November 20, 2001

Season of the War Party

In the middle of last week, my subscription copies of The New Republic and the London Spectator arrived, each with cover stories touting the utter futility of the air war waged by President Bush. Inside, the arguments had been out of date since before they were even printed. The speed of the Taliban's collapse has surprised virtually everyone.

The shock of the sudden victory has some obvious benefits, and one serious drawback. On the positive side, it has dealt a blow to "Islamic jihadism" or whatever one calls the terrorist ideology fomented by bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

The neoconservative analyst Daniel Pipes points to several signs that the Islamist mystique has been punctured and is leaking badly. Portraits of bin Laden, a very hot item in the Peshawar marketplace after 9-11, no longer sell like hotcakes. The Friday afternoon anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan, which had been growing in size and violence, are suddenly become small and tame. Anti-U.S. bombing demonstrations in the Middle East have tailed off as well, from the first week (where there were nine), to three, to two, to zero. Pipes asserts the supercharged protests of September which took place throughout the Muslim world from Nigeria to Indonesia are now "distant memories."

Cutting bin Laden down to size, shrinking his base of potential recruits – demonstrating that if a government allows itself to serve as a base for attacks on the United States, its days are numbered – these are worthy goals and few Americans would disapprove of them. So long as the administration's war aims were clearly related to the terror attack of September 11, it had little difficulty finding domestic support, or in finding allies around the world.

The "coalition" worked well enough, despite all the easy-to-make points about halfhearted cooperation, and the obvious disinterest of allies like Saudi Arabia. Most NATO countries at least offered military assistance, though the capacities of most of them are hardly global. Russia – heretofore treated virtually an adversary of the new administration – helped the US secure use of air bases in former Soviet Asia. Vladimir Putin spent a warm couple of days with President Bush. Britain's Tony Blair proved a more effective spokesman for American actions than anybody in the Bush cabinet. Germany and Spain have made scores of arrests of suspected Al Qaeda operatives and are sharing intelligence information.

But the surprisingly fast victory has brought the United States nearer to that fateful next step which will divide the anti-terrorist coalition into those who thought an anti-bin Laden police action necessary and appropriate and the real "War Party." The latter is a coalition of conservative journalists, lobbyists and government officials which was pushing hard for an American war against various Muslim regimes before 9-11, and which, since that date, has put all its efforts into expanding the American war beyond Afghanistan. The War Party has asserted aggressively that Saddam Hussein was behind the anthrax attacks, and enlisted former CIA chief James Woolsey to compile a dossier linking Iraq either to the anthrax or the 9-11 terror. Woolsey apparently failed to come up with anything persuasive. Now the War Party has begun to argue we should attack Iraq anyway, despite lack of evidence of Iraqi complicity.

Iraq is the first country on the War Party's target list, but not the only one. The Wall Street Journal laid out the agenda in the days after 9-11: the United States, it said, should attack Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and "parts of" Egypt. Nine days after the WTC attack, The Weekly Standard's William Kristol circulated a "War Party letter" in which leading neoconservatives called for the expansion of the war to Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

The danger today is that these superhawks may now get a greater hearing. Adrenaline is surging in Washington, and hubris is not far behind. Those characteristically cautious and skeptical about the use of force are taking another look. For most people it is refreshing to see so many signs of personal liberation breaking out in Afghanistan after the Taliban's demise. But if the campaign against the Taliban was surprisingly easy, it could prove disastrously so if it pushes the Bush administration into heedless expansion of the war.

One hopes the President recognizes that a campaign against Iran, Iraq and Syria would take place in a very different diplomatic environment than one against the Taliban. So long as the target was terror, Washington had virtually unanimous governmental support in Europe, and widespread popular sympathy, even in countries, such as Russia, where there exists a nearly reflexive distrust of American diplomacy.

But in a war against Iraq, Washington would likely be alone. Unlike 1991, there would be no bases in Saudi Arabia. Tony Blair would not be smoothing the way with diplomatic trips. Perhaps, some neocons say, Turkey would be our ally – we could bribe the Turks with promises of oil rich Iraqi territory. One wonders whether President Bush would see it in America's interest to completely shatter the post World War II norms of international behavior. The police cooperation that has been helping to disrupt the Al Qaeda networks, extensive in Europe and the Middle East, would dry up.

In short, the "Western" coalition would fracture. There might even be United Nations resolutions against the American military move – and certainly no help in heading them off from Britain, Russia, France or China. Security for American embassies in the Middle East would vanish. Russia's necessary cooperation in keeping track of the Soviet nuclear stockpile would become problematic – with terrifying implications.

In short, what had been for the past two months a remarkably broad American-led coalition against terror would turn, quickly, into a remarkably broad coalition against America's unilateral use of military force. The dangers from terrorism, directed against an America that had transformed itself from righteous avenger into a menacing bully, would escalate.

And if George Bush tried to say, "No, honest, it's just Saddam and the biological weapons we believe he is producing that we want to eliminate," anyone who disagreed could simply point to numerous editorials in the Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal as evidence that the War Party's military agenda reaches far beyond Baghdad.

Text-only printable version of this article

As a committed cold warrior during the 1980ís, Scott McConnell wrote extensively for Commentary and other neoconservative publications. Throughout much of the 1990ís he worked as a columnist, chief editorial writer, and finally editorial page editor at the New York Post. Most recently, he served as senior policy advisor to Pat Buchananís 2000 campaign , and writes regularly for NY Press/Taki's Top Drawer.

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