Senator Daschle Is Worse Than Unpatriotic

David Tucker

March 1, 2002

Yesterday, Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle suggested that we might not win the war on terrorism. We’ve had some success, the Senator said, but if we don’t get bin Laden, we will have failed and we don’t have bin Laden.

Republicans were outraged. One implied that Daschle was unpatriotic. Another called his remarks disgusting. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott wanted to know how Daschle could dare to question a president while the country was at war.

In their outrage, Republicans have missed the point. Daschle is not unpatriotic to focus on capturing bin Laden. It’s worse than that. He’s wrong.

The point of the war on terrorism is to make America and our allies safer. Capturing bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, won’t do that. In fact, capturing them might make things worse by setting off a wave of attacks in revenge or in an effort to get them released. Killing them in a public way, for example after besieging them in some hideout, would probably only make them martyrs and inspire others to follow their path.

Another more important reason capturing bin Laden and Mullah Omar is not as important as Daschle thinks is that these two were merely the most public faces of a much larger and more complex phenomenon. Many people have inspired and helped organize this terrorism. It arises from a network of ideas, people and resources. Getting bin Laden and Omar will not affect this network very much.

In putting such emphasis on bin Laden and Omar, Daschle might be searching for a way to declare the war on terrorism won, as are some of his colleagues in Congress. But getting bin Laden and Omar is not a good measure of success. First, as noted above, bin Laden and Omar are not that important to the terrorism threat we face. Second, it is possible that we will never catch them or even know if they are dead or alive. If getting them is the standard of success, then we may never be able to say that the war on terrorism is over, precisely the outcome that Daschle and his colleagues want to avoid.

The vehemence of the Republican response to Daschle’s remarks may well arise from the difficult character of the war on terrorism and worries about public support for it. The war on terrorism has two objectives. One is to punish any state that supports terrorists. This is a critical goal because state support makes it much easier for terrorists to carry out their attacks. By punishing states that support terrorism, we hope to dissuade them from doing it and so make terrorism harder to carry out. In destroying the Taliban, we have accomplished, in one case, the first goal of the war on terrorism.

The second goal of the war on terrorism is to suppress the terrorist threat. We are succeeding at this goal too, as the arrests of terrorists throughout Europe and southeast Asia indicates. But given the nature of terrorism, putting an end to it is not possible. This means that unavoidably the war on terrorism is open-ended. We will not be able to declare definitively that we have succeeded.

Historically, when faced with foreign policy situations in which success is hard to determine, Americans have tended to withdraw their support. We should be concerned that this will happen with the war on terrorism. The way to deal with this problem, however, is not to hurl accusations of treason at those who talk about what success in the war will mean. The Republicans were as wrong in their response to Daschle as he was in his comments about the importance of getting bin Laden and Omar. Instead of stifling discussion, we should rather encourage it, in hopes that informed opinion will continue to support this most important work in which we are engaged.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.