- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

President George W. Bush was breathing fire against North Korea, Iran, and Iraq in his State of the Union speech. Having smashed the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, he now claims to have spotted it in the Philippines. But in the latter case, the U.S. risks dissipating its efforts on local criminals and insurgents while transnational terrorists continue to target Americans.

Al Qaeda operatives are said to have been active in 40 countries, including the Philippines. Officials are now pointing to the Abu Sayyaf gang, which abducted three Americans last year, killing one. It is "an international terrorist group that poses as much of a threat to the U.S. as to the Philippines," charges the Pentagon's Pacific Command spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis.

In fact, Abu Sayyaf's ties to al Qaeda are quite limited. Its members are kidnappers who use politics as their public cover. The band has never targeted Americans. Most of its victims are Philippine nationals. Abu Sayyaf has neither the interest nor the capability to operate in the United States.

Indeed, the bandits are now thought to number fewer than 100.

Manila has so far failed to prevail because of the inhospitable terrain, a dense jungle, and the government's incompetence. Indeed, Abu Sayyaf has armed itself with American-made weapons captured from the Philippine military.

Nevertheless, Washington has proffered $92 million in military aid and 660 military advisers. Although Manila rejected combat forces because the Philippine constitution prohibits operations by foreign troops on its soil, the Americans are conducting maneuvers with Philippine soldiers and will be armed and authorized to defend themselves in the field.

Washington's assistance might help, but only serious economic and political reform will enable Manila to deal effectively with Abu Sayyaf, as well as more serious Islamic insurgencies elsewhere. Corruption is rife, the economy remains statist and sclerotic, and the political system lacks legitimacy.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took power in a soft coup d'etat last year.

The temptation to intervene is obvious, given the plight of Martin and Gracia Burnham, the missionary couple who have spent months in Abu Sayyaf captivity. Opines Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Kansas Republican, who represents the Burnhams: "After Afghanistan, this is the next priority because there are Americans at risk."

Those advocating intervention emphasize empathy, not security. Victorino Matus argues in the Weekly Standard: "It is or should be absolutely imperative for the United States to do whatever it takes to free its own people." Similarly, Mr. Tiahrt told Mr. Matus, "If it were for me, and I'm sure if it were for you, as an American, you'd hope America would come to your rescue."

Of course. What American wouldn't want the calvary to ride to the rescue if he or she was in trouble?

Where a foreign governments act lawlessly, as did Iran when it held the American Embassy staff hostage, Washington is automatically involved. But not so in more general human-rights cases.

Last fall President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban not only surrender Osama bin Laden, but also release two American Christians charged with proselytizing. Diplomatic and public pressure to encourage respect for human rights is assuredly a good thing, but not military action to enforce the same.

Intervention is usually least appropriate when the abuses are committed by unofficial forces, whether criminal or political. Only the local government is likely to be able to resolve the broader issues which almost always are present.

Unfortunately, even seemingly effective U.S. intervention risks entangling Washington in insoluble conflicts. For instance, joining the campaign against Abu Sayyaf means joining a bitter struggle with no relevance to American security.

Muslim dissatisfaction in this largely Catholic country goes back a century, to U.S. colonial rule. The resulting bloodshed, though tragic, has never threatened Manila's stability, let alone America's security.

Moreover, Washington's involvement inevitably internationalizes the issue. Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya explains: "One American equals 10 Europeans." In fact, some groups might desire U.S. intervention.

Grabbing American citizens will then cause Washington to play into their hands.

The Burnhams and others, like Clark Bowers, recently kidnapped by an Afghan warlord while attempting to deliver medical supplies are good people doing good work. But harsh as it may seem, those who venture overseas in a dangerous world must bear the risks of doing so.

A policy of rescue was carried to inanity in World War I.

President Woodrow Wilson demanded that Germany respect the right of U.S. citizens to travel on armed merchantmen of a belligerent power carrying munitions through a war zone. The fact that some Americans were stupid enough to book passage on British ships did not warrant going to war with Germany.

With terrorism likely to remain a serious threat for years to come, Washington must retain its focus on transnational groups that threaten America. The U.S. should not attempt to eradicate banditry the world over.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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