Choosing Our Enemy

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.

Choosing Our Enemy