America Must Not Lose Focus in Its War on Terrorism

The Monterey County Herald, November 11, 2001
By Leon E. Panetta

In the words of President Bush, the United States is now fighting the first war of the 21st Century. It is a conflict unprecedented in recent history because we are confronting the enemy of terrorism on two fronts—at home and abroad.

We have lived with the fear of a two-front war before, but never the reality. As a young boy during World War II in Monterey, I can remember the anxiety following Pearl Harbor that the enemy might well strike next at the coastal communities of the West Coast. Blackout shades, air raid marshals and sirens were all a part of our lives in those years. But thankfully our hometowns were never directly attacked.

The terrible ruins of the World Trade Center and the gaping hole in the Pentagon made clear that we, our cities and towns and the American way of life are the target of this enemy.

More than 6,000 civilian casualties of war resulted on Sept. 11 not because they were soldiers in battle or had any military relevance but because their very innocence as Americans made them vulnerable targets to those who despise our freedom.

For this horrific act of mass murder, we have unified as a nation in the common goal of brining those involved to justice. U.S. military forces have been dispatched to Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his associates. At home, law enforcement, disaster, transportation and health authorities are being mobilized under the title of homeland security to protect a nation and make all of us more vigilant to the potential of future terrorist acts.

As in past wars, we believe our military strength and the power of our people and our freedom will prevail. But as we have also learned from past wars, victory is by no means guaranteed.

The best way to win this war is to understand how we could lose it.

In the last few weeks, we have seen the potential vulnerabilities that could, if ignored, stall the war effort and eventually undermine our will to fight.

  • Loss of focus. In the military, we are taught that the fundamental principle of war is never to lose sight of the overall mission. If the objective becomes confused, muddled or controversial, the essential unity and commitment to battle is weakened. The simple mission in this war is to get those involved  in the Sept. 11 attack. The danger is that the objective could become entangled in an all out war on the Taliban, a tenuous relationship with rebel forces, the challenge of future nation-building after the war, the potential of a prolonged ground war threatened by weather and increased casualties, Middle East politics, and questions about the role of Saddam Hussein. Much of this may not be avoidable since the path to bin Laden is through many of these military and  diplomatic minefields. But none of this can be allowed to divert the United States from the basic mission of capturing and, if necessary, destroying bin Laden and the al-Qaida network. What is obvious from bin Laden’s own media efforts is that his principal goal is to save his operation by trying to divert attention to his call for Holy Way by Islam against America. Our goal must be to stay focused on bin Laden. Ultimately, the stability of Islam and the Middle East does depend on the future of Afghanistan, Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq, Iran and others. But to achieve those larger goals, we must first win the battle to get bin Laden.
  • Misleading information. In a democratic society, winning a war depends on the support of the people. And the support of the people depends on their trust that they are being told the truth by their leaders. It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth. The responsibility of leadership in our democracy is to make sure that never happens. With a war on two fronts, the obligation to present credible information as to what is happening is even greater. On the military side, the Pentagon briefings have been well coordinated and centralized if not always precise as to detail. On the domestic side, however, the information flow is often disjointed, unreliable and conflicting.Part of this is the difficult process of learning how to cope with the uncertainties of bioterrorism and the veracity of threats and rumors of future terrorist acts. Part of this is also related to the myriad of jurisdictions involved who are protective of their responsibilities and unwilling to share vital information with others.The governor of California and the FBI cannot have public differences over the credibility of terrorist threats if the public is going to pay attention and take those warnings seriously. The director of Homeland Security, the National Institutes of Health and the United States Postal Service cannot differ as to the dangers of anthrax in the mail.Both the military and domestic authorities have a responsibility to coordinate and verify the information they present to the American people because the price of misleading information is the loss of trust by the people—a trust vital to victory.
  • Partisanship. Crucial to a united front in this war is a united political leadership for the nation. For more than 20 years, both parties have been engaged in partisan trench warfare in which the national interest has often taken a back seat to the fight over political power.
  • The events of Sept. 11 have not only changed our lives, they should have changed politics as usual. To their credit, the president and the leadership of both parties were willing to set aside their differences to forge immediate unity and support for the war effort. By large votes, Congress quickly passed $40 billion in emergency funds for both the military and domestic requirements of the war.

    And yet, during the last few weeks, the commitment to a united government has slowly deteriorated in partisan battles over federalizing airport security and an economic stimulus package. Instead of an effort to find consensus, both parties have resorted to the same old rhetoric and trench warfare that marked the politics of the past. The danger is that if partisan differences are allowed to dominate the debate in Washington and each uses the present crisis as an excuse to advance its own agendas, the essential unity needed for winning the war will be seriously weakened.

We all live in uncertain times.  But we also live in a strong and great democracy.  As a boy during World War II, the fear of uncertainty was in large measure diminished by the strong leadership of a president, a Congress and a military that never lost sigh of their sense of mission, trust or unity of effort.

Those were the values that led this nation to victory then.  They are the same values we celebrate on Veterans Day on Monday. And they are the same values that can make the difference between victory and defeat today.

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LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.
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