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Reign of Terror

Terrorism: How the West Can Win

edited by Benjamin Netanyahu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 254 pp., $18.95

Considered as a book, Terrorism: How the West Can Win is something of a mishmash. Thirty-eight brief essays (some only two or three pages long) by thirty-eight different contributors do not provide the ideal setting for a sustained argument on the problem of terrorism and ways of combating it. Nor do the individual essays, which vary greatly in quality, hang together very well. There is a makeshift character to the book, possibly owing to its origins. The book is based on a conference on terrorism held in 1984 at Washington’s Jonathan Institute (named after Jonathan Netanyahu, the editor’s brother and hero of the dramatic 1976 Israeli rescue mission at Entebbe). Essays on recent terrorist movements in Germany, Japan, and the United States, and in nineteenth-century Russia, stick out incongruously in a book that concentrates primarily on terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Some of the contributors do not always sustain the perspective on terrorism diligently developed by the editor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet the book has aroused considerable interest. It has been widely reviewed, both showered with praise and bitterly attacked.1 Time magazine, with much fanfare, published excerpts. Such attention owes something, no doubt, to the current prominence of Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, who, as an “expert on terrorism,” has been a frequent guest on television news and current affairs programs. It owes something also to timing. The book appears at a moment of heightened concern in this country over both terrorist activities and the Reagan administration’s response to them. Its publication practically coincided with the American raid on Libya.

The attention the book has received must also owe something to the position the editor stakes out in the current debate over the nature of terrorism and the proper Western response to it. Mr. Netanyahu’s editing of Terrorism: How the West Can Win makes no pretense to neutrality or evenhandedness in this debate. On the contrary, the book is militantly partisan, and it has a clearly articulated thesis.

This thesis is most succinctly stated by Mr. Netanyahu himself. Summarized, it might read as follows: International terrorism poses a mortal danger to civilized society; its primary targets are the Western democracies, for democratic societies represent the antithesis of all the terrorist believes in. Terrorists may be Palestinians, Libyans, or Syrians; they may represent a variety of causes; they may be based in Iran, in Algeria, in Cuba, or in Bulgaria. But they are linked in an international terrorist network.

This network survives only because of the material and political support and the safe haven provided by “terrorist states,” most notably Syria, Libya, Iran, and South Yemen. But the looming presence behind international terrorism is the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Indeed, terrorism and totalitarianism are genetically interlinked:

Modern terrorism [Netanyahu writes] has its roots in two movements that have assumed international prominence in the second half of the twentieth century, communist totalitarianism and Islamic (and Arab) radicalism. These forces have given terrorism its ideological impetus and much of its material support. Both legitimize unbridled violence in the name of a higher cause, both are profoundly hostile to democracy.

The press and television lend unwitting support to international terrorism by providing terrorists with the publicity they crave and with a forum through which to air their views; respectful interviewers and anchormen give them legitimacy. If the Western democracies are to survive, they must prepare themselves for an unremitting struggle against terrorism. This requires international cooperation among governments, the sharing of intelligence, the development of a capacity for counterterrorist measures, the willingness to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions, and, if necessary, the readiness to use force against terrorists and the states that support them.

Mr. Netanyahu’s argument is amplified by several of the essays he publishes. Michael Ledeen, Claire Sterling, and Jeane Kirkpatrick see the hand of the Soviet Union and its satellites behind much international terrorism. Mrs. Kirkpatrick writes, “The most powerful totalitarian state of our time is also the principal supporter and sponsor of international terrorism.” As evidence that an international terrorist network exists Jillian Becker reminds us that the PLO has provided training for terrorists from a dozen different countries, stretching from Ireland to Eritrea. Midge Decter, in “The Theory of Grievances,” dismisses the argument that grievances justify a resort to indiscriminate violence, as well as the view that terrorism is rooted in social conditions.

Arthur Goldberg, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and the chief justice of Israel, Meir Shamgar, seek to develop a basis in international law for legitimate retaliation against terrorists and the countries and bases from which they operate. And along these same lines a number of contributors urge a greater willingness to use force. Thus Jean-François Revel argues that “fighting terrorism poses a problem of external defence, not only one of internal law and order,” while Paul Johnson calls for a readiness in certain instances “to discard the obstacle of sovereignty and national frontiers” against states that shelter terrorists.

Underlying all of these arguments is the conviction that the fight against terrorism has been hampered in the West by a paralysis of will, an erosion of confidence in democratic values, a blurring of the distinction between fighter and terrorist. Secretary of State George Shultz regrets the “intellectual confusion” that leads democratic societies to question their own moral legitimacy. Mrs. Kirkpatrick echoes him. “The intellectual and moral confusion,” she writes, “is deep.” Leszek Kolakowski speaks of “the general degradation of our political language” that obscures the distinctions between liberation and tyranny.

