It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.
–President George W. Bush, speaking to the nation, September 20, 2001
I have one simple question for President Bush. Is he planning to win this New War on global terrorism sometime before — or shortly after — he wraps up the now 30-year War on Drugs? Or does he intend to fight them simultaneously and — to use the Pentagon‘s own suggestion — infinitely?
Pentagon strategists have long argued that the U.S. must be prepared to fight two wars at once. But I think they had in mind, maybe, Korea and Iraq. But what the hell? We’ve got all that hardware, and now we have an ironclad moral justification. So lacking any authentic nation-states as enemies, it looks like Drugs and Terror (and, by extension, the Taliban) are the default targets of choice. And both crusades dovetail quite neatly in meeting the domestic political exigencies dictated in the new era of Homeland Security.
The just anger on the streets and in the homes of America over the cold-blooded massacre of an estimated 7,000 people seemed to be building toward a rapid counterpunch that might sponge up the cells that carried out the WTC attacks. Special Operations forces, Green Berets, Navy SEALS could go after those responsible for the September 11 attack and bring them to justice — in this world or the next. Even such a limited response raises some tough questions. Bin Laden seems more an iconic than an operational leader. Would his elimination really make Americans any safer, any less vulnerable to another attack?
These questions now pale before what seems to be the mushrooming scope of the coming U.S. response. Listening to Bush‘s speech before Congress last week, you have to wonder whether Americans — at this emotionally vulnerable moment — are being manipulated into enrolling in an open-ended, multiyear, multibillion-dollar military and security extravaganza that many might soon regret.
As a friend of mine, the wife of a just-retired U.S. ambassador, wrote to me: “Bush committed us to a war with unknown methods, unknown targets, unknown duration, fighting an undefined enemy, and all with an undefined end.”
Just what are the real ends and goals of the New War? The Democrats, blown adrift by the winds of war, have proved as worthless as ever in helping to define the national mission. The media — particularly the broadcast media — serve us little better. The TV anchors, from the clueless Judy Woodruff on through to the painfully empty Brian Williams, burrowed so deeply up Bush’s rear portal on the occasion of his big speech that you half expected to see them crowing out of the President‘s mouth.
Worse, the administration itself cannot agree on what to do. When Bush vowed to rip up every terror network in the world, he merely laid down a purposefully ambiguous marker, allowing him an eventual free hand to execute as little or as much as his divided advisers finally agree upon. On the one side within the administration is our own Taliban. Led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (who in 1992 authored a Pentagon memo calling for a frontal U.S. attack on Russia to free the Baltic states), this faction argues for a coordinated war against not only Afghanistan, but also Iraq, Iran and probably Syria. Opposing that position are the relative moderates, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who want more narrowly focused responses.
Whichever faction prevails, one thing is certain: World terror is not about to be vanquished. For starters, the U.S. has just climbed back into bed with the Pakistani military regime after lubing General Musharraf with a new dose of American aid, and after shedding the sanctions we imposed after Pakistan started stroking its newly erected nuclear arsenal. The Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) as much as incubated the Taliban, and several of Musharraf’s closest army advisers openly swoon over bin Laden, but that‘s all forgiven now. Nor are we about to break with Israel, which flaunts a policy of state-sponsored assassination, nor with its blood-soaked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose 1982 invasion of Lebanon won him 17,000 civilian Arab scalps.
Can the emerging and still-small “peace movement” help brake the slide to the global war-making vowed by Bush and rubber-stamped by a toady Congress? Not very likely, at least as long as it continues on its present course of confusing a long list of truly reprehensible U.S. military interventions with the unprovoked murder of thousands of innocent civilians in the twin towers and on those four doomed jets. Better Lennon than Lenin in remembering that “you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow” unless the peaceniks get in touch with the rage and fear that consumes America. Lighting candles contributes as little to solving the real problems before us as does calling for the flattening of Kabul.
It‘s the great mass of ordinary Americans who, in the end, will determine the destiny of the New War. Until now, it’s been enough to be a couch-potato colonel, cheering the president from the reassuring comfort of the living-room La-Z-Boy. Coughing up some spare change for a few plastic flags is, so far, the only sacrifice requested. But an entire generation, almost two, has passed since we have fought a war with American casualties. Even the Gulf War was primarily a Nintendo bombing campaign topped off with a brief but ghastly turkey shoot of the pathetic Iraqi army (an outfit, it must be said in passing, that the U.S. media had previously inflated into something just shy of the Wehrmacht — just as we are warned today of the supposed omnipotence of Osama).
Bush‘s poll numbers float in the 90s. But how many Americans are enlisting? How many of the college kids chanting USA! USA! are lobbying for the return of the draft? How many of the owners of those flag-bedecked SUVs are ready to give up the same gas guzzler and choke off the oil revenues of the Saudi princes? And what will these folks be saying a year from now?
As for George W. Bush, well, he may be dumb, but maybe, hopefully, he ain’t so stupid. For all of his cordite-laced rhetoric, it‘s doubtful he really wants to manage a full-time war along with a full-blown recession. After last week’s 14 percent drop in the stock market, the biggest since 1933, the latter has already commenced. As he contemplates what military buttons to push in the next few days, Bush needs to look no further than his father for counsel. Poppy can tell him that in an entitled and insular America, tumescent poll numbers in favor of war mean absolutely nothing. He can remind him of how, in just a matter of months, he went from 91 percent favorability ratings after generals Powell and Schwarzkopf roasted 100,000 Iraqis with fuel-air explosives to failing to get even 40 percent of the re-election vote against a philandering, lying governor from a small Southern state. Keep hope alive.