Kerry explains differences on fighting terror

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 14, 2004

Commentary by Dick Morris

Sen. John Kerry has just explained, clearly and lucidly, the difference between the Democratic and Republican approaches on how to fight terrorism: He told the New York Times Magazine that, as a “former law-enforcement person,” he knew that we could not wipe out terrorism, but hoped we could repress it until it became a “nuisance,” not a mortal threat.

Kerry’s likely secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, chimed in, saying the War on Terror can only metaphorically be a war, like other “wars” against poverty, drugs or crime.

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Both men believe the war against terror must be primarily a matter of law enforcement, conducted the same way we attempt, half-heartedly, to stamp out the international drug trade. To them, a combination of global alliances and interlocking law enforcement must bring individual terror-criminals to justice, one at a time, decimating the ranks of the terror gangs just as we wiped out some of the most dangerous Colombian drug cartels.

They see the war on Iraq as a diversion from this essentially criminal-justice function and the disruption of our relations with Germany, Russia and France as extremely bad news for a battle against terror that must rely on police activities of these three essential nations.

The fundamental flaw: This approach fails to recognize that terrorist gangs are only truly capable of mayhem when they’re aligned with nation-states, able to use a government’s resources to spread destruction globally.

This combination of nations and gangs doesn’t need weapons of mass destruction to be potent. They managed to knock down the Twin Towers and plunge the world into recession with only small knives and box-cutters.

Without government allies, terrorists are a threat on the level of drug cartels or organized crime. They can terrorize a local area, make profits, assassinate local officials and kill the occasional police officer – but they can’t knock down buildings or throw the world into turmoil.

Complex operations require as the empowering accoutrements of nationhood: secure boundaries to plan and train for operations; import-export trade with other nations to use in smuggling; intelligence and diplomatic contacts worldwide; foreign currency reserves. With these tools, terror gangs become global threats.

It isn’t hard to smash a gang. It is very, very difficult to topple a foreign government and then restore the country to order. But it is only by going nation-by-nation and getting rid of those regimes that sponsor and promote terror gangs that we can be successful. President Bush began with Afghanistan and Iraq. While terrorists are still at large and causing damage in both places, they don’t control either country, and can’t use them as bases for global operations.

Bush flipped Libya by his aggressive and successful action against Saddam. Now he must use a robust American presence in Iraq to intimidate Syria and Iran and to get the Saudis to be tougher on terror. Then, with a successful track record behind him, Bush (along with China, South Korea and Japan) can begin to close in on North Korea.

But this model of a War on Terror is far from the mindset and the planning of the leadership of the Democratic Party. Shortly after 9/11, Leon Furth, Al Gore’s chief national-security adviser, warned against attacking Iraq and urged a law-enforcement approach to terror in language almost identical to Holbrooke’s and Kerry’s. The same misguided mindset characterized the Clinton administration’s core thinking on terror – that is, the “defense” that paved the way for 9/11. It is fundamentally, deeply and unalterably wrong.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. E-mail him at