WASHINGTON -- Arab government officials and military officers, visiting the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington last week, frantically asked their American hosts if Iraq was only the beginning of U.S. military intervention in their region. What worried them was the kind of American rhetoric they had been hearing and that was to be used three days later by a prominent Pentagon adviser who publicly declared World War IV.
It also worries the secretary of state. For all the chatter over whether the State or Defense Department will dominate post-war Iraq, what really concerns Colin Powell is broader policy after Saddam Hussein's regime falls. Does the United States intend a series of military interventions throughout the Arab world, or will it try to restore the country's tattered international standing?
Friends of Powell say he puts a high priority on improving spoiled multilateral relationships. While rifts with France and Germany are viewed by him as reparable, he knows the image of the U.S. in the rest of the world has never been so poor. That is of no great concern at the Pentagon, where the sword is seen as mightier than public relations polls. But the secretary of state believes President Bush shares his view rather than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's, about global American prestige.
That prestige suffers from events such as the April 3 conservative "teach-in" at the University of California at Los Angeles. Former CIA Director James Woolsey announced that the U.S. is engaged in World War IV (the Cold War, he said, was World III) that will last for years. Besides Iraq and al Qaeda, he identified as America's enemies Iran's mullahs and Syria's "fascists." Woolsey went on to warn America's friends in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that they are on the wrong side in this war.
Woolsey is not just another talking head. A Democrat who was President Bill Clinton's first director of central intelligence, he is a serious person who serves on Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board and is slated to be a minister in Iraq's military government. His rhetoric at UCLA may have been vivid, but it accurately reflects how senior Pentagon civilians think.
On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz distanced himself from his friend Woolsey's clash of civilizations between Christendom and Islam. What he said next, however, about alleged support for Saddam Hussein's regime, did not reassure Damascus.
The Syrians, said Wolfowitz, "are doing some things they shouldn't be doing, and the sooner they stop the better it will be for them." While the U.S. is now "focused on winning the war" in Iraq, he added, "I think the Syrians need to know, though, that what they do now . . . they'll be held accountable for." Wolfowitz's bottom line: "There's got to be change in Syria."
Actual support from Damascus for Saddam Hussein may be mainly rhetorical, though Israeli intelligence contends Anglo-American forces have not found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because they have been transported to Syria. Having long urged U.S. military action to change the Iraqi regime, Israel now offers the rationale for extending military intervention in Syria.
Powell wants to modify Syrian behavior without sending in the Marines. On March 30, he warned Syria (as well as Iran) to stop supporting terrorist organizations. He issued that warning from a venue intended to display U.S. solidarity with Israel: a meeting of The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pre-eminent pro-Israeli lobbying organization.
The fact that Powell, not Rumsfeld, delivered this message was widely interpreted as a signal that the U.S. has not designated Syria as its next military target following Afghanistan and Iraq. Powell, notoriously unenthusiastic about a military solution in Iraq until the president made his decision, is not signing on to World War IV. He believes (and surely hopes) that Bush shares his outlook.
Powell puts a high premium on pursuing President Bush's road map for a Palestinian state, a prospect that evokes little enthusiasm among Pentagon civilian chiefs and even less in the Israeli government. The secretary of state considers it an essential component for U.S. foreign policy and restoration of the world's good opinion of America. That will be Colin Powell's burden in the months ahead.