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[OUTLOOK]How American thinking changed

May 13,2003
A friend visiting from Seoul recently observed that South Koreans do not really comprehend the changes that the 9/11 terrorist attacks provoked in American thinking about the world. I thought I might take a stab at an explanation.
The 1990s were a period in which America accumulated unprecedented power, both relatively and in absolute terms. The “unipolar moment” that appeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union has proven to be surprisingly durable. Growing power has not fostered international retrenchment; arguably it inspired larger U.S. ambitions. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, by contrast, reminded Americans of their vulnerability in the most profound way. President Bush is a popular leader precisely because he is energetically mobilizing and using America’s power to tackle new sources of insecurity.
Americans are constantly reminded that they are engaged in a protracted war with international terrorism ― or at least those terrorist organizations with a “global reach.” Most of the world experiences no comparable sense of danger. The threat, moreover, is unique. It comes from a shadowy network of radical Islamists possessing neither territory nor any of the other attributes of a sovereign state. The United States is fighting an NGO, backed clandestinely by a few governments which, having observed the fate of the Taliban, generally conceal their support. It is the amorphous character of this threat that makes it particularly frightening. Al Qaeda’s aims are murky; their hatred intense. Americans do not know how many there are or exactly where they are located. They do know that its operatives honor no rules, and that their proximate aim is to kill lots of Americans, who feel particularly vulnerable because of the openness of their borders, ports, trade and society. Americans may accept the inconvenience of added security in public spaces, but loathe the terrorists for altering the balance in society between security and civil liberties.
Disrupting Al Qaeda’s operations, destroying its infrastructure and hunting down its leaders is one element of the American response. It puts a premium on international cooperation. It will not be accomplished swiftly; it is “pick and shovel” work.
The other key element of U.S. policy is to deny the terrorists refuge and support by bringing pressure against those governments who supply them. Broad public support for the campaigns to oust the Taliban and Saddam Hussein indicate the attitudes most Americans harbor for such regimes. Concerns have been heightened by evidence that Osama bin Laden has long sought access to weapons of mass destruction and awareness that radical Muslim terrorists are not necessarily susceptible to the logic of deterrence. They are prepared to die as well as kill in the name of their religion. And since they have no land to defend, they may believe they can escape the consequences by concealment.
In this respect two types of countries are objects of special American suspicion: (1) weak states, particularly in the Muslim world, with substantial “administration free” zones that may offer safe haven for terrorist groups, and (2) those nations identified by President Bush as the “axis of evil” -- i.e. countries that have used terrorist tactics to support terrorist organizations, actively seek to develop nuclear weapons and display unremitting enmity for the United States. Americans particularly worry that if they gain access to fissionable materials, they may transfer them to terrorist groups to earn hard currency. This is a major reason North Korean nuclear activities provoke such alarm.
The U.S. government has sought to work with others to “prevent” nuclear proliferation. If preventive efforts prove ineffectual, however, Washington is prepared to consider preemptive measures, rather than stand idly by “while the most dangerous regimes gain access to the most dangerous weapons.”
International law does not require a country to absorb the first blow before seeking to defend its citizens.
Since terrorists are not easily deterred, and transfers of fissionable material, let alone biological or chemical agents, to them are inherently difficult to monitor, American authorities embrace a flexible definition of the “imminent” danger that might justify preemption.
Confronted by new threats, Americans are using new standards to identify enemies and allies. Recognizing that old allies may not share its perceptions of new dangers, Washington has shown an inclination to organize “coalitions of the willing” to tackle new missions. It is seeking to fashion one of South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States to cope with the North Korean nuclear challenge. It regards Seoul as the key to this effort. That Seoul may not fully share Washington’s view of the dangers a nuclear armed North Korea would present is among Washington’s greatest concerns, not least because the ROK is not targeted by Islamic radical groups and may thus worry less about the transfer of weapons grade materials. It is in this context that President Roh Moo-Hyun’s visit to Washington takes on special importance. It is time we developed a more coordinated strategy. Already “red lines” may have been crossed.
If North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons cannot be prevented (or rolled back, if they already have a few), the United States will feel obliged to prevent them from transferring weapons grade materials to others. It is that contingency that already is prompting Washington’s consideration of tough sanctions and a possible naval embargo ― another reminder that when prevention fails, preemption may loom.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.


by Michael H. Armacost


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