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March 09, 2008

And Those Who Harbor Them

The high point of President George W. Bush’s presidency was this sentence in his 9/11 address to the country: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Yeah, that reasoning can be and has been misused to attack almost anyone. Nevertheless, nations cannot allow other nations – or ungovernable non-nations – to provide a launching ground for attacks on them.

Barack Obama was right to say we would go into Pakistan with or without Pakistani blessing if we had “actionable intelligence” about Osama bin Laden’s exact whereabouts there. The (first?) Clinton administration was wrong, especially with the hindsight of the 9/11 commission report, not to have acted in Afghanistan against al Qaeda after the bombing of US embassies but before the attack on the US homeland.

We have recently attacked suspected terrorist targets in Somalia.

But our case for our right of self-defense against “those who harbor them” would be stronger if we were consistent in acknowledging that other countries have that right as well – even if it’s inconvenient for us when they exercise it.

For example, why do we urge great caution and restraint on Turkey which is attacked by Kurdish rebels from the Iraqi side of its joint border with that country? If we have a right of self-defense against countries halfway around the world, certainly Turkey has a right to pursue a menace next door.

Why don’t we strongly defend Colombia’s right to pursue FARC rebels into Ecuador where they have not only been tolerated but perhaps even aided and encouraged?

We have been generally supportive of Israel but wishy-washy about its absolute right to defend its borders – even if that means building a fence or attacking rocket launch sites which Hamas or Hezbollah decided to put in civilian areas.

Vladimir Putin is a very scary guy; Russian reaction in Chechnya has apparently been marked by atrocities; but we get no consistency points from our friends or our enemies if we deny that Russia has a right to prevent Chechnya from being a staging ground for a attacks on Russian civilians or a sanctuary for those who carry out such attacks.

Moreover, those who must pursue attackers into the territory of harborers have no responsibility to leave such territory better than they found it. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that in Afghanistan because it’s in our self-interest to do so and a good thing besides. We may not be able to do so in Iraq. If we were right to attack (and I’m avoiding that topic here), we did not incur an open-ended responsibility to stay until that country has a civil, just, and democratic society it hasn’t had at any time in its recent history.

A country with porous borders can’t cry “sovereignty” when it’s providing sanctuary to a movement like Islamic extremism, FARC (perhaps more a drug gang), or Kurdish separatists. Making that clear in advance and consistently will help countries which have the means to control their borders to protect themselves from dangerous mistakes. The US has no monopoly on the right of extra-territorial or pre-emptive self-defense; our case would be better made to the world if we consistently defended the right of other nations to defend themselves against not only attackers but also “harborers”.

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