Is the War on Terrorism Winnable?

President Bush has pledged to secure the world from terrorists by going after every group or individual that threatens the freedom-loving people of the United States.  His promise may be impossible to keep.

"You cannot declare a war on terrorism. It's like declaring a war on murder," said Roy Licklider, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "There are certainly things you can do to reduce it. You can be safer, but winning the war is crazy."

"I think the administration understandably declared war on terrorism because it was something that would resonate with the public. But declaring war indicates finality and that's not going to be realized," said Harlan K. Ullman, author of Unfinished Business: Keeping America Safe in a Global Era of Turmoil, Terror and Temptation, due for release in June 2002.

Ullman compares the war against terrorism to other failed U.S. wars – the wars on drugs, crime, poverty, and social injustice, to name a few. Like those wars, the war on terror is being fought without a barometer to indicate when the mission is complete.

Also like those other wars, a faceless enemy makes for tempered success. Once terrorist leader Usama bin Laden is captured, analysts argue, the mission's objective will be diluted.

"Frankly, Bush's rhetoric has become a bit excessive, like when he talks about 'ridding the world of evil,'" said Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Pursuing groups not affiliated with the Sept. 11 attacks nor with a real anti-U.S. agenda is like "poking a hornet's nest," Eland said, and could create more problems than it solves.

Case in point: last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the United States will freeze the assets of any individual or group funding Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and UTN, two Pakistani-based Muslim terrorist operations with an anti-India agenda. Bush asked members of the United Nations also to freeze assets of those groups.

Neither group, however, is a threat to the United States. Instead, the latest move draws the United States further into the rivalry between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Another example is Iraq. While proof is mounting that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been building up an arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, he has not yet been tied to the Sept. 11 attacks, and moving military might in his direction may set a bad precedent.

"If you go after other Islamic countries without demonstration that they have Al Qaeda cells in them or anything to do with Sept. 11 – and Iraq could be a good example – I think you would be just creating a recruiting poster for anti-U.S. terrorists," Eland said.

One more problem with pursuing an endless war on terror is the threat it imposes on the very people it is designed to protect.

"I think there is a threat in any concentration of power," said Col. Frederick Peterson, United States Marine Corps, Ret., and a military analyst. "The longer we prosecute the war, the more power we put into the government's hands. It could be used to exceed its original charter and be used to oppress rather than liberate."

Eland agrees, saying that the concentration of power could result in another Cold War, replete with massive military buildup and possible encroachment on civil liberties.