Though President Bush launches this war with stratospheric
approval ratings, he bestrides a precarious balance. Since September 11, an assault on Afghanistan was a virtual
certainty. The next step is less
On the one hand, Mr. Bush labors the point that action is
localized, that the counterstrike is directed against the purveyors of terror,
not Islam or the Arab world writ large. Speaking
comfort to our regional allies, he assures them of our limited intent and
unloads a full freight of good faith: the lifting of Sudanese sanctions, silence to Syria’s
Security Council bid, and perhaps the ultimate inducement -- support for a
But Mr. Bush realizes that terrorism will not end with the
overthrow of the Taliban or even the death of bin Laden.
He speaks of an extended effort, a “lengthy
campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” But this morning U.S. planes
flying missions over Afghanistan returned with weapons unspent.
Three days and we’ve already run out of targets.
Sunday morning, U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte served notice
to the U.N. Security Council that “We may find that our self-defense requires
further actions with respect to other organizations and other states.”
Were the war to widen as this letter suggests it might, Saddam would come
first into our sights. But America
would be going it alone. Even
Britain, who flew alongside us the first night of bombing, makes no promise to a
broader campaign. Said UK Foreign
Straw yesterday, “The military coalition is with respect to military and
terrorist targets in Afghanistan.”
If we dislodge the Taliban without significant bloodshed at
the front or sacrifice at home, President Bush will be pressed toward Baghdad
to, in the gentle parlance of National Review, “End Iraq” – and end
our coalition. The New York
Times refers to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a “leader walking the
tightrope between his American backers and a sullen population.”
The Washington Post reports from Cairo that residents “talk of
saddened disapproval at the military operations, quiet admiration for Osama bin
Laden as a protector of Islam, and, most of all, profound identification with
the Palestinians they see under attack constantly on their television
screens.” The Los Angeles Times says “Across the Middle East,
resentment is percolating that Muslims are once again the ones facing attacks by
U.S. missiles.” It adds, “U.S.
efforts to present the strikes against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime as
preventive action against terrorism, not an attack on Islam, appear to have
failed…” Dropping bread with
our bombs won’t calm these troubled waters if the assault stretches beyond
The President cannot continue to feed both tigers. If he
remains laser-focused on al-Qaeda, he may keep uneasy peace among our tenuous
allies. But at the same time, he must show progress sufficient to buoy popular
opinion at home once the pyrotechnics switch off CNN. If he takes the lead of neo-cons who see the coalition as
distracting our Israeli affections, he can claim credit for launching an
international crusade against terror -- but he then faces a go-it-alone war that
will fast bleed across the Islamic world.
This is the crossroads where Mr. Bush stands, and he cannot
long delay a decision. Now that
bombing has begun, pulverizing Afghan rubble into smaller pebbles satisfies no
one. Mr. Bush must answer what
next: Either underground or up the
bloody hill to Baghdad and beyond.
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