Why U.S.'s Missile Message May Be a Mistake

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Pssst! Yes, you! I'm sorry I have to whisper, but we don't want Osama Bin Laden finding out that the Pentagon may be planning to lob more cruise missiles in his general direction. In fact, if you're Osama Bin Laden or in any way associated with any of his networks, please click out of this story immediately...

But seriously, folks... U.S. forces in the Gulf were on Monday reportedly placed on highest alert in response to a "specific terrorist threat" that may come from Bin Laden. And top-ranking Pentagon sources also told CNN that the U.S. was considering a "preemptive strike" against the Bin Laden organization if the latest threat can be firmly linked to the alleged terrorist mastermind, and if such strikes could disrupt his ability to attack Americans. "We've been looking at that since the strike on the [USS] Cole," one official told CNN. "People are thinking about it."

They may want to think long and hard, because cruise missiles are a singularly ineffective weapon against terrorists — even when the terrorists haven't been forewarned in the media. Following the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles at two targets President Clinton said were associated with Bin Laden. The first turned out to be a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory whose owner is currently suing for compensation in a Washington, D.C., court. The second was a complex of training camps near Khost in Afghanistan, indeed associated with Bin Laden. But the majority of the people killed in the Khost camp were Kashmiris being trained by a Bin Laden–backed outfit to fight India in the disputed territory. The strikes did wonders for Bin Laden's campaign to present himself to the Islamic world as America's nemesis, but they're unlikely to have done much to inhibit his organizational capacity. Using cruise missiles to go after groups with the sophistication and skill to have carried out the attack on the Cole is a bit like using the Air Force to stop a serial killer.

Countering terrorism is primarily about intelligence, good police work and good security preparation. And considering the breadth of its vulnerability throughout the world at all times, the U.S. has done a remarkably good job of that in the two years since the embassy strikes, working with allied intelligence agencies throughout the Western and Arab worlds to quietly and systematically pick off and arrest Bin Laden associates, disrupt their networks, and keep them on the defensive. That's a lot more effective than firing cruise missiles like so many Hail Mary passes, even if it's a lot less satisfying to a nation that last week had to bury 17 young military volunteers. The grim reality is that U.S. commitments in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf have made a lot of enemies, and they don't fight fair. To beat them, the U.S. will have to fight smart.