WASHINGTON -- On to Baghdad?
With the Taliban crumbling, some American conservatives who initially accused President Bush of pursuing the war in Afghanistan too timidly are intensifying pressure on him to apply the military strategy used there against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In a flurry of newspaper articles and television appearances, prominent hawks such as former Defense Department official Richard N. Perle and columnist William Safire are pressing the administration to make Phase 2 of the war against terror a full-fledged effort to topple Hussein. "As the campaign in Afghanistan has progressed, a consensus has emerged that it is high time to remove Saddam Hussein from power," wrote Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice sent the hawks' pulses racing Sunday with tough talk against Hussein on NBC's "Meet the Press." Still, she stopped well short of committing Bush to a military campaign against the Iraqi dictator, who was forced from Kuwait--but not driven from power--in the Gulf War launched a decade ago by Bush's father, then-President George Bush.
"The world would clearly be better and the Iraqi people would be better off if Saddam Hussein were not in power," Rice said. But she also cautioned: "I think it's a little early to start talking about the next phases of this war."
Primary Focus on Destroying Al Qaeda
Other administration aides say the emerging conservative clamor isn't likely to shift their near-term focus away from the continuing effort to apprehend Osama bin Laden and eradicate the last vestiges of Taliban power in Afghanistan. "Their focus is on 'Where's Waldo?'--destroying the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan and disrupting it worldwide," said one national security official.
The White House has not ruled out the possibility of a strike against Iraq, and on Monday a high-ranking U.S. official accused Iraq of continuing to develop a germ weapons program. But the official, John R. Bolton, undersecretary for arms control and international security, also accused four other nations of pursuing such programs. For this and other reasons, administration officials have been careful to avoid sending the impression that they are actively planning any military action against Iraq.
Some experts argue that Iraq, with its modern army, could prove a much more formidable challenge than the ragtag Taliban. And other analysts warn that an attack on Iraq would divide the U.S. from Arab nations that, however tepidly, have endorsed the offensive in Afghanistan.
"When you start talking about Iraq, you have to start worrying about how you build a real coalition, both politically and maybe militarily," said Robert Hunter, a senior advisor at the Rand Corp. and U.S. ambassador to NATO under former President Bill Clinton.
But the call for a second front in Iraq illustrates again the unusual political dynamic of the war against terrorism: Almost all of the domestic pressure is in the direction of escalation, rather than restraint.
During the first several weeks of the Afghanistan campaign, prominent Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and columnists Safire and Charles Krauthammer complained that the Pentagon was not attacking the Taliban aggressively enough. By comparison, virtually no well-known politicians or commentators made the kinds of arguments against foreign military intervention that dominated the Democratic Party from Vietnam through the Persian Gulf War.
Now that the Taliban has largely fallen, the hawks, virtually without missing a beat, argue that the combination of U.S. air power and Special Forces working with the type of local forces they had dismissed as inadequate in Afghanistan could dislodge Hussein.
"As in Afghanistan, a campaign in Iraq will involve local opposition forces, the Kurds in the north and the Shiite tribes in the south," Donnelly wrote in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine that functions as a bulletin board for the new hawks. "But as in Afghanistan, the Iraq campaign must be premised upon the certainty of an American-led military victory and a commitment to remain engaged."
In practice, Bush administration officials, like their predecessors, have been skeptical about the capacity of the internal Iraqi opposition. Earlier this month, the leading opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, complained that the State Department was blocking it from using U.S. funds to run spying operations inside Iraq, on the grounds that it might provoke a war.
"The internal administration attitude toward the opposition forces is negative," said one congressional aide who follows the issue. "That hasn't changed a whole lot from Bush I to Clinton to Bush II."
Fear of Alienating Arab Nations Criticized
Early in the Afghanistan fighting, conservatives such as Perle and William Kristol, the Weekly Standard's publisher, accused the administration of forcing the military to pull its punches while the State Department tried to assemble a coalition to rule Afghanistan after the Taliban fell.
Now the hawks fear that Bush may reject a mission against Hussein for fear of alienating Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Perle said on ABC's "This Week" last Sunday that such deference amounted to "insipid internationalism."
No leading Democrat has gone as far as the conservatives in urging a full-scale military assault on Iraq. But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Al Gore's running mate in 2000, is urging the administration to commit itself to removing Hussein from power. In an interview, Lieberman said he believes that the United States should increase its backing for Iraqi resistance groups, including military support, but not launch an outright attack--at least for now.
A military offensive against Iraq might spark much more domestic political criticism than the war in Afghanistan. Many Democratic analysts agree with Hunter, who says that while he endorses the goal of destroying Hussein's weapon-making capacity, an all-out attack would expose the United States to much greater military and diplomatic risks than the Afghanistan campaign.
Administration national security aides note key differences from the situation in Afghanistan--among them that Hussein is more entrenched in power than the Taliban was, and is protected by an army that is vastly larger and more modern. Iraq is estimated to have 429,000 troops--seven to 10 times as many as the Taliban--and much more sophisticated weaponry.
But Perle insisted that despite their larger army, Iraqi commanders would face the same conundrum as the Taliban: Any time they massed to overpower local rebels, they would expose their forces to devastating attack from U.S. air power. "Iraq will be much, much easier than a lot of people think," Perle said.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times