How should democracies use force to retaliate against brutal terrorist acts? Indeed, should they do so at all? What are the preferred methods? Should any attention be paid to moral criteria?
In the immediate aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks against El Al at the Rome and Vienna airports, the White House urged Israel to use restraint in its inevitable retaliation. The argument was that attacks against PLO facilities in either Jordan or Syria could jeopardize the fragile peace process and risk dangerous military escalation. But as it became clear that the most likely instigators of the attacks were the renegade Abu Nidal extremists and Libya's Moammar Kadafi, the White House advocated a tougher response.
This abrupt change reflects the reality of the war against terrorism--that political rather than moral considerations carry the most weight.
If the purpose of retaliation is to punish and deter, then covert operations involving assassination, intimidation, blackmail and other dirty tricks are probably the most effective. However, quite aside from legal questions, such methods have serious drawbacks. Covert operations take time, and therefore provide no instant and public gratification--an important factor in the domestic politics of most democratic countries. Also, such activities can and do back-fire: Your own people can get killed, or, more likely, can prove to be inept at the job.
And while covert operations may deter specific terrorist groups from further activity in the short run, they are unlikely to influence the larger international terrorist network. This group will be deterred only if there are concerted political, economic and, if necessary, military actions by like-minded governments to clamp down on those who harbor and support terrorism as well as the terrorists themselves.
The alternative is to use military forces against known terrorist installations. The mode of attack can vary from aerial bombardment to direct assault by commando troops. Since terrorist bases are always located on somebody else's territory, military action against them requires either the cooperation of local rulers or direct violation of their sovereignty.
If air power is used, the reaction time can be very quick, but, unless the targets are isolated and the bombing very accurate, innocent civilians can and often are killed in the process. If commandos are used, civilian casualties may be held down, but the probability of losses to one's own forces goes up. If the country harboring the terrorists has well-defended borders and a strong air defense, the attacking force has to be large, with commensurate increases in risks of casualties and escalation.
This brings us back to Israel, its responses to terrorist attacks and whether moral constraints should be taken into account. There is no denying that when Israel uses air power to retaliate, civilians are often killed. Washington was upset when Israel hit the PLO headquarters in Tunis in response to numerous terrorist incidents last summer. However, the concern of the State Department was political, not moral.
Tunisia is a friend of the United States, a country whose leadership is moderate and wants ultimately to achieve peace with Israel. If the Israelis had hit terrorist bases in Libya and killed the same number of civilians, the United States would have led the chorus in cheering them on.
We expect Israel to abide by codes of behavior appropriate to a democracy. Yet to assume that Israel can live up to the same principles that Western Europe and the United States aspire to in peacetime is a bad comparison. Israel is at war with most of its neighbors. We should remember how the United States and Britain behaved in World War II when we thought that our future was in jeopardy. We used brutal methods to pursue the war effort because we thought that it served a greater good. We thought nothing of invading neutral countries, such as Iceland, or using the most unsavory methods to track down and eliminate German agents.
To expect Prime Minister Shimon Peres to put much value on "world opinion" is silly. He is much more concerned about the attitudes of Gen. Ariel Sharon and other hawks in his cabinet who have a more extreme agenda on who to target than he does. Nor in the last resort will the United States do anything practical to deter Israel from a strong response.
We want to see a settlement of the Palestinian problem, but we will not force a solution on Israel. Israel has a lot to answer for concerning its policies toward the Palestinians, especially those residing in the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. However, so long as terrorism against Israel remains a cornerstone of official PLO policy, the Palestinian cause will remain discredited, divided and increasingly irrelevant--especially in the United States, the one country that could truly help both sides if dealt the right cards.
If political criteria reign supreme, can there be any absolute values about the level of retaliatory force against terrorists? Aside from an obvious desire to keep innocent casualties to a minimum, I think not. Each case is different, and more terrorism is yet to come. For the future we must prepare for "catastrophic" contingencies--when, for instance, terrorists succeed in obtaining radioactive material or biological weapons. At this point retaliation will be irrelevant; preventive measures or, if those fail, speedy and drastic action to limit damage--not moral considerations--will be what counts.