The Way the War Ends

by James Carroll
December 18, 2001
Boston Globe

"THE WAY the war ended could be more important than the way it began," wrote Thomas C. Schelling in his classic work "Arms and Influence." "The last word might be more important than the first strike."

The truth of this observation was certainly clear in the way World War I ended, with an enemy-punishing treaty that guaranteed a future war. World War II ended with the Allies squandering their moral edge by unleashing savage air assaults against cities, especially Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The end of that war was the beginning of nuclear terror.

The end of the Gulf War in 1991 was a different story. Although now widely derided as a failure of nerve, the decision by George H.W. Bush and General Colin Powell to halt the massacre of Iraq's defanged army was a humane act. Leaving the demonized Saddam Hussein in power in preference to destabilizing chaos was an exercise in hardheaded realism.

The "last word" of that war, however, was the sanctions regime that over a decade has punished Iraq's civilian population without deterring further mischief by Hussein. (If there was a portent in the elder Bush's war, it wasn't in the end but in the beginning. The date on which he gave his defining "New World Order" speech before Congress - "the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle" - was Sept. 11, 1990.)

Eleven years later, the question is, How will the American war against the Taliban, bin Laden, and Al Qaeda end? Whether one's judgment about this war is approving or dissenting, it seems obvious that one of its effects has been to establish a broad climate of "overwhelming force" reprisal for terrorist assaults - what in a bygone age was called "overkill." As a result, the political weather has changed drastically in the Middle East, probably in Russia's war in Chechnya, and, with the terrorist attack in India last week, in the Kashmir dispute. And clouds are gathering elsewhere.

The spirit of "dead or alive," with its new American imprimatur, threatens to escalate violence to previously uncontemplated levels in every situation of conflict. Minimal bonds of reciprocity that formerly committed antagonists to negotiations, diplomacy, and multilateralism have broken down - and the US decision to abrogate the ABM Treaty last week only underscores this wartime phenomenon. In ending the war in Afghanistan, what can America do to restore the norms of restraint and the ties of international solidarity that our strategy, even if justified as a response to the savage homeland attack of Sept. 11, has undercut?

Four things might be considered:

Encourage the surrender of Al Qaeda fighters, including bin Laden himself, by affirming that they will be treated according to principles of international law. Eschew Afghani tribal warfare methods and Northern Alliance threats to kill not only the fighters but villagers who help them, since coercion is ubiquitous in the desperate endgame.

Abandon the self-demeaning rhetoric of "dead or alive" and announce a decided preference for "alive" - precisely to bring bin Laden and his cohorts to trial. Public adjudication of the crimes of Sept. 11 will bring the criminals to justice; even more important, proper trials will undercut the nihilist appeal of such heinous acts in the minds of potential terrorists.

Move promptly to the United Nations as the organizing authority not only for the immediate rescue of refugees and repair of Afghanistan but for the resolution of war- related questions such as status of prisoners and the culpability of Taliban leaders. The UN, not a swaggering United States, should be the center of international opposition to terrorism. The implicit new rule of this war - that states can operate in unbridled isolation against terrorists - must be repealed before it is played out in Israel, India, Russia.

Affirm that the war in Afghanistan will not be carried forward to Iraq, North Korea, or anywhere else. The fabric of restraint must be repaired, and with it the idea that in conflict situations military force comes as a last resort, not a first reaction. Faith in violence as a solution must once more be demythologized. Let the campaign against terrorism be continued now as law enforcement, not war. Emphasis must be on focused pursuit of potential terrorists and protection of civilian populations.

The "just war" debate over the means used in the "just cause" of stopping terror, in a distinction of Howard Zinn's, will properly continue, but there need be no debate over how we proceed now. In concluding this war, America must have in mind the variation on the old moral precept: If the end doesn't justify the means, nothing does.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company