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10/9/01

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 so.

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 Palestinian state.

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 Secretary Jack 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 Afghanistan.

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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