Last week President Bush told U.S. armed forces that "the hour is coming when America will act." But the nearer the hour draws, the clearer it is that putting it off a bit would be in America's interests. By my count, "acting quickly" loses to "acting circumspectly" by a score of 3 to 0.
Virtue of circumspectness No. 1:Delaying, and perhaps preventing, a "second wave" attack. So far, knock on wood, there has been no aftershock—no second massively lethal terrorist attack, and no smaller-scale, truck-bomb-caliber attack. In a way, this is odd. Osama Bin Laden probably has the ability to inflict significant smaller-scale pain; the arrest of various men with licenses to drive huge hazardous-material trucks suggests a diverse and diffuse arsenal. So why hasn't there been a second act? One theory: Bin Laden is scared. With good reason, he is taking seriously the prospect of his own death. So he's wisely doing nothing that would further enrage America and further justify American military action in the eyes of the world. But once the bombs start falling on Afghanistan and the American commandos start searching for him, he'll have less to lose by giving his agents the go-ahead.
Maybe Bin Laden isn't scared. Maybe he just knows that, in the struggle for the world's hearts and minds, he's better off launching his second-wave assault after an American strike—in "self-defense." Either way, the upshot is the same: Odd as it sounds, the strongest short-term deterrent against terrorism may be to not punish Bin Laden.
What about the long term? Clearly, President Bush wouldn't let the threat of terrorist reprisals stay his hand indefinitely; retaliation is coming. But for now, at least, pausing and reflecting could save American lives. We and other nations seem to be apprehending more and more people who could be part of a second-wave assault. So long as we're making progress, why provoke the ones we haven't yet caught?
Obviously, I could be wrong. Maybe the eerie silence doesn't signify an undeclared truce; maybe a truck bomb will go off in some American city tomorrow. If so, we'll have the option of responding quickly with military force—and we will have even more support from the world than before. And certainly it would be hard to argue that American military action would have prevented any such terrorism.
Virtue of circumspectness No. 2: Killing or apprehending Bin Laden in more surgical fashion. Increasingly, even hawks agree that "collateral damage" is more than a moral issue or a public-relations nuisance. The more indiscriminate the killing, the more grass-roots rage there will be among Islamic fundamentalists, and the more blowback will ultimately head toward America. So how do you make the assault on Bin Laden precise? Through the ongoing accumulation of good data. America is just now assembling an array of regional intelligence assets—via Russia, via the various "-stan" states, and via Afghanistan's rebel Northern Alliance. These could yield great gains in short order.
It's conceivable that the United States could even wind up with an Afghan spy on the ground telling an Air Force general by cell phone, "Direct cruise missiles at Tent X at this moment." In any event, indigenous sources of intelligence would seem a much better bet than a bunch of American commandos running around knocking on doors, or knocking down doors, or whatever they're planning to do to find Bin Laden once they hit the ground.
Virtue of circumspectness No. 3: Milking the suspense to maximize international cooperation. Right now many foreign capitals harbor two sentiments: a sense that America has suffered a great and still unavenged wrong and fear that America will avenge the wrong with a ham-handed assault that will only make things worse. Both of these feelings mean that the time to extract concessions from the rest of the world is before an assault—while nations both sympathize with us and want to calm us down. If we want, say, stronger international rules governing the flow of dubious funds, we should get commitments before the fighting starts. If we want more automatic data sharing among the world's police, ditto. The longer we have before the fighting starts, the more we can get done on the international front.
And what is the downside of going awhile without using military force?
That Bin Laden would disappear? He's already disappeared! Now we have to find him. And if we start bombing Afghanistan and parachuting troops in before we've located him, we could be in for a long stay. With President Bush having vowed to get Bin Laden "dead or alive," there will be no pulling out without reaching that goal. Maybe "quagmire" is too strong a word, but … but maybe not.