Op-Eds by Jim

We Must Go After Them and Eliminate Them

October 17, 2001
by James Webb, Naval Institute: Proceedings Magazine

pentagon 9-11 - we must go after them and eliminate themWhen Secretary Webb saw the Pentagon on fire, the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine base in Beirut—which killed 241 Americans—came to mind. The separate groups who perpetrated these acts, he says, understand only one thing: the use of force.

When the terrorist incident occurred at the Pentagon on 11 September, I had just finished breakfast with General James Jones, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. I had left the building about ten minutes before the airliner hit it. When I reached my office, which is relatively close by, I heard a loud noise and looked outside. The Pentagon was burning. As much as I’ve loved to throw darts at it from far away, I have a deep affection for the Pentagon. I spent five years of my life in that building. I have a tremendous admiration for the people, uniformed and civilian, who work there, and my heart sank. Beyond how it hit me as an American, that sight hit me personally.

Two things came to my mind in the days following the attack. I remembered when I returned from Beirut in 1983. I had been covering the Marines there for “The Mac Neil/Lehrer News Hour.” I came back to the country just before suicide bombers attacked the base there. As I was riding from the airport to my house, I noticed how quiet everything was. And it occurred to me how blessed we were as a people; how few in this country ever had been under attack. That was 18 years ago. Now, we can no longer say that.

I remember I was speaking at a book author dinner in Houston soon after the attack at Beirut. I told the audience that we knew who these people were, we knew where they trained, and we knew that they understood only one thing: the use of force. And we needed to get them. Gloria Steinem, the famous feminist, followed me to the podium and looked at me like I was a lost child. She proceeded to explain to me that violence has never solved anything in the world.

That was 18 years ago, and the Muslim extremists have considered themselves to be at war with us ever since, whether we considered ourselves to be at war with them or not. If nothing else, I believe that distinction now has been clarified. At least I hope so.

The second thing that came to my mind was my resignation as Secretary of the Navy and the reason for it. One issue that had been brewing was whether we were going to cut back the force structure of the Navy. It’s always difficult to say where you’re going to draw a line. But I drew a line. I decided I was not going to walk the budget over, cutting the force structure of the Navy. I turned around to my undersecretary of the Navy that morning and said—half as a joke—”I do not wish to become the father of the 350-ship Navy.” Well, guess what! The last time I checked, which was several months ago, we were at 272.

Now we are facing a situation that the sea services understand, I think, better than anyone in this country. When you must commit yourself to a war that is not a total war, you still have to do all your other jobs. And the logic behind a larger force structure for the Navy, in my mind, was always sustainability. How do you sustain yourself when you have to speed up your tempo for a long period of time? How do you do this and not wear out your equipment and your people?

We know that with the situation in Afghanistan, we have four carrier battle groups participating in current operations. The good news is, the arguments over the validity of the aircraft carrier seem to have passed away quickly. We could not do what we are doing in that part of the world without carrier battle groups.

The bad news, or the worrisome news, is if we must sustain ourselves for a long period of time, and meet other commitments around the world, we are going to be—as a nation and as a military—stretched very thin. Other future situations may require the same kind of attention.

What do we do? First, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and for the people that President George W. Bush has in his national security apparatus. I think the steps that have been taken have been smart ones. They’re looking long-term. I have no day-to-day connection with what’s going on, but from a distance I feel a great deal of confidence.

What we need is a clear articulation of the national strategy to the American people. When we commit to something like this, which involves many unknowns, people need to know what the endgame really is. In my view, there are two endgames.

The first is homeland defense. We must create an environment here in the United States in which our intelligence apparatus has been reinvigorated. So we can feel secure inside our borders, we must find terrorist cells, penetrate them, and eliminate them. And we must develop a capability to prevent similar groups from entering and operating in this country. It’s sort of like rule number one in any operational military environment: you cannot go on patrol if your perimeter isn’t secure. This is our highest priority, in my view.

Step number two is to convince every country in the world to accept responsibility for policing and eliminating terrorist training and other activities inside their own borders. In a way, this is my reading of what this administration began when it told several countries that have very bad records in this area, You have the chance to demonstrate to us that you will do this.

In those countries that do not agree with us, I think we need to do the policing for them for a while. And we need to start with a basic premise: if fundamentalist Muslim terrorists want to die for a cause, you are not going to stop them. The most important thing you can do, if you are their adversary, is to kill them on your terms, not on theirs. That makes some Americans—particularly American media—squeamish. But that is the reality of the situation we are in.

