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The table is set, at least so far as the tools of war are concerned; enormous quantities of American men, machines, and ordnance now stand ready to strike at any number of potential targets around the Middle East. Any day now is the word from Washington. But meantime there is no public sign that the Bush administration is any closer to plotting a course past the many complications that attend its retaliation for the September 11 bombings. Two things seem clear: Bush puts a premium on acting soon, and bin Laden country in eastern Afghanistan is a primary target. The rest, by all appearances, remains up for grabs even on the eve of attack. Air strikes on Afghanistan? Land war there? Secondary theaters of battle in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon?
All those questions are being weighed now, out of view of the public and the U.S.’s ostensible allies, give or take Britain. You know the refrain: National security and the exigencies of war demand the utmost secrecy. In this case it means handing the administration a blank check in the naming of enemies and targets. When Colin Powell intimated a more moderate course by suggesting the U.S. would release its evidentiary brief against bin Laden, he was quickly rebuked by the president himself. So much for coalition-building, not to mention the informed consent of the American citizenry.
So why hasn’t Bush gone ahead? For starters any initial strike has to include bin Laden, and the U.S. apparently has no idea where he is at the moment-somewhere in east central Afghanistan, they think, but without more specific knowledge it’s hard to cast an attack on Afghanistan as a mission to get bin Laden. This is not a very big stumbling block in the end. They would prefer to find him and kill him with a minimum of wasted effort, for face-saving reasons; Bush does not want another embarrassment like the one Clinton sustained in going after bin Laden in 1998. But if it has to, the U.S. can simply make up news regarding his whereabouts, the workings of intelligence services being what they are. And it may well come to this, because American forces face a fairly intractable deadline in the coming of winter in Afghanistan. Snow is already falling in the Khyber Pass, Britain’s The Telegraph noted on Wednesday, and “ground operations by special forces [will be] almost impossible in a few weeks.”
Winter in the Afghan mountains is hardly the sharpest spur to quick military action. Pakistan, the state most indispensable to the U.S. as a military staging area and fly zone, is already in a state of near-revolt following waves of anti-U.S. protests in the past week. The Musharraf government likely will not stand for long in the event of a protracted U.S. presence. Nor is the U.S. in a position to count on getting much from its alliances with the moderate governments of the region. The case of Saudi Arabia is emblematic: That country severed all diplomatic ties with the Taliban on Tuesday, but not before instructing the U.S. it would not be permitted to use its Saudi air bases to mount attacks in Afghanistan. The Americans are on a short fuse with their putative Arab allies, and Bush’s refusal to make public the evidence against bin Laden has only cut it shorter.
The biggest wild card in all this is Israel, though you would never know it from most of the timorous think pieces in American media. Unless the Israelis can be restrained from using the situation to press their advantage against the Palestinians, any U.S. pretense at maintaining the so-called coalition of moderate Arab states will collapse sooner rather than later. And Israel, accustomed to the unconditional love and heavy-handed support of its patron, is not inclined to make accommodations. “Just look at what Mr. Sharon has done since the bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon,” wrote an editorialist in Wednesday’s London Independent. “Immediately, he intensified attacks on the Palestinians, thinking the West would turn a blind eye. He sent his forces into the towns of Jenin, Jericho and Ramallah, which are supposed to be under Palestinian self-rule, launched helicopter missile assaults on the Gaza Strip and tightened Israel’s grip on mainly Arab east Jerusalem. Admittedly, there were provocations for these actions, but they also suited Mr. Sharon’s temperamental desire to defeat the Palestinians rather than negotiate with them.”
Wednesday’s resumption of peace talks between Israel and the PLO was an entirely pro forma gesture; no further meetings were scheduled and the two principals, Peres and Arafat, refused so much as a glance at each other when they shook hands for the cameras. Meanwhile Israel is openly lobbying the U.S. to include Iran, Syria, and Lebanon-backers of Hamas and Hezbollah forces-on its hit list of prospective military targets.
And the Pentagon is inclined to agree in principle, though the enemies of choice there tend toward Iraq and Iran. For the past week-plus, there have been regular dispatches in U.S. and U.K. papers detailing the split in the Bush administration between a moderate Powell-led faction and a band of Pentagon hawks led by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. As mentioned here previously, the Powell group wants to move slowly, cement alliances, and limit the scope of initial military actions; the Pentagon crowd wants to launch war on multiple fronts in quick succession. This week the tilt has been decidedly to the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz side. Bush’s public reversal of Powell on Monday was not only a personal slap; in flouting international calls for disclosure of the evidence against bin Laden, it amounted to an embrace of the Pentagon line that what the U.S. needs now in the Middle East is fewer partners and more targets.
It’s hard to believe Bush will want to launch wars on multiple fronts as a first resort, given the enormous difficulties he already faces in pursuing bin Laden through the mountains of Afghanistan. Then again, how better to distract attention from that likely fiasco than by resurrecting efforts to get Saddam, or the sponsors of Hamas and Hezbollah? CP
Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.