The tricky art of defining 'terrorism'

Where does the United States go with the war against terror after Afghanistan? Loose ends remain there: We have installed a new government, albeit of questionable stability; we haven't knocked out Al Qaeda; and Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are still a mystery.

We have lately resumed attacks on mountain hideouts of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and are even using US ground troops. Still, the administration is showing signs of restlessness to select new targets.

It has already moved into the Philippines, where US troops are helping Philippine forces in their pursuit of 60 terrorists. It has sent helicopters and trainers into Georgia, the former Soviet republic. This has required reevaluation of policy toward Chechnya, which borders Georgia and where formerly the US denounced Russian military actions. These are seen in a different light with intelligence reports that Al Qaeda is helping the Chechen rebels, but involvement of American troops would complicate relations with Russia.

After the Philippines and Georgia, there is the "axis of evil" triad - Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - which President Bush lambasted in his State of the Union speech. Of this group, Iraq is the clear favorite of the White House and Defense Department for early attention. The principal sin of the triad is the promiscuous sale of weapons of mass destruction and their technology. China has made as many, perhaps more, of these sales as any of the targeted countries, but Mr. Bush visited Beijing without mentioning this subject, as far as we know. There is a dual standard here; China is more important.

George Tenet, the CIA director, has come forth with yet another group: Colombia, Turkey, and Palestine/Israel. Colombia's problem is not so much terrorism as a civil war, now 38 years old, with terrorist tactics. This was enough for the White House to scratch Colombia off the list. Turkey seems to be dealing with its problem without foreign help. In Palestine, the terrorists differ from the government only in their tactics; and in Israel, the terrorists are mainly the agents of the government. Finally, Gen. Tommy Franks, the US commander, has suggested Yemen, where the USS Cole was bombed.

How do we define terrorism? The Sept. 11 attack clearly meets any definition. But what else? Do we restrict the definition to the use or threat of weapons of mass destruction? There is no suggestion of such weapons in the Philippines, Georgia, Colombia, Turkey, or Yemen. Or do we go further and include sabotage, assassination, arson, gang warfare, riots in the streets? Each of these poses subquestions of refinement along a spectrum ranging from what is clearly terror (e.g., poisoning New York's water supply) to what is clearly a local police matter (e.g., setting fire to a house to settle a grudge).

Bush has called on all the nations of the world to choose sides in this war: "You're either for us or against us." During the cold war, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said neutrality was immoral. This reflects a black-or-white view of the world. In Secretary Dulles's time and for three decades after, it led us to support some despicable governments just because they were anticommunist and to scatter conventional weapons indiscriminately to those we saw as good guys. Some of these weapons are now being used to shoot back at us.

In fact, the world is not black or white; it is varying shades of gray. Most countries see it this way. Many of the countries that have supported our reaction to Sept. 11, including many of our allies, will be reluctant to go much beyond that, especially if it leads toward an open-ended commitment. It therefore behooves the US to consult with its allies, and not on the basis of "are you for us or against us."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said US power is needed to help discipline the world - a prescription that has frightening implications for unending involvement as the world's police force.

President Bush has warned the public of a long and difficult war, but at the same time he has not called for any sacrifice other than accepting domestic security restrictions. So far, these are mainly inconveniences in air travel and access to government buildings. On the contrary, the president has urged the public to pursue the good life by spending more as an antirecessionary tactic.

This seems aimed less at uniting the public than at not disturbing the public. It's a strange way to run a war.

• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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