Nov. 13 was a good day for America and a great day for George W. Bush. Kabul fell, the Taliban were suddenly on the run, and the president's men and U.S. armed forces seemed to have engineered a brilliant victory without the loss of a single American in combat.
A surge of national confidence sent the Dow soaring, and the NASDAQ rose 3 percent. Bush's next poll should find him near the 90 percent approval rating in which his father basked after Desert Storm.
For Bush, it has been a good war that has firmly rooted his presidency in the hearts and minds of Americans. His role has been one any leader would have relished. When terrorists smashed those airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Americans – from the Hollywood Left to the Old Right – united in rage and resolve to avenge the massacres.
All Bush had to do was say, "Let's roll."
Now comes the hard part. Bush must soon post the goals for phase two of the War on Terror, a decision that could split apart his unified country or shatter his war coalition. For America's foreign policy elites are not united on phase two. As in the great battle between FDR and the America First of 1940-41, they are already separating into a War Party and a Peace Party.
The choice Bush must make: Does phase two mean an attack on Iraq and the destruction of Saddam Hussein? Or does phase two mean a diplomatic initiative to honor Bush's commitment to our Arab allies to midwife a Mideast peace and the birth of a new nation called Palestine?
Will the president lead the War Party in a military campaign to destroy Iraq, Hamas and Hezbollah? Or will he, after his victory in the Hindu Kush, lead the Peace Party? That is the question of the hour.
The War Party has already begun to pound the drums. The first ragged foot soldier of the Northern Alliance had not stumbled into Kabul before the "On-to-Baghdad!" boys were back waving the bloody shirt. Not a day passes that some hawkish journalist does not discover a new link between Saddam and the suicide pilots, or between Iraq and the anthrax, though the Bush administration repeatedly denies it.
Who leads the War Party? Thus far, leadership is confined to the chattering classes – radio and TV talking heads, think-tank scribblers, editorialists at The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard, National Review and The New Republic, and columnists on the op-ed pages of the Washington and New York papers. But the War Party yet lacks for a powerful political leader. Look for John McCain to fill the void.
In their now famous open letter, William Bennett, Gary Bauer, Jean Kirkpatrick and 38 other ex-Republican officials and foreign-policy scholars warned Bush that if he failed to attack Iraq, he faced court-martial for surrender in the War on Terror. "You must finish the job your father failed to finish," Bush is daily instructed.
Given the clamor for a wider war from within his own camp of media allies, and the scourging he will receive if he fails to take the war to Baghdad, why is Bush holding back?
First, Colin Powell does not want a wider war.
Second, Bush has been put on notice that no NATO ally, not even Tony Blair, will support a new war on Iraq. Europe wants a new American peace initiative. Nor will any major Arab ally support us. The Saudis have already declared their bases off-limits to the United States for a second Desert Storm.
Third, where the president's father had unanimous Security Council support for the first Gulf War, the son would face a Chinese, Russian and perhaps French veto, and U.N. condemnation.
Fourth, while Saddam is far weaker than he was before he ran afoul of Gen. Schwarzkopf, so are we. Since 1991, the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force have been cut in half. If we are to march up the road to Baghdad, this time it will take more than six months to build up the necessary forces in the Gulf. And, unlike Afghanistan, there will be no Northern Alliance to do the fighting. All the ground troops will be Americans.
For these reasons, and because his father still believes he was right not to march on Baghdad, the son will probably not invade – and the War Party will probably not prevail, unless hard evidence is found of Saddam's involvement in Sept. 11.
But if Bush spurns the War Party, will he lead the Peace Party, collar Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, and be the godfather of a new Palestinian state? Or is that Mission Impossible?
Bush should enjoy his triumph. Difficult days lie ahead.