[OUTLOOK]War Fever vs. Cold Political Calculations

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[OUTLOOK]War Fever vs. Cold Political Calculations

After the initial shocking coverage of the event and the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in the United States, the press here began to fill with talk of war, retaliation and revenge. Although such coverage was a global phenomenon, some Korean media seem to have taken their speculation to extremes, giving the impression that World War III would begin in a matter of hours.

Broadcasters in particular seemed to relish the idea that a Tom Clancy novel was about to come to life. Last Sunday afternoon and evening, several television channels aired clip after clip of rockets slamming into bunkers, B-52 bombers dropping sticks of explosives and cruise missiles homing in on ground zero.

The coverage had its effect. Several Korean friends to whom I spoke recently were genuinely frightened that even if war did not break out on the peninsula, Korea would suffer indirectly from combat on a scale not seen in the last half-century.

Some of the panic was perhaps understandable given the rhetoric coming from Washington. For whatever reason, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld last Sunday refused to rule out unequivocally the use of nuclear weapons, although it was clear from the context that he was issuing a warning to terrorists who might be contemplating the use of weapons of mass destruction - chemical or biological weapons. That nuance was lost in the coverage here, making the situation worse. Especially in a country that has suffered more than its share of terror, inside and outside its borders, whipping up war fever is something that should be left to Internet chatters, not responsible broadcasters.

Full-scale war is not imminent - or likely. Government machinery works slowly everywhere, and the U.S. initiatives will take time to mature. Mr. Clinton reacted ineffectually to the attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa; a repetition of that debacle would gut anti-terror efforts. The U.S. administration will need time to assemble its case against Osama bin Laden to keep a coalition together. Neither, as events have shown, can pressure on the Taleban be orchestrated immediately; there must be credible threats of long-term damage to governments' interests before some of them will pay more than lip service to American demands for assistance in rolling up the loosely linked terrorist organizations that are suspected of playing a role in the attack.

It is also not yet clear if the American initiative is a "war on terror" in all its forms, ranging from the IRA to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, or limited only to those responsible for the New York and Washington attacks. The U.S. task is to give shape to its assertion that there is no middle ground in this "war." If Mr. Bush's words after the attack continue to guide the U.S. response, those who are not active in suppressing terror will be treated as its sponsors.

All this suggests that there is more likely to be a series of diplomatic moves, troop movements and escalating pressure. The capture or death of Osama bin Laden, although it would play well on television, would be only the beginning. There are hundreds of persons with a grudge and the fanaticism to act on it who could take his place to plot more terror against the United States or any other target they find inviting. The sites where plans are made and the communications channels used to coordinate those plans must be disrupted and disrupted again when they try to reform. That is not a military task; it is one for national police actions, backed by credible threats of diplomatic, economic and covert retribution if necessary.

Pakistan is a good example of the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear. Although domestic sentiment is ambivalent at best, Islamabad also has to ponder its long-term interests if it cannot find a way to ensure that bin Laden is handed over and terrorists on its own soil suppressed. The recently warming relations between Washington and New Delhi, they must calculate, could become even closer, to Pakistan's military and strategic detriment. A strengthened India would also alarm China and perhaps induce Beijing to join in the pressure on Pakistan. The Middle East, a hotbed of ancient enmities and blood feuds, provides other opportunities for such approaches, especially if they include U.S. help to suppress the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian terror that has inflamed Muslim passions - not just those of radicals - all over the region.

So please, let's put the videotapes of Vietnam War-era bombers and billowing clouds of napalm back in the vault. While there may be some dramatic footage of U.S. troops in action in the future, the real action will, if all goes well, take place less obtrusively - late-night police dragnets in Peshawar, quiet arrests in Hamburg and cold calculations in many capitals about whether they can continue to afford to look the other way.


The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by John Hoog

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