The Breakfast Table

Bombs Bursting In Air

Dear David,

You’re not the only one rallying round the flag today. There’s already a catchy logo and theme music for our bombing mission in Afghanistan and Sudan: “America Strikes Back.” Rah rah USA. Of course the mood is a little spoiled by the apprehension that Americans abroad may face retaliatory attacks, the heightened security at airports from Washington to LAX, and by counter-terrorism rallies. CNN keeps replaying footage of Sudanese protesters storming the U.S. embassy and tearing down the flag there.

So far, the body count is 21 dead, with 30 wounded in Afghanistan and seven wounded in Sudan.

After chatting a bit about the Wag the Dog scenario and admitting it was on everyone’s mind, Ted Koppel solemnly intoned on Nightline last night that questioning the President’s decision to bomb yesterday is “unthinkable.” Even though we have only the vaguest explanation of who the targets are, and how they are related to the embassy bombings in Africa, we must assume that whatever the U.S. is up to when it drops bombs, it’s good. As long as we’re striking back at someone, we can all feel secure. And anyway, most Republicans in Congress support the President, so he must be right.

Cokie Roberts was the only skeptical voice on Nightline, pointing out that flag-rallying after an American military action is not, in itself, evidence of virtue. Congress always closes ranks behind the President after a military strike. Polls show support. We immediately feel good when we’re bombing someone–that way we know we’re on top.

The blind support, and the double-speak from U.S. officials, are depressing. We have to “make the world safe” by launching these ham-handed missile attacks into other countries. This will likely result in more terrorist attacks on Americans abroad, Albright and Cohen and others concede, but somehow, in the long run, we’ll all be safer. That’s because retaliation proves we’re strong. But is there really any doubt about American strength? Do Islamic militants suspect the U.S. isn’t really a superpower, that perhaps Afghanistan is stronger?

To watch the news is to see Osama bin Laden, the anti-American Saudi millionaire, presented as public enemy #1, as if U.S. military power must now be marshaled against this lone wacko who is the source of all danger to the U.S. Never mind that we don’t know what the connection is between bin Laden and the 37 people struck by U.S. missiles yesterday. (Just trust us, says the Administration.) And never mind that bin Laden received training from the CIA back when he was on our team against the Soviets in Afghanistan–looking at the larger historical and political picture interferes with flag-rallying.

Check out the August 24 Time magazine, in which an article on terrorism against U.S. embassies says, “Other countries, like Israel, do not always insist on legal niceties before they send out secret hit teams to execute an alleged terrorist or dispatch jet squadrons to bomb countries they think encouraged suspects. But the U.S. does not operate that way, barred by law from covert assassinations and restrained by moral standards and global opinion. The only way the perpetrators of the East African bombings will be ‘brought to justice’ as President Clinton has promised, is by the laws of arrest, trial and conviction.”

Whoops, guess not.

Forget international law, which says the only time a country can take unilateral military action is in self-defense. “Self-defense” does not include broad, retaliatory strikes like this one, despite what the Administration says. We’re engaged in terrorism and counter-terrorism here. Better rethink that trip abroad.