Ground Zero
by Scott McConnell

December 11, 2001

Questions About 'Phase II'
Chris Matthews asks McCain a few

Not only is it not clear what will be "Phase II" of the war against terror, it is not yet clear whether there will be any real public debate on the subject – one that matches the one reportedly going on behind the administration's closed doors. The options for future courses of action could not be more different. Version one is an intensified police action against the remaining Al Qaeda networks, a program of freezing assets, arrests, and close cooperation with other governments. Though it could involve military action against other states, the campaign would be primarily political. The military effort against the Taliban will have proved a useful demonstration of what might happen to a regime that harbors terrorists who strike American soil.

The other version of Phase II is a laundry list of military attacks on various Muslim regimes that a hawkish faction has been yearning to make war on for years before September 11. The war party's central figure in the administration is Paul Wolfowitz, and a group of civilian Pentagon officials. Outside of government, its power base is in the conservative press. Readers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Weekly Standard, The New Republic and National Review should know the targets by heart. First is Iraq – these magazines have been lobbying for war against Saddam Hussein for years. Second is Iran; America's war party seems to believe that the recent pro-Western demonstrations and movement towards democracy there increase rather than diminish the desirability of an American attack. A third target is Lebanon – though there has been less public discussion of this. One article described Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith pounding on the table at a White House meeting, to demand that the US attack Lebanon. Another target is Egypt.

Essentially, the war party wants the United States to make war on the entire Muslim world – though usually against one state at time. Its members pass over the fact that such a campaign would have no cooperation from France, Britain, Germany, or any other American ally; would provoke massive anti-American demonstrations in the streets of Europe, and would almost certainly a reduce European police and intelligence cooperation in shutting down the Al Qaeda network. Indeed what the war party wants is war not against the perpetrators of September 11, but against loosely defined "threats to American security"; the odd thing is that it would probably increase those threats rather than diminish them.

Members of the war party dominate the opinion sectors of the print media; politicians close to it encounter few members of the political TV talk circuit who are willing to challenge them head-on. An exception is Hardball's Chris Matthews, who has stepped up as serious prober of the War Party's arguments.

Witness Matthews' somewhat amazing interview with John McCain last week, as McCain was emerging as the point man for a letter from several prominent members of Congress urging Bush to "eliminate the threat from Iraq." Matthews challenged the esteemed Senator with the obvious:

"I was with an ambassador from an Arab country and he said you can forget the Arab world if we attack Iraq. I have yet to hear of one European country, let alone an Arab country, who would join us in the war. Can you think of a European country that would join us in the field against Iraq."

McCain didn't answer, explaining instead that the Arab street "goes with winners." But he was clearly unprepared for an interview with someone who was actually ready to contend with him.

The two went back and forth over the difficulties of trying to occupy Iraq with American troops. McCain retreated – "I don't pretend to prescribe the exact strategy" – and claimed it wouldn't take that many troops to occupy Iraq. Then he fell back to what he believed to be his Maginot Line, the argument that trumps all arguments.

McCain: My nightmare – I have several nightmares about Saddam Hussein, but one of them is the that SCUD missile which he has. . . that's in the view of most, aimed at Israel. Aimed at Israel.

At this point, most TV commentators would back away, the mere mention of a missile aimed at Israel sufficing end further argument. But surprisingly, Matthews wanted to discuss the implications.

Matthews: Why doesn't Israel take them out? I'm using the popular parlance. Why doesn't Israel do the work that they have to do? Isn't that their job if it's a strategic threat to them? They're the most powerful nation in the Mideast.

For a moment, McCain was speechless. "I don't think that Israel fee-one [the transcript reads]. They've got their hands full just as you said right now. But second, I don't this we would ever countenance. We criticized them when they took out his nuclear facility back-back – many years ago."

Matthews: Well, why don't we give them the go-ahead. Get rid of Saddam. You know, if you hate him, do it.

McCain: Because I'm not sure we should ask the Israelis to do – to take care of a threat to the United States of America.

Matthews: But you just said it was a threat to Israel.

McCain: Well to world peace, I think.

Matthews: No you said it was a threat to Israel. Why should the United States deal with a threat to Israel? Why don't we let Israel – we've been giving them $3 billion a year to defend themselves. Why don't we say, "Defend yourselves. You've got a clear fight. Go take Saddam out"?

McCain: Because I think it's our job. I think we're the world's leader and I. . .

Matthews: Our job is to defend Israel?

McCain: No, it's our job to remove threats to the security of the United States.

This is a remarkable exchange, unusual not because of its depth – it lasted hardly a minute – but because Matthews was genuinely probing, not going through the motions. Implicit in his questioning was the understanding – axiomatic to students of international relations and just as sedulously avoided by most politicians and political commentators – that there is no automatic congruence between America's interests and those of Israel. To acknowledge this is not to criticize Israel, but merely recognize its sovereignty. It is a powerful country, the major military power in the Middle East. If it has a problem with Saddam, perhaps it should solve it.

But if Saddam was not involved in the 9-11 attacks (and America's war party has been unable to come up with evidence that he was) there is little reason to believe that he poses a threat to the security of the United States. His regime is a dictatorship that may be acquiring dangerous weapons, which puts it in the category of North Korea, China, Pakistan or the Soviet Union during the bad years. To initiate a war against it would unleash consequences no one could possibly foresee. But no one should doubt the difficulty: for such a move would involve the United States breaking international law, trying to occupy a major Arab state, and doing so without any real allies. The betting here is that when the dust settled, the United States would be more vulnerable to terrorism, not less. Hats off to Chris Matthews for his readiness to at least probe the issues, instead of hiding behind the forest of jingoistic cliches.

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