Don't Get MAD

In this war, Mutually Assured Destruction can only be bad for us.

Before September 11, most Americans thought of NBC as the Peacock Network.

Now the acronym has a much more chilling meaning: nuclear, biological and chemical. As in the possibility of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare the nation now faces.

Suddenly, Americans are wondering if they need gas masks. They're asking why the country doesn't have more anthrax vaccine. They're worried about the safety of their water supply.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is warning of a "clear and present danger" of more attacks in the U.S. Crop dusters and tanker trucks have become potential weapons of mass destruction. Security has been stepped up at nuclear power plants.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl told a Tucson town hall that he's certain terrorists will strike again in the near future with massive explosives, chemical attacks or biological agents. He warned that America's enemies had a new goal: mass casualties and symbolic targets.

The second-term Republican, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that successfully dispersing biological agents "is not easy, but on the other hand it's not easy to fly a 747 into a building, either."

Kyl created a minor stir when he suggested widespread nuclear retaliation was possible if terrorists unleashed a biological attack on America.

"The use of nuclear weapons would have to be very carefully thought out," Kyl said. "On the other hand, I can't think of a better appropriate response in the case of a massive biological attack. I think we have to say to some of these countries that there is nothing off the table and that includes the use of nuclear weapons if we are attacked with biological, nuclear, chemical weapons ... . I would even go a step further and say to all of you terrorist states, we're probably not going to know exactly where it came from, so we're going to hold you all responsible."

Earlier this week, Kyl's office clarified his statement.

"What he basically was saying was all options should be on the table in response to a massive attack from terrorists or other states," said Matt Latimer, a Kyl press aide. "It may not be something we should do, but we should consider it. It's a longstanding U.S. policy, which is never leave options off the table."

Kyl was falling back on the old MAD model--Mutually Assured Destruction. With a rational foe like the Soviet Union, the deterrent kept an uneasy peace by assuring both sides that they would face utter ruin if they launched nuclear attacks on one another.

But the strategy has a much different connotation in relationship to an enemy that has nothing much to destroy and wants to inflame war across the globe. That's the challenge facing the U.S. in its new war with the al-Qaeda terrorist network headed up by Osama bin Laden, who is holed up in Afghanistan, where he has allied himself with a heavily armed religious cult that has taken brutal control of one of the patches of hell on earth.

Against that kind of foe, Mutually Assured Destruction can only be bad for us.

Bin Laden has made no secret of his wish to ignite a war between the Middle East and the West to advance his perverted version of Islam. Kyl suspects the attack on the World Trade Center is just the start of diabolical global power play. If the U.S. responds with a massive military strike on Afghanistan that indiscriminately kills its already suffering citizens, it will stir more hate for America throughout the Middle East. If Washington fails to respond forcefully enough, it will appear weak and remain vulnerable to future attacks.

"I think both of those are part of his strategy and he doesn't mind if we react strongly and his supporters take casualties," says Kyl. "That doesn't bother him."

Afghanistan, shattered by more than a decade of war, offers bin Laben and his Taliban a heavily mined, mountain fortress riddled with hidden caves and tunnels. In a few short weeks, a brutal winter will set in and the starving Afghan people, already fleeing what remains of its cities in fear of an American attack, will begin to freeze.

As hints of military action become increasingly blunt and rebel forces resume their civil war within Afghanistan, the Taliban is facing international and internal pressures that may tear the ruling party apart.

"The discontent about the Taliban regime felt by the people of Afghanistan will probably be our biggest ally in bringing that regime down," Kyl said. "What people need to realize is that the Taliban rules by force, not by consent. The vast majority of people in Afghanistan would like very much to be rid of them."

What then? "It's not our object here to create a new government in Afghanistan that mirrors American democracy," Kyl said. "It's rather to give the Afghan people themselves an opportunity to get together and have some sort of freely chosen government. We have to be careful about who we ally ourselves with in this effort because everybody in that part of the world has friends and enemies and it's so confusing and so complex that it would be impossible for us to always assure that we're on the right side."

Whatever the outcome in Afghanistan, Kyl foresees the new war on America will be long, hard and philosophical. It will involve statecraft, diplomacy, economic strategies and covert operations as well as military operations.

"This is a war like the Cold War," Kyl says. "It's a war for an idea. You have young generations being propagandized to believe the evil idea here. So you defeat militarily the organizations that harbor the terrorists and take the terrorists themselves out, but in order to prevent somebody else from moving back into their position as the new generation of terrorists, you have to defeat the idea itself. That means you have to have moral certitude, you have to have the support of the international community and you have to be able to demonstrate that your idea is better and their idea is simply wrong."

Alliances will come and go over the course of the new war, but Kyl opposes working with other states that sponsor terrorist activities, such as Iran, which he calls the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. "If we were to say, 'If you'll kind of help us to defeat the Taliban here, we'll be willing to let you guys do whatever you want to do,' the moral credibility of our position would be totally eliminated."

But that overt moral high ground doesn't mean the U.S. has to stay out of the sewers when it comes to covert operations.

"If you want to infiltrate a terrorist organization, you have a choice between trying to get a Boy Scout or a terrorist to do that, you're going to go to the terrorist in order to be successful," says Kyl, who recently introduced legislation relaxing restrictions for CIA recruitment of unsavory characters. "There are some people you do need to work with, but that's all covert and it's temporary."

Kyl was fresh from a visit to ground zero in New York when he spoke in Tucson. He says the cameras give viewers an accurate picture of the devastation, but they can't capture the mind-boggling scale. Nor can they bring home the extraordinary heat and the choking stench that forces visitors to wear masks. "It's a devil's cauldron," he says.

Kyl downplayed new law enforcement powers that Attorney General John Ashcroft is seeking from Congress, such as making it easier to obtain wiretap warrants and allowing the government to detain immigrants indefinitely.

"What the Attorney General is talking about are some things that law enforcement needs to go after terrorists and criminals," he told the audience. "They will never ever affect anybody in this room."

He remains opposed to any provisions that would provide the new laws with an expiration date.

"If you can guarantee me that there won't be more terrorism in two years, then in respect to terrorism legislation, I'd be happy to sunset it," he said. "But you can't and I'm not."

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