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This war of "ism" needs clarity

By Thomas L. Jipping
web posted November 12, 2001

Any war, including the present one against terrorism, presents very difficult challenges, judgments, and decisions. In a free society with a real Constitution and sometimes over-active media, leaders know they cannot make all decisions and pursue all objectives in secret. On the other hand, they know that the enemy as well as their fellow citizens are listening to their statements and observing their actions. A tough balancing act, to be sure.

Osama bin LadenThis balancing act is tough enough in a conventional war or military campaign, waged against a specific nation. The present war - dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom - is very different. On the one hand, our leaders often refer to the enemy in conventional terms. The Taliban regime, the al-Qaeda organization, Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, our leaders describe the enemy in very unconventional terms, with general labels rather than specific names. We are fighting terrorism, unnamed terrorists, or those who help, harbor, aid, or support them.

We know from the disasters in Somalia and the Balkans that clear objectives and exit strategies are critical not only for military success but also for popular support. Americans are said to be patient, but they are patient only under certain conditions. We are used to thinking of ourselves as a superpower, able to do anything. We are patient so long as we have that confidence, and that confidence in turn depends on the clarity with which our leaders help us understand the mission at hand. The Vietnam war shook that confidence, not because it should not have been fought, but because we did not have a clear objective and were not fully committed to achieving it.

So the less defined the enemy, the greater the need for clarity in what we are doing to fight that enemy. Which brings us back to the current war, a war against an "ism." A war that not only involves the familiar soldiers, planes, bombs, and tanks, but the unfamiliar freezing of assets, wire-tapping phones, and searching luggage. It started right here in America, but just when we get used to thinking it's really being waged over there in Afghanistan, those anthrax spores start to spread right here at home.

Those two new elements of this war - an undefined enemy and our own country being one of the fronts in the war - require more clarity from our leaders. Yet so far, that clarity is missing. This morning I picked up USA Today and saw this headline: "Americans Confused: Should We Worry or Go About Our Business?" New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani says go about our ordinary lives; Attorney General John Ashcroft issues yet another terrorist threat warning and says we should be vigilant.

In other countries more familiar with wars and terrorism such as Israel, citizens know how to blend the ordinary with the vigilant. For them, vigilance is ordinary and going about their daily lives involves that "heightened awareness" we are hearing so much about. But that's not true here. Americans have no experience with this, nothing to give some guidance. We can't say "oh yes, I remember the last time our leaders called for vigilance, I remember what we did and the things to watch out for." We've never done this before.

So here, this thing called being "vigilant" is not a natural part of going about our business. Hence the need for clarity from our leaders, for guidance about what we should be doing different than we would ordinarily do. What should we be vigilant about? What should we be aware of? Simply giving us some general "go forth and be vigilant" as if we already know what that's about is not good enough.

This is a different war. It's here, not just there. It's against an "ism" not just a nation. It requires us to be involved, not just supportive. In this new environment, we have to know more. Our leaders need to be clear.

Tom Jipping is the director of the Center for Law and Democracy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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