Washington Post          Editorials /  Op-Ed
Take the Fight to the Terrorists
By Donald H. Rumsfeld            Sunday, October 26, 2003

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the suicide bomb attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut -- a blast that killed more than 240 Americans.  Soon after that attack, President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz asked me to take a leave of absence to serve as presidential envoy for the Middle East.  That experience taught us lessons about the nature of terrorism that are relevant today as we prosecute the global war on terror.

President Bush has made clear that the only way to win today's war is to carry the fight to the enemy and roll back the terrorist threat to civilization, "not on the fringes of its influence, but at the heart of its power."  He has it right.  To understand why, one might consider what happened in Beirut two decades ago.

The attack occurred when a truck loaded with explosives drove into the U.S. Marine barracks near the Beirut airport.  The logical response was to put cement barricades around buildings to prevent another truck bombing.  But the terrorists soon figured out how to get around those defenses: They began lobbing rocket-propelled grenades over targets that had such barricades.  So the tendency was to hunker down even more.  We started seeing buildings along the Corniche, the popular seaside boardwalk that runs for several miles along the sea in Beirut, covered with a metal mesh, so that when rocket-propelled grenades hit the mesh, they would bounce off, doing little damage.  So what did the terrorists do next?  They adapted.  They watched the comings and goings of embassy personnel and began hitting soft targets -- people on their way to and from work.  For every defense, the terrorists moved to another avenue of attack.

Within six months of the first attack, most of the American troops had pulled out of Lebanon.  And from that experience, terrorists learned important lessons: that terrorism is relatively low-cost and deniable and can yield substantial results at low risk and often without penalty.  Terrorism can be a great equalizer -- a force multiplier.  And terrorism works in the sense that it can terrorize, and even a single attack can influence public opinion and morale and alter the behavior of nations.

Terrorists have a sizable advantage.  A terrorist can attack at any time, in any place, using virtually any technique.  And it is not possible to defend every potential target at all times in every place against every form of attack.  That being the case, the way to defeat terrorists is to take the war to them -- to go after them where they live and plan and hide, and to make clear to states that sponsor and harbor them that such actions will have consequences.

That is what President Bush is doing in the global war on terrorism.  When our nation was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, the president immediately recognized that what had happened was an act of war and must be treated as such; that weakness can invite aggression; and that simply standing in a defensive posture and absorbing blows is not an effective way to counter it.  He declared that henceforth "any person involved in committing or planning terrorist attacks against the American people becomes an enemy of this country . . . . Any person, organization, or government that supports, protects, or harbors terrorists is complicit in the murder of the innocent and equally guilty of terrorist crimes.  [And] any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction is a grave danger to the civilized world -- and will be confronted."  In the ensuing two years, thousands of terrorists have been rounded up, and two terrorist regimes have learned the president meant what he said.

The approach the president has taken is even more important as we enter a new and dangerous security environment.  When the Marine barracks was attacked two decades ago, the terrorist threat was largely conventional.  Terrorists had weapons that could kill dozens or, in the case of the Beirut bombing, hundreds of people.  On Sept. 11 the terrorists grew even bolder -- bringing the war to our shores and using techniques that allowed them to kill not hundreds but thousands.  Yet consider: the explosive agent used on Sept. 11 was jet fuel.  The danger we face in the 21st century is the threat posed by terrorists armed not with jet fuel but with more powerful weapons.  If the world does not deal with the emerging nexus between terrorist networks, terrorist states and weapons of mass murder, terrorists could one day kill not more than 240 people, as in Beirut, or more than 3,000 people, as on Sept. 11, but tens of thousands -- or more.

That is why our country and our 90-nation coalition is at war today.  That is why we have forces risking their lives at this moment, fighting terrorist adversaries in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere across the world.  It is also why it is critical that our country recognize that the war on terrorism will be long, difficult and dangerous -- and that as we deal with immediate terrorist threats, we also need to find ways to stop the next generation of terrorists from forming.  For every terrorist whom coalition forces capture, kill, dissuade or deter, others are being trained.  To win the war on terror, we must also win the war of ideas -- the battle for the minds of those who are being recruited by terrorist networks across the globe.

That is why the president is using all elements of national power: military, financial, diplomatic, law enforcement, intelligence and public diplomacy.  Because to live as free people in the 21st century, we cannot live behind concrete barriers and wire mesh.  We cannot live in fear and remain free people.  The task is to stop terrorists before they can terrorize.  And even better, we must lean forward and stop them from becoming terrorists in the first place.  That is a lesson we learned two decades ago in Beirut.

The writer is secretary of defense.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company