The Taliban is probably the most clear-cut example of what might be called a prototype for looking forward into how we should be addressing the situation. We have given those people clear signals. They obviously are not complying, for a number of reasons. As a result, we are taking necessary action to ensure elimination of this cancer that has grown inside their country. We have the right to do that, under the United Nations Charter. This is clearly self-defense. And if we establish the right kind of management prototype, so to speak, countries now sitting on the fence on the issue will be much more likely to take responsibility for activities inside their borders.

Who should we be going after? I’ve spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the Vietnam War and what measures taken by the Vietcong were successful against the Vietnamese people. We talked about winning the hearts and minds. The Vietcong had a very simple philosophy. Starting in 1958, they reintroduced assassination squads into South Vietnam. And by the early 1960s, people asked, Why did John Kennedy send in the first 15,000 advisors in late 1961, which started the ball rolling on the Vietnam War? By that point, the Vietnamese communists were killing, on the average, 11 government officials a day. Their message to the Vietnamese people was: If you affiliate with the government of South Vietnam, in contested areas, we will kill you. If you leave them alone, we will not bother you.

When the United States entered the war in earnest, we looked at the use of force in Vietnam principally as a military tool. Most of us were militarily trained, and we used force randomly. But we used too much supporting arms at different times. In some areas—such as in central Vietnam, where I was—I think we alienated a lot of the people and we killed a lot of people who didn’t need to die.

Looking at these examples, you come to a conclusion about the use of force in this situation. In my opinion, we need to articulate clearly that we do not have a quarrel with the Muslim world. But the part of the Muslim world that considers itself at war with us must be on notice. Who are these people? They are the ones conducting terrorist activities and those training and providing logistical support to them. All those people, in my opinion, should be fair game. Over time, we should see the people who are conducting this international campaign of terrorism being cut away from their support base. Many good people were cut away from the support base of the South Vietnamese government. I think there’s a direct parallel.

As we watch the diplomacy play out, we must keep our eye also on the activities of China. I’ve been pushing my view for more than 12 years that China has consciously pursued a strategic axis with the Muslim world. And even though it has some problems with activities on its western border, it gets a great deal of mileage out of the relationships it has developed with the Muslim world. China helped Libya. China has been trading or selling weapon systems and invigorating its trade with Iran ever since I was Secretary of the Navy. China enabled Pakistan to develop a nuclear capability.

Why this is so? Because China still has designs on Southeast Asia, and it always has been heavily Muslim. But recently, it has become more and more heavily fundamentalist Muslim. Look at Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern part of the Philippines. A big training base for terrorist activity is on Mindanao, and it’s been there for years. China is also becoming a net oil importer as it modernizes its economy.

I spend a lot of time in Asia, and when I’m there I am very rarely with Americans. It has been fascinating over the past ten years to watch Asians in what we would call the second-tier countries—Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines—adjust to the United States receding from the region, as our military, and particularly our Navy, has grown smaller. And they’ve watched China expand and, in effect, fill the vacuum. Last summer I was in Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar, formerly called Burma. My experience in Burma in particular was an eye opener. Because the Chinese, just through an accretion process of moving people across the borders into Northern Burma, are affecting that country dramatically at a time when we have put up barriers and embargoes on the issue of human rights. What is on the southern end of Burma? The Indian Ocean. And many signs point to the Chinese looking to build a naval base there.

The other part of this formula, of course, is that as we have warmed our relationship with Pakistan, at least temporarily. In doing so, we risk our relationship with India. And over the past couple of years, India has started to become known as a natural counterbalance to the Chinese. We’ve seen a healthy movement over the past several years, as the Indians have started to position themselves a little bit away from Russia. They had a very close defense relationship with the Soviet Union when it existed. And as we have started to reposition ourselves from the closer relationship we had with China, we need to watch the situation very carefully.

My final admonition—and I got into some trouble with this during the Gulf War—is that we are not in a position as a nation, and particularly as a military, to occupy large pieces of territory. The Wall Street Journal editorialized repeatedly during the Gulf War that we should set up a MacArthurian regency in Baghdad. There has been a lot of discussion about why we did not take Baghdad during the Gulf War. I think as much as anyone in this country, I would like to see Saddam Hussein go. To my knowledge, I was the only guy in the Reagan administration who opposed the tilt toward Iraq, in writing, in 1987. I do not think we had nor have the resources to occupy Iraq.

If you think we have problems in Israel, try putting a Judeo-Christian military system in the cradle of Muslim culture. And when you think about a military of 1.4 million people, with other responsibilities around the world, that is not a winnable situation. I tried to say ten years ago, over and over again, that we must be involved only to the extent that it directly involves our national interests. These arguments have been going on for 3,000 years. And when they do relate to our national interests, as this international terrorist movement does, we must act with a great deal of specific lethality. We must go after the people who are doing this and eliminate them.