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By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a Pulitzer prize-winning historian. His most recent book is "A Life in the 20th Century: Volume I, Innocent Beginnings."

NEW YORK -- In his powerful address before Congress on Sept. 20, President Bush correctly defined the threat of terrorism. And he correctly characterized the motivation of Osama bin Laden, the presumed evil genius of terrorism.

President Bush correctly called for American leadership in a global campaign against terrorism. But he laid down non-negotiable specifications for his "war" that friendly states will consider ill-judged and delivered in a tone they may regard as arrogant.

Our allies have had more experience with terrorism than we have had. They know how difficult it is to eradicate terrorism, even when the terrorists operate in their own countries. The Basque terrorists live in a relatively confined space in northwestern Spain, but
Spanish governments have tried and failed for 25 years to stop their outrages. The Corsican terrorists live on an island, but they continue to defy all efforts by the French authorities to stamp them out. The British could not stop Irish Republican Army bombings in England; nor, now that the IRA has abandoned terrorism, can they stop bombings by the thugs who style themselves the "Real IRA."
There is no knock-out blow against terrorism.

Does our president really understand what he is getting us into? President Bush believes he knows how to deal with terrorists in a part of the world in which we have had meager historical experience and small operational knowledge. He should have asked himself what Bin Laden would wish us to do next. What American response would best serve the villain's purposes?

The answer surely is indiscriminate American air attacks on Afghanistan, killing large numbers of innocent people. Bombing is not likely to eliminate Bin Laden and his crowd, who have well-prepared hide-outs. It would only demonstrate once again the impotence of the American superpower. Civilian casualties would confirm Bin Laden's thesis of an evil America, push even moderate Muslims toward hatred of the United States, produce a new generation of suicidal bombers for Al Qaeda, Bin Laden's terrorist network, and incite radical Muslims to rise against moderate regimes.

The only thing that would probably please Bin Laden more would be an invasion by American ground forces. Afghanistan is famous for its unconquerability. The British Empire and the Soviet Union failed in their efforts to dominate the country, and they at least knew the rocky terrain and had people who spoke the languages. American troops in Afghanistan would be even more baffled and beset than they were a third of a century ago in Vietnam.

There is, in addition, the land-mine problem. According to Robert Fisk, Middle Eastern correspondent for the Independent in London, Afghanistan contains one-tenth -- more than 10 million -- of the world's unexploded land mines, laid by the Soviet Red Army in 27 of 29 provinces. Two dozen Afghans are blown up every day.

Moreover, by November, freezing weather will arrive, and the Pentagon has no hope of dispatching troops and winning the war in the six weeks remaining before winter comes to Afghanistan. Nor could an invading American army count on serious assistance from the internal anti-Taliban resistance, their most effective leader, Ahmed Shah Masoud, having been assassinated shortly before the assault on America.

But President Bush is not confining his attentions to Afghanistan. He seems to be contemplating confronting much of the Arab world. "Either you are with us," he said, "or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." That sounds like the "ending states" and "regime change" talk of Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense and the most high-flying of hawks.

Does this mean that, after Afghanistan, we will be taking on Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya? And though the president correctly distinguishes between the moderate and the militant Muslim states, this hard line will make life considerably more difficult for the moderates in Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.

Little is more vital in the months ahead than retaining the support of moderate Muslim states. President Bush has set an admirable example by visiting a mosque and condemning attacks on American Muslims. Islam has historically been a tolerant faith. Mohammedans ruled Spain for five centuries, during which Spain was culturally more advanced than the rest of Europe. Muslims coexisted cheerfully with Christians and Jews. Most moderate Arab states have fragile regimes threatened by radicals within. It is essential that we take no drastic actions that would please our own fire-eaters but would drive Arab states into the arms of the terrorists.

The Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote a provocative article in Foreign Affairs some years ago forecasting a "clash of civilizations" that would determine the future. The Bush administration has no greater challenge than disproving Huntington. If we let the international police action against terrorism degenerate into a civilizational war of the West versus Islam, we are heading toward catastrophe. The last thing we need is a counter-jihad to respond to the jihad invoked against us by the pals of Bin Laden.

Bin Laden has set a trap for the United States. Let us not walk into it. It is hard to think of a drastic action taken at once that would not rebound against us. The quest for a knock-out blow is an illusion. We must pray that the president's tough talk will work. But, as President John F. Kennedy said during the Cuban missile crisis, it is "one hell of a gamble."

If he wants to win the gamble, our president had better take more care with his language. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "One of the first things a president has to learn is that every word he says weighs a ton." When Bush spoke of wanting to capture Bin Laden "dead or alive," he no doubt pleased his domestic audience, but he sent a chill through the chancelleries of our allies already fearful of "cowboy diplomacy." When he spoke of organizing a "crusade," he angered Middle Easterners who still harbor ancient resentments of the Crusaders. His persistent use of the word "war" recalls Harry S Truman's preference in the Korean War for a more appropriate term -- "police action." The terrorists are criminals; we should not bestow on them the dignity of a sovereign state. "Police action," not "war," is what we should be talking about today.

President Bush is everlastingly right in seeking an international coalition, as his father did so effectively in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago. If the campaign against terrorism is to succeed, he must continue along a resolutely multinational course and put together a united international front. We need collective action for several reasons -- to confer legitimacy on our response, to divert blame from the United States and to gain counsel from countries that have had far more experience than we have had in dealing with the tortuous politics of the Middle East.

In the short run, the international coalition must pool intelligence in order to avert new terrorist attacks. Using commercial airplanes as missiles is probably finished; biological and chemical terrorism is very likely the next step. The coalition working through the United Nations must also set up global financial controls to stop the covert funding of terrorist operations and global arms controls to stop the arming of terrorists. It is in the interest of governments everywhere to join in the campaign against terrorism. Persons from 80 nations died in the World Trade Center.

At home, Congress must not abdicate its constitutional role and give the president a blank check. "In politics," as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, "what begins in fear usually ends in folly."

We live in an age of violence and, with all the pressures of globalization, the United States cannot hope to remain immune. I have no doubt that most Americans will confront terrorism with resolution as a horrible hazard of modern life -- a hazard that will take a little time before we, with our friends and allies, can bring it to an end.

(c) 2001, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/24/01)