The United States is going to war. That's what
we know about American foreign policy at the moment. Now consider
all the things we don't know: when we're going to war, where it will
be waged, how long it will last, what constitutes victory, and, most
striking of all, who the enemy is. We don't know these things partly
because they have not yet been fully decided, but also because the
administration doesn't want us to know.
Washington is in the middle of a news brownout. The papers arrive
every morning filled with fascinating reporting, brilliant writing,
and human-interest pieces so moving they've spawned an entire subgenre
of stories about how almost no one can read the newspaper these days
without crying. But if you're looking for a WHAT NEXT FOR THE U.S.?
story, you're out of luck. The press doesn't know.
Neither do most members of Congress. Last week, there was widespread
complaining on Capitol Hill after Attorney General John Ashcroft arrived
to brief lawmakers on the state of the investigation, and told them
. . . virtually nothing. "I learned more on cable," said one frustrated
member. This week, there were rumors that administration staff suspected
of leaking defense-related information of any kind to the media would
have their phone records pulled by the FBI (334, the Washington Post
exchange, would be a dead giveaway) and would be subjected to polygraph
examinations. Are the rumors true? That, too, is hard to verify. But
people believe it. That's the mood here.
All of which is to say, we'll know for certain what's going to happen
only when it does. In the meantime, here's what appears to be the
story line so far:
The administration is divided into two camps. Crudely put, one side
wants to go after terrorists; the other, after the states that sponsor
them. The president declared last week that all states must choose
whether they are with us or against us. He didn't say which ones had
to decide. Afghanistan, obviously. But there's still a lot of room
beyond that for the two factions to contend over strategy.
The first side, represented by Colin Powell and the State Department,
instinctively favors international coalitions and modest, finite goals.
It fears protracted military involvement abroad. It would be happy
to dispatch bin Laden, uproot his network with the cooperation of
Arab coalition members, and declare victory.
The other side doesn't see this as nearly enough. This contingent,
represented by Donald Rumsfeld and two of his deputies at Defense,
Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, has less confidence in coalitions (and
far less in the reliability of foreign intelligence services). It
believes the U.S. should mount a broader military campaign in the
region. It's likely the September 11 attack was in some way state-sponsored,
this group reasons, and in any case, other attacks on Americans have
been. Why stop with bin Laden when we can disable the governments
that allow him and other terrorists to flourish? Better to kill the
roots than to trim the leaves.
Wolfowitz said as much shortly after the attacks, when he explained
that the U.S. is committed to "ending" regimes that sponsor terrorism.
A few days later, the secretary of State publicly slapped him down.
"We're after ending terrorism," Powell said. "And if there are states
and regimes, nations that support terrorism, we hope to persuade them
that it is in their interest to stop doing that."
"Persuade them that it is in their interest"? It's hard to imagine
Rumsfeld saying something like this, except maybe sarcastically. Just
as it's hard to imagine anyone at the Defense Department bragging,
as Powell did at the same briefing, about the "support" the U.S. has
received from Yemen and Syria in the fight against terrorism. Yemen
and Syria are part of the reason we have terrorism in the first place.
At this point, with nothing beyond a showdown with Afghanistan declared,
it's not clear which side will ultimately win the argument -- though
Condoleezza Rice will probably be the tiebreaker. Bush is said to
listen particularly closely to Rice, not because she is a strategic
genius -- she's not -- but because he considers her loyal and above
narrow bureaucratic interests. The president trusts her, and that
matters most. It's a theme in the administration.
If the Defense Department position prevails, expect more dramatic
reporting from Baghdad. "The elephant in the room is Iraq," says one
well-connected foreign-policy player (who, like everyone else I spoke
to, refused to be identified even by branch of government). There's
some evidence that the elephant is guilty. Earlier this year, Mohamed
Atta met with the head of European operations for the Iraqi Intelligence
Service. The Israelis are convinced. According to a recent piece in
the defense industry monitor, Jane's, Israel believes the entire attack
was paid for and run by Saddam. Others believe the 1993 Trade Center
bombing was also the work of Iraq.
A war on Iraq would likely begin with a bombing campaign against sites
thought to house the country's nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs.
From there, Bush could send American troops to Baghdad.
If anything like this were to happen, the "coalition" that Powell
favors would fray, at best. Is Sudan really going to hang tough when
America starts killing Muslims? Once the shooting starts, says one
policymaker, "the French will want a cease-fire. The Chinese will
want to bring it to the United Nations."
It's not clear which course American foreign policy will take, though
there are signs. For one, Condi Rice has turned out to be more hawkish
-- less of a Powell-ite -- than expected. For another, Wolfowitz,
despite the embarrassing spanking by Powell, is still espousing the
same position and still doing it in public. Most telling of all, Bush
himself has not moderated his rhetoric. In his speech to Congress
last week -- a magnificent performance by any measure, almost unbelievably
good considering who gave it -- the president again threatened to
crush not just terrorists but states that assist them. Powerful nations
don't bluff. Bush means it.
This administration, like any, would like to wade in with a detailed
plan already in place, and it will try. At the moment, the Wolfowitz
position appears to be ascendant. But the Bush people understand that
much of the strategy is bound to be ad hoc. The Afghan war is likely
to be long. By the end, the Powell doctrine may be back.
As one defense analyst I spoke to put it, wars evolve. Two weeks after
Pearl Harbor, no one thought we'd be island-hopping through the Pacific
three years later.