This feeling that words have come to mean whatever people want them to mean explains the repeated effort in the book to fix labels, refine definitions. “The root cause of terrorism,” writes Mr. Netanyahu, “is terrorists.” And because many of the contributors feel that the spread of terrorism is due not so much to “root causes” as to the weakness of the West, there is also much emphasis on the need for the West to screw up its courage to see terrorism for what it is. Thus Paul Johnson takes to task “weak-minded democracies which lack the perception and courage to treat terrorism as a mortal enemy,” and Senator Paul Laxalt wonders whether “we have the will, the strength and the vision” to take strong measures against terrorists and their supporters.

To criticize the book for lacking “balance,” or for bringing together only like-minded contributors is, therefore, to miss the point. It frankly and polemically sets out to win adherents to its point of view. If the other side of the debate does not get a hearing, the conclusion by Mr. Netanyahu and other essays in the book contain an implicit awareness of a different perspective on terrorism, one that takes a less alarmist view of the terrorist threat, quarrels with the definition of terrorism given here, sees at least a partial solution to the problem in eliminating grievances, and opposes the use of force on a large scale against terrorists and their sponsors. It is precisely this point of view that the book sets out to refute.

The book is characterized by a somewhat beleaguered tone, a sense that the democracies sleep even while the tiger is at the gate. Yet the views expressed in How the West Can Win are likely to get a much more sympathetic hearing, certainly in this country, than might have been anticipated even two years ago when the book was first conceived. For this, the editor and contributors can thank the men and women who have recently committed terrorist acts.

The past year alone has witnessed the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder of one of its passengers, the machine-gunning of dozens of airline passengers in Vienna and Rome, the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub in which two were killed and 230 injured, and the bungled bombing of a TWA jet flying from Rome to Athens. Had the TWA bombing gone as planned, all 120 passengers, instead of four, would have been killed.

The indiscriminate and mindless nature of these acts has influenced the debate on terrorism in a number of ways. It has become much more difficult, for those so inclined, to depict such wanton violence as a legitimate form of national resistance or a justifiable reaction to grievances suffered. There is less inclination than there might have been in the past to view those who carry out such acts as dashing freedom fighters. Nezar Mansur Hindawi, the would-be bomber of an El Al jet flying from London to Tel Aviv in April, has been seen for what he is, a hired killer who thought nothing of sending his girlfriend, his unborn child, and 340 other passengers to their deaths at Syria’s bidding.

Another at least partial casualty of the latest round of terrorist attacks is the view that Middle Eastern (and other) terrorism can be eliminated by efforts to deal with its root causes. In a recent article, Conor Cruise O’Brien described this view as an example of “the sentimental variety of wishful thinking on the subject of terrorism.”2 He cited as an illustration an editorial in The Washington Post which described the unresolved Palestinian issue as the principle source of terrorism in the Middle East and urged the Reagan administration to seek negotiations between Jordan and Israel as a means of dealing with it.

A resolution of the Palestinian problem, if it could be achieved, would be eminently desirable and would no doubt eliminate many sources of regional unrest. But Mr. O’Brien notes that the last thing many Arab and Palestinian extremists would be ready to tolerate is a compromise solution to the problem of the West Bank. Indeed they would set out to wreck it. In December 1984, Fahd Qawasmeh, a member of the PLO executive and a close associate of the PLO leader Yasser Arafat, was assassinated, probably by Syrian agents, as part of the campaign to sabotage an agreement between the PLO and Jordan to enter into negotiations with Israel. In February of this year, the moderate mayor of Nablus, Zafar Misri, who was dedicated to the idea of an understanding between Jordan and Israel, suffered a similar fate.

Moreover, there is now persuasive evidence that the Hindawi brothers, responsible for the bombing of the nightclub in West Berlin and for the abortive attempt to place a bomb on the El Al flight to Tel Aviv, were recruited by Syria (not by Libya as one might have thought from some official statements at the time); that Syria, Libya, and other Middle Eastern states have made it a practice to hire and train agents for assassinations, bombings, and similar actions; and that there now exists, in the Middle East and in Europe, a pool of angry young people and professional mercenaries from which these agents can be recruited. States like Syria that sponsor terrorist actions do so to advance their own interests, not the Palestinian cause, even if they may use Palestinians to do their work.3

