WASHINGTON -- Despite serious differences inside the Bush administration over how to pursue the war against terrorism, there was total unanimity over the necessity of Sunday's military strike in Afghanistan. The internal debate is over what's next. Shall it be an assault on Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein once and for all?
It is no easy matter to root out Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps in Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban regime in the process, but U.S. planners are confident of victory -- perhaps within a relatively short time. Nobody in the administration, however, believes that this military victory would constitute the defeat of terrorism. Even with bin Laden dead or captured, his global network would not be eliminated.
What to do next hinges on whether a combined air-ground assault on Iraq should be the next military step. According to Pentagon sources, nothing like the buildup preceding Desert Storm would be needed to deal with Saddam's depleted forces.
The answer involves basic policy decisions of how closely the U.S. should align itself with Israel in what would look like a worldwide war against Muslim fundamentalists. George W. Bush has clearly opted against such a war. But by the testimony of people close to him and based on his current best information, the Iraqi option remains open.
Ever since Sept. 11, the prospect of a military assault on Afghanistan was viewed at the Pentagon as difficult but necessary. The lack of what Defense Department experts consider "interesting" aerial targets and the inappropriate terrain for a large expeditionary force led to reliance on anti-Taliban indigenous force in combination with Anglo-American commandos. U.S. officials have made contact with Taliban dissidents over the last two weeks.
Optimism that the Taliban regime conceivably could fall within a month is based more on expected defections within the Taliban military rather than an outright military victory. But such an outcome would not produce victory parades at home.
Anti-terrorist experts see the real enemy well beyond the dusty Afghan camps targeted by American firepower. They see the planners of international havoc, dressed in suits, going to work each day in office buildings in Baghdad, Damascus, Teheran and even Beirut. U.S. intelligence sources have located the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Germany as sites for planning the Sept. 11 attack. Hamburg is a special locus for terrorism.
Thus, conventional military power alone cannot win the war against terrorism. Nevertheless, there is a strong viewpoint inside the Pentagon that the second target -- after Afghanistan -- has to be Iraq. Even the most hawkish officials privately admit that there is no evidence linking Baghdad to the Sept. 11 attacks, but they want to conclude the unfinished task of a decade ago anyway.
According to White House sources, that is not good enough for President Bush. He wants a better justification for an attack on Iraq to present to the world. Although he certainly has not ruled out going after Saddam, Bush is wary of aligning his nation against the Arab world.
The president's coalition-building efforts (including his support for the concept of a Palestinian state) led to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ill-tempered comparison of Bush's quest for the 1938 sellout of Czechoslovakia by the western democracies. When Sharon was rebuked by an official White House statement, his advisers immediately began making excuses for their boss's insult of Israel's protector and benefactor. On Saturday, Sharon himself sought out American journalists to claim he was misunderstood.
Still, the suddenly delicate U.S.-Israeli relationship remains a critical factor on how Bush pursues the war against terrorism. There is strong feeling among American conservatives that an attack on Iraq is essential to protect U.S. national interests and that keeping Arab states as members of the anti-terrorist coalition is neither possible nor desirable. In their view, Israel is ally enough. Secretary of State Colin Powell tells Bush that this position is madness.
The president's 80 percent-plus approval rating will only rise if the Taliban regime crumbles under the weight of Anglo-American arms. He then will have an open mandate to press on against Saddam Hussein. That temptation will test George W. Bush's prudence and wisdom.