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Swatting Flies with a HammerAmerican Ambassador (ret.) Ronald Spiers, in an article in the Foreign Service Journal last year,* clearly set forth an important point, one not always recognized, about the global plague of politically motivated violence: Terrorism is a tactic, an instrument of policy, however misguided—a weapon, that is, not an enemy.

Therefore, saying a government has declared war on terrorism, while a shorthand term that has come to be understood, truly makes no more sense than the phrase, “making war on war.” Meeting the threat and defeating terrorism in actuality requires policies and actions other than those associated with military solutions to problems—with policies and actions other than making war.

It follows in this observer’s view that defeating terrorism does not call for sending armed forces to invade countries and to seek set-piece battles with terrorist groups. (The only exception would be when seeking to counter officially sanctioned and openly hosted and supported terrorist groups, as was the unusual case in Afghanistan.) An approach along traditional armed forces lines, if followed systematically, would lead most likely into expensive and fruitless quagmires. To employ another figure of speech, sending regular troops to a foreign land to fight cells of terrorists located therein, no matter how troublesome and dangerous the latter might be, is like using a hammer to swat flies buzzing around a plate glass window.

Such problems call, rather, for the development of measures other than bombing, guided missiles, and invasions by legions of infantrymen. An alternative approach, while less overtly bellicose, in turn requires no small measures of dedication, nerve, ingenuity, and patience. Eschewing a military response to a terrorist threat does not offer a simplified response to the challenge, but rather calls for a different line of thinking and newly developed ideas.

What are the different measures that come from such thinking? Aye, there’s the rub. Some of them are not too difficult of conception and articulation, but not one is simple and easy to implement up to a level that would effectively counter serious threats of death and destruction by fanatical terrorists. But a number of areas clearly deserve attention:

  • At the forefront of counterterrorism requirements stands the need to strengthen domestic defenses against terrorist attacks, not only in the United States, but also in other nations facing now the largely (but not exclusively) Muslim extremist menace.
  • A close second in importance comes American diplomacy and the furtherance of international cooperation among like-minded national leaders and peoples, arranging to share information and collaborate closely in counterterrorism programs.
  • An invaluable product of the cooperation thus furthered between nations in obstructing and rounding up terrorists would be heightened cooperation between various police and intelligence agencies, both in operations and information exchange. Included under this heading might well be efforts to further clandestine operations aimed at terrorist cells and leaders.
  • An additional result of heightened efforts on the diplomatic front could be added international attention to international economic and technical aid efforts in the least developed areas of the world. Additionally, one might see, hopefully, more effective and better-funded U. S. Public Diplomacy programs.
  • Training activities should center on the enhancement of police and other security agency capability in nations afflicted with the scourge of terrorism.
  • The U. S. armed forces thus would play a role abroad primarily in training indigenous special forces and military police, and advising on intelligence operations.

No more full-scale, all-out military campaigns against nation states suspected of having designs on the security of the United States through terrorism. Only in extremis should this nation take the initiative in launching conventional warfare, country against country.

The nation’s (and the world’s) problem has proven thus far to be less than grave in a sense, even with the existence of weapons of mass destruction and notwithstanding 9/11. Today’s terrorism is not a threat of the sort posed to America in 1941 by imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, nor of the kind the West faced during the decades-long Cold War. Terrorism is no more (and no less) than a tactic, a violent instrument of political intent.

The threat of terrorist actions therefore cannot be met and neutralized by traditional military means, such as those now being utilized in Iraq. The U.S. response to Pearl Harbor in December 1941 is simply not appropriate or effective today. To counter terrorism, American policy makers must develop, largely through diplomatic initiatives, more focused, precise, and relevant initiatives and defensive measures.

—Editor Henry E. Mattox
February 200

Ronald Spiers, “The Anatomy of Terrorism,” Foreign Service Journal, Sept. 2004, pp. 43-47, 49-50.

 American Diplomacy 
Copyright © 2005 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC


Henry Mattox



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