they are not really the most important target. If you want to fight terrorism—and I’ve been saying this for over two decades—you don’t go out looking for the needle in the haystack. You go after the haystack.

To use a different analogy, if you have kamikaze pilots coming at you, you can shoot down a kamikaze pilot here and there. You can even go after their squadron leader. But you will still have kamikazes coming in. The only way that you can stop the attacks from continuing is to go after the aircraft carrier that is their base. Likewise, if you want to stop terrorism, you have got to go after the regimes that stand behind the terrorists. You have to understand that the terrorists are not floating up in space. They have to take off from a certain place and go back to it. They have to have a location to hatch their grisly plots, and to equip and train themselves. That haven is always the territory of a sovereign state. If you take away the support of that sovereign state, the whole scaffolding of international terrorism will collapse into the dust.

That’s exactly what the United States is doing now. It went after the Taliban and Al Qaeda began to crumble. There are remnants in Afghanistan. There is perhaps even a residual terrorist capacity. But when the roots are cut off, the grapes left on the vine wither and die. And this is fairly easy to do, because the whole terror network consists of a half-dozen states with about two dozen terrorist organizations affiliated with them—sometimes working directly for them. If you take care of those states, the rest is easy. And there are only two things you can do with terror-sponsoring states: deter them or dismantle them. That means giving them a choice. This choice was well articulated by the British Prime Minister, speaking to the Taliban: “Surrender terrorism, or surrender power.” They didn’t surrender terrorism, and out they went. There is no third choice.

I think the United States is well on its way to handling two other terrorist regimes. One is practicing terrorism this very moment, inciting radicalism and terror and militancy from the Philippines to Los Angeles. I’m talking about Iran. But the first target will be Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Both of these regimes, if unattended, will succeed—fairly rapidly—in the programs they have launched to develop atomic weapons. And once they possess atomic weapons, these two foundations of the terror network could threaten the world and our civilization with a terror that we cannot even imagine today.

President Bush is absolutely right in boldly naming these two countries and going after them—or in the case of Iran, perhaps, waiting for the implosion of its regime after the collapse of Saddam Hussein. So in addition to the moral clarity to identify all terrorism as illegitimate, the United States is demonstrating strategic clarity in moving to root out the terror-supporting regimes.

Imperative for Victory

Which brings me to the third principle: the imperative for victory. And when I say this, I don’t just mean that the United States wants to win. That’s obvious. I mean that the United States understands that the only way to defeat terrorism is actually to defeat it. That sounds redundant, but it isn’t. There is a very powerful view today, after all—held even by some former Presidents—that says the root cause of terrorism is the deprivation of national rights or civil rights. This deprivation, according to this view, is what’s driving terrorism—which is, of course, what the terrorists themselves say. Anyone who knows modern history, however, can enumerate several hundred battles, struggles, conflicts, and wars that were aimed at the achievement of national liberation, independence, or equal and civil rights, and that did not employ terror. Indeed, one has to look very hard to find the use of terrorism in these conflicts.

For example, if we ask what is the worst occupation in history—the very worst—I think most of us would agree that it was the Nazi occupation of Europe. Yet when we look, we’re hard pressed to find one example of, say, the French Resistance using terrorism. They had plenty of opportunities, but they never once targeted the wives and children of French collaborators, or even the wives or children of German officers stationed in France. Why didn’t they? Because they weren’t terrorists. They were democrats. Or take an example closer to home: the struggle of blacks for civil equality in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s. That struggle never employed terror either, because it also proceeded from a democratic mind-set.

The only way to persuade people to obliterate buses full of children, or buildings, or cities—the only way to persuade people to abandon the moral constraints that govern human action, even in war—is to inculcate in their minds the idea that there is a cause higher or more important than morality. That cause could be racial. It could be religious. It could be ethnic. It could be social. But whatever it is, it must be total if it is going to allow people to circumvent morality even to the point of intentionally blowing up children. That kind of thinking proceeds not from a democratic, but from a totalitarian mind-set. That’s why, from its inception, terrorism has been wedded to totalitarianism. From Lenin to Stalin to Hitler, down to the Ayatollahs, terrorism is bred by totalitarianism. It requires a machine that inculcates hatred from childhood, grinding it into peoples’ minds and hearts until they are willing even to blow themselves up for the purpose of murdering innocents.

So the root cause of the kind of systemic terrorism we confront today is totalitarianism, and in order to defeat totalitarianism we have to defeat the totalitarian regimes. That was accomplished through war in the case of Nazi Germany. In the case of the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan won bloodlessly in the end. But he won. Victory over Nazism and communism were imperative for freedom. And in the case of militant Islamic terrorism, the same spirit is required.

Of course, the United States and its allies are often told that if they fight this war, they’ll get hundreds of millions of people angry at them. For instance, many said that if America bombed Afghanistan during Ramadan, tens of thousands of Islamic activists would stream into Afghanistan to help the Taliban. Wrong. The United States bombed Afghanistan during Ramadan, but people who oppose America are streaming out of Afghanistan, not in. And what about all the governments in the area? Are they attacking the United States or are they trying to line up with it? They are trying to line up, because victory breeds victory and defeat breeds defeat. Insofar as the war against terrorism is victorious, it will compress the forces of Islamic militancy and terrorism and make it harder for them to draw recruits.

Antidote: Freedom

With these three principles—moral clarity, strategic clarity and the imperative for victory—the defeat of terrorism is not as distant as many people think. Beyond that, if I had to point to the one thing that is needed in the Arab and Muslim world to ensure that the next century will be better than the last—for them and for us—it would be to promote democracy, a free press, debate and dissent. In the end, the only antidote to terrorism is the antidote to totalitarianism. It is freedom. It is what the American flag represents to me and to billions in the world. It is the key to securing not merely peace of mind, but peace between peoples.

This peace is within our power. Now we must show that it is within our will.