For many of the contributors to How the West Can Win it is this state sponsorship of terrorism that strengthens the case for some form of international action. Some of the suggestions offered for such action are for the most part uncontroversial: economic sanctions, closing embassies and diplomatic missions, an international convention against terrorism, better intelligence gathering. But there is much greater emphasis here on the use of force: “Let us decide in good time the limits beyond which terrorist states will not be allowed to pass,” Paul Johnson writes, “and let us perfect a military instrument of fearful retribution when and if those limits ever are crossed.” However commendable the sentiments, this seems a proposal whose practical difficulties and moral implications need far more careful consideration than they get in this book. This is not to suggest, as some have tried to do, that retaliation is necessarily ineffective. The prospects of seeing Libya’s ports or oil installations destroyed, or of being killed in his own bunker, will surely give Colonel Qaddhafi pause the next time he contemplates sponsoring a terrorist attack. Since the American raid on Libya, Assad has been eager to dissociate Syria from terrorism. However, too many prickly problems are conveniently ignored here. Can the United States continue to act unilaterally without the support of its European allies? What would be the consequences of “fearful retribution” against such heavily armed nations as Syria or the Soviet Union? It can always be argued that governments who support terrorism, like those who engage in unjust wars, must expect their people to suffer the consequences; but how justified is the killing of people, perhaps many people, who may have had nothing to do with the terror that is being punished?

How the West Can Win, despite a vigorous attempt to deal with the problem of terrorism, is marred by a tendency toward oversimplification. Except for three essays on terrorism in the Islamic world, by Elie Kedourie, Bernard Lewis, and P.J. Vatikiotis, virtually no attempt is made to examine the social and ideological roots of current Middle Eastern and Islamic radicalism. On the contrary, there is elsewhere in the book a determined refusal to examine causes of violence, as if this might confuse the issue and weaken the will to action. The emphasis on state and Soviet-bloc sponsorship of terrorism also appears a convenient way of ignoring intractable but nevertheless real problems. Grievances do not justify indiscriminate violence, but it does little good to pretend that conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps or the breakdown of government and community in Lebanon (to which the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Israelis, and the Lebanese have all contributed) have nothing to do with the propensity to violence in the region. To suggest, without any careful argument, that the hostility felt toward Israel or the United States is unrelated to the policies of these countries in the region is to ignore the need to measure political claims, however unpalatable, against the historical record, however complex and controversial.

To assert that Middle Eastern terrorism is directed primarily at the Western democracies, moreover, does not hold up under examination. The factions in Lebanon have directed more bombs and violence at one another than at Frenchmen or Americans. State-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East serves various purposes—many wholly unrelated to the West. Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya have used terrorism to murder their own nationals, to assassinate enemies in other regional states, and to undermine rival regimes.

In the case of Israel and the United States, the book advocates a firmness of purpose and a refusal to compromise with terrorists that reflects the rhetoric of both governments but not their actual behavior. Last summer, the government of Israel released 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, a number of them well-known terrorists, to obtain the release of three of its own prisoners of war. In June 1985, this time under American pressure, Israel quietly undertook to release other Arab prisoners it was holding to secure the release of American hostages taken when a TWA flight was hijacked to Beirut.

Even more directly than Libya, Syria has been implicated in recent terrorist actions; but there has been no inclination to send American bombers to Damascus, for the obvious reason that Colonel Qaddhafi is an easy target and President Assad, with his large army and missile force, is not. Little has been made by the administration of the fact that Abul Abbas, who masterminded the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, had trained his men and planned his attack while on Algerian soil. One wonders, finally, if Mr. Netanyahu is prepared to follow two arguments in his book—that the Soviet Union is a principal sponsor of terrorism and that such states must be punished, militarily if necessary—to their logical conclusion. If so, he has nothing to say about the kinds of actions and policies he thinks would be workable or the risks of widespread violence they could entail.

In the concluding paragraph of his essay, “Political Terrorism in the Muslim World,” Elie Kedourie writes:

Whatever its origins and inspiration, terrorism in modern Islam is unlikely to prove a flash in the pan. It is one manifestation of the deep dislocation of Islamic society in modern times; of the widespread belief in violent political action, derived in equal measure from European ideologies and from bellicosity vis-à-vis the unbeliever and the heretic which is a feature of traditional Islam; and of the simultaneous prevalence of Muslim regimes which, issuing from conspiracy and coup d’état, are devoid of legitimacy.

This suggests a problem of considerable depth and complexity; and it is precisely a sense of complexity that is often missing from the pages of Terrorism: How the West Can Win.

  1. 1

    For the praise, see, for example, Robert McFarlane, “What Should be Done About Terrorism,” The Washington Post Book World (May 18, 1986); for the criticism, see Edward Said, “The Essential Terrorist,” The Nation (June 14, 1986).

  2. 2

    Thinking About Terrorism,” The Atlantic (June 1986).

  3. 3

    An informative account of the manner in which governments have recruited agents for terrorist actions is provided in a report by Thomas Friedman, “Loose-Linked Network of Terror: Separate Acts, Ideological Bonds,” The New York Times (April 28, 1986).

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