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April 26, 2002

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Today's Featured Article


A War of Resolve
American kowtowing to "moderate" Arabs may embolden bin Laden.

Friday, April 26, 2002 12:01 a.m. EDT

When Osama bin Laden launched his attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, he was proceeding on an assumption of the weakness of American resolve. It is a point he made clear in many of his previous statements, notably in his interview with John Miller of ABC, on May 28, 1998:

"We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars," he said. "This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours and this was also repeated in Somalia. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers. . . . After a few blows, they ran in defeat . . . they forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. They left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."

As they saw it, the Islamic fighters in Afghanistan had defeated and destroyed the mighty Soviet Union. Dealing with the U.S. would be a much easier task.

This was his belief and the source of his resolve. The same message appears in several other statements--that Americans had become soft and pampered, unable or unwilling to stand up and fight. It was a lesson bin Laden extracted from our responses to previous attacks: He expected more of the same. There would be fierce words and perhaps the U.S. would launch a missile or two to some remote places, but there would be little else in terms of retaliation.

It was a natural error. Nothing in his background or his experience would enable him to understand that a major policy change could result from an election.

As we now know, it was also a deadly error. What in fact followed--the campaign in Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban, the declaration of war against the "axis of evil"--must have come as a shock to him and to his various sponsors and helpers. The assault of Sept. 11 was surely intended as the opening salvo of a war of terror that would continue until its objectives were obtained--that is, the eviction of the United States from the world of Islam and, most important, the overthrow of the Arab regimes seen by us as friendly, and by al Qaeda and many of their own subjects as renegades from Islam and puppets of America.

That was the plan, anyway. It was the shock of America's rapid and sharp reaction that made bin Laden blink. After the U.S.'s initial response, he halted his campaign and adopted a more cautious attitude. But some recent American actions and utterances may bring a reconsideration of this judgement and the halt to which it gave rise. Our anxious pleading with the fragile and frightened regimes of the region to join--or at least to tolerate--a campaign against terrorism and its sponsors has put the U.S. in a corner where it seems to be asking permission for actions that are its own prerogative to take.

Likewise, the exemptions accorded to some terrorist leaders, movements and actions not immediately directed against us have undermined the strong moral position which must be the foundation of our global war on terrorism. The submission to being scolded and slighted, as Secretary of State Colin Powell did in his recent meeting with the king of Morocco, and his failure to meet with the president of Egypt, make the U.S. seem it is reverting to bad habits. That only further contributes to a perceived posture of irresolution and uncertainty on the part of the U.S. administration.

This irresolution on our part has brought a corresponding uncertainty on the part of our nervous and hesitant allies, not without reason. Their fears have deep roots in the memory of what happened after the Gulf War when we called on the people of Iraq to rebel against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned them. Having granted Saddam a cease-fire, we sat and watched as he destroyed the rebels, group by group and region by region, using the helicopters we had thoughtfully allowed him to retain.

The leaders of al Qaeda launched their war against the U.S. in the belief that they were attacking a soft and demoralized enemy. They thought they could proceed with impunity. It would be wise not to let that misapprehension creep back.

Mr. Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" (Oxford University Press, 2002), available from the OpinionJournal bookstore by clicking here.