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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Make a Case Before Making War

Although U.S. and British officials say they have "no doubt" Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorist organization were behind the crimes of Sept. 11, so far no actual evidence has been made public. U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has given secret briefings to leaders of NATO and U.S. allies, but the strongest information the public has of a link between bin Laden and the terrorists' acts is that Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers, received $100,000 from a source in Pakistan that apparently cannot be definitely identified.

Soon the United States may strike targets in Afghanistan as it pursues bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin Powell is surely right that the U.S. public is ready to support a strike. But the Americans are not the only audience that must be persuaded. The United States is considering making war on a sovereign state that does not admit to having made war on it. Before it does, it must make clear to the world, especially the Islamic world, that U.S. use of force is justified -- not because the Taliban government of Afghanistan has demanded evidence but in the interest of our own national security.

Some Americans may conclude from watching the thousands who have turned out to shout "Death to America" in protests across the Muslim world that all Islamic fundamentalists already hate us so much that we couldn't provoke them further no matter what we did. This would be a tragic miscalculation. While it is true that there are millions who hold strong anti-American sentiments, so far only a tiny number of them have become suicide terrorists.

It is probably true that no matter how strong our evidence against bin Laden, some in the Muslim world will not be persuaded. But that is no reason to surrender the field of debate to our fiercest enemies. If U.S. military action appears to confirm the worst accusations of U.S. arrogance, we will help extremists recruit a new generation of willing terrorists, far larger than the last.

In 1998, after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States struck back at targets linked to bin Laden, including a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration suspected that the plant made chemical weapons, but when challenged it could not produce credible evidence. Anti-U.S. demonstrations erupted across the Arab world. Marchers carried giant photographs of bin Laden, who became a popular hero. It is not impossible that this event helped to radicalize some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Another danger is that friendly regimes in the Middle East could be destabilized if their leaders cannot provide convincing evidence to their people of why they should support U.S. attacks on fellow Muslims. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia could all be at risk, but the greatest danger is in Pakistan -- a country with nuclear weapons -- where the government already faces widespread unrest and there are many Taliban sympathizers. Pressure on President Pervez Musharraf will certainly grow if the United States actually uses force.

Bush should not let a blanket concern about protecting intelligence sources dissuade him from releasing enough intelligence to make his case.

Delaying our retaliation while we marshal evidence will not increase the risk of additional terrorist attacks in the short term. Any terrorist cells already operating in the United States or Europe are not likely to depend on further contact with bin Laden in order to conduct their missions.

The world has little reason to doubt America's power or resolve, but our security also depends on how others perceive the justice of our actions. Bin Laden will have the last laugh if he provokes us into radicalizing more terrorists. If the evidence is not ready, then neither is the bombing.

Robert A. Pape and Chaim Kaufman teach international relations at, respectively, the University of Chicago and Lehigh University. They contributed this comment to The New York Times.