Archive for Saturday, September 22, 2001

U.S. must send clear message to world

September 22, 2001


Foreign leaders converge on Washington this week bearing expressions of sympathy and support for the American people. Most will also bring a barely hidden agenda: to temper and focus narrowly the Bush administration's military response to America's day of mega-terrorism.

U.S. allies have detected two main lines of argument in the first, hurried internal deliberations in Washington over punishing prime suspect Osama bin Laden and those who harbor or support his organization.

Most foreign leaders will discreetly but forcefully intervene to bolster Bush officials who favor a surgical strike confined to Afghanistan unless and until clear and compelling evidence emerges that other countries were specifically involved in the airborne massacres in New York and at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

A surgical approach tied to hard evidence will make it easier to assemble a broad coalition and reduce the risks of an even greater explosion against U.S. interests in the Middle East, its proponents argue. The Gulf War coalition is cited as precedent and model.

But the analogy is misleading: The massive loss of American lives gives the United States a clear legitimacy to practice self-defense, as a U.N. Security Council resolution recognized last week. Legitimacy for the U.S. response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait had to be sought internationally. Also, indisputable "evidence" of terror planning is much more subjective and harder to come by than was a land invasion.

"At this point the idea of assembling a broad and deep coalition seems to be working against the need for a broad and deep military response that would deal comprehensively with state sponsors of terrorism as well as their agents," says one official.

Adds a European diplomat: "If Washington broadens the focus beyond bin Laden and perhaps Afghanistan, it will lose the support it needs to carry out the surgical plan effectively." This is the message that Bush and his aides will hear in one form or another from French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and others this week.

Bush encouraged these visits and the appearance they foster of America listening to the world. When Chirac offered to postpone his trip, Bush urged him to come as scheduled. But in his administration's policy deliberations, the president has not yet tipped his hand on the scope of military action.

Diplomats believe that Secretary of State Colin Powell, who must assemble the coalition, naturally leans to the overwhelming-evidence, surgical-strike school. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld sounded a different emphasis Tuesday by saying "the problem is much bigger than bin Laden."

Other U.S. officials believe it is vital to make the most of this opportunity to go after the infrastructure of terrorism located in radical Arab states and especially in Iraq, which sought to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 and was linked to the first attack on the World Trade Center that year. As recently as 1998, the FBI had tracked one of the plotters of that WTC bombing to Baghdad.

The Bush administration is not splitting into opposing camps of hawks and doves. While tactics are in dispute, there is broad agreement on the need for a forceful response, and on other key points.

There are very low expectations that Pakistan will persuade the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to dismantle bin Laden's camps and surrender him. Publicly, Washington holds Pakistan to its promises of cooperation while privately planning around the expected failure. Pakistan's intelligence service, which along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates helped create the Taliban, does nothing to halt terror groups moving from its territory into Kashmir, to put it mildly.

This is the powerful point made by the strike-broad, strike-deep camp, who are the omnivores in this administration's self-described a la carte foreign policy: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many of the other Arab states that Powell hopes to recruit for the bin Laden posse have long been part of the problem, not part of the solution to international terrorism.

These states cannot be given free passes for going through the motions of helping the United States this time. And European allies cannot be allowed to order an appetizer of bin Laden and not share in the costs of the rest of a meal cooked in hell.

Listen to their concerns, Mr. President, and be your affable, charming self. But leave your visitors in no doubt that America's losses will be avenged and America's vulnerabilities will be minimized whether they ride in the posse or not.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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