Westmont Magazine Lessons from the First War on Terrorism
When David Wills ’93 read Tom Clancy’s book, “The Sum of All Fears,” he became fascinated by the possibility of nuclear terrorism. At the time, he had just earned a secondary teaching credential at Westmont, but found he really didn’t enjoy teaching high school.
So David decided to do something different. He applied to graduate school and earned a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh where he studied national and international security. He then enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1996 and completed a Ph.D. in political science six years later.
Although his adviser considered terrorism a fringe topic, David was allowed to pursue it anyway. His dissertation explored how and why the Reagan administration responded to bombings and hijackings that targeted Americans in the 1980s.
The skepticism regarding terrorism changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001. Given new interest in the topic, Rowman & Littlefield have published David’s dissertation as “The First War on Terrorism: Counter-terrorism Policy during the Reagan Administration.”
In the book, David argues that the administration’s Rambo-like rhetoric didn’t match its actions. Although officials vowed to get terrorists, they rarely succeeded. In fact, they were willing to negotiate and to accede to terrorist demands, as the Iran-Contra scandal revealed. In only two cases did the military take action: intercepting the plane flying the Achille Lauro hijackers to safety, and bombing Libya to punish Qaddafi for his role in terrorism.
The military took no retaliatory action after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. When terrorists held passengers from the hijacked flight TWA 847 for several weeks, the administration gave in to demands to secure the release of the hostages.
David concludes that significant differences in opinion between Defense Department and State Department officials led to the inconsistent and ineffective response. The president chose not to intervene in these disputes and didn’t object when his calls for action went unheeded. Sometimes he sided with Defense; other times he accepted State’s recommendations. David thinks the failure to take consistent action may have encouraged terrorism.
How is the current Bush administration doing? According to David, they are at least being consistent and have recognized that fighting terrorism requires an ongoing campaign.
At the end of his book, David makes seven recommendations, arguing for continued prosecution of the war on terrorism and equipping the military and intelligence agencies to do so successfully. At the same time, he recommends ongoing diplomacy to resolve conflicts that foster terrorism. He also contends that rhetoric must match action, or it becomes counter-productive. Finally, he notes that the war on terrorism must be a sustained effort rather than sporadic and superficial responses.
The war on terrorism became more personal for David after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. As a graduate student, he taught classes for the Navy and spent nine months on the ship before the attack. He now works for the Defense Department in a related position, where he hopes he gets an opportunity to apply the lessons he has learned.