Who's winning the tug of war in the US?

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Business Times - 02 Oct 2001

Who's winning the tug of war in the US?

Concern is rising that unless Bush retaliates soon, Americans' sense of patriotism could turn into anger, reports LEON HADAR from Washington

'I HAVE a message for our military: Be ready!' These were some of the fighting words that US President George Bush used in his televised address before Congress which analysts described as a 'call to arms' aimed at mobilising the American people to fight a lengthy and costly war against terrorism.

There is no doubt that Mr Bush's speech made Americans feel good and raised their expectations for an immediate and devastating US military campaign against those responsible for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

For a day or two after the speech, other US officials seemed to reiterate that commitment, with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in 1991 led US troops to a stunning military victory against Iraq, describing the American goal of 'stomping out' terrorism and stating that it would not end until Americans have 'gotten inside, neutralised and destroyed it'. 'Let's get on with it!' read the cover of one daily tabloid.

'Will you push the button, please!' was the way that Matt Drudge, the editor of one of the Internet's most famous newszines appealed to President Bush. Political pundits and military experts predicted that the US military was ready to strike and was planning to attack terrorist bases in Afghanistan and perhaps even target Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Indeed, according to insiders, a major debate was taking place inside the Bush administration between members of a 'moderate' group, led by Mr Powell, who are placing an emphasis on forming a wide international coalition, which include moderate Muslim and Arab countries, that would back a limited military strike against Afghanistan, and those officials in the Pentagon, led by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who are proposing that the US expand the war against terrorism and use the opportunity to depose Iraq's Saddam Hussein and stand up to Iran, Syria and other governments which maintain some ties to terrorist groups.

But it's now close to three weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington that had devastated the American people, and 10 days following President Bush's 'call to arms' that had raised so much expectation for a swift military action, and, well, nothing seemed to have been happening.

There has been no World War III, no great catharsis. No High Noon in Kabul or Baghdad. Instead, Mr Bush, Mr Powell and other US officials have begun to lower expectations, to narrow the objectives of what the War Against Terrorism (which sounds more like the War on Drugs than World War III), to counsel patience, a lot of patience.

Americans shouldn't expect an immediate military campaign, if at all. There won't be re-runs of the Landing in Normandy (marking the start of the invasion of Europe by the allies in WW II), according to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, who is considered as one of the 'hawks'.

In fact, there are indications that the Bush administration is now less committed to removing from power the Taliban regime in Kabul, through a combined efforts of the Northern Alliance (a coalition of anti-Taliban guerrillas) and US and British military forces. That could run against the interests of the Pakistan government which has permitted the US military to use its territory as part of its efforts to capture Osama bin Ladin, the alleged terror mastermind who is hiding in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is opposed to the idea of the Northern Alliance coming to power and the Arab and Muslim governments allied with Washington are concerned over the fallout of US action in Afghanistan in their countries.

So the hope seems to be that the diplomatic and military pressure on the Taliban would force Osama and his associates to come out of their hideout or that American and British commando units would succeed to get to him and bring him to justice (or just kill him and save the costs of a long trial).

In any case, say US diplomatic and military officials, there is still a need to lay the groundwork for international support, a process that seems to be transforming not only the direction of US foreign policy - as multilateralism replaces the initial unilateralist bias of the Bushies and with human rights concerns and 'nation-building' programmes relegated to the bottom of the agenda - but also the entire shape of the global balance of power as demonstrated in the slow but steady evolution of a strategic alliance between Washington and Moscow aimed at Islamic radicalism and the emergence of Nato as a global (as opposed to an exclusive Atlantic) player.

There is also a lot of satisfaction in Washington over the support for the US position at the United Nations and in much of the world (even North Korea and Cuba are expressing support for the counter-terrorism strategy, and Iran is adopting a neutral, as opposed to an anti-American posture).

It's obvious that all this mustering of international support is also helping the Bush administration as it conducts a global hunt for the members of Al Qaeda and tries to dry the organisation's financial sources.

But will this time-consuming international coalition building and complex criminal and financial detective work and perhaps the image of a dead Osama fulfil the very high expectations of the American people, who, by a large majority (according to most opinion polls), are demanding that their leaders punish the perpetrators of the Sept 11 attacks?

With support for Mr Bush among Americans reaching the stratosphere, no politician or pundit is willing to raise questions about the White House's policies. But in private, insiders are expressing concern that unless the administration 'does something' (that is, some sort of military action that Americans could watch on CNN) and soon, not only would the White House start losing some of its public support, but the post-Sept 11 sense of patriotism would turn into public confusion and anger and damage the sense of national unity that is now dominating Washington and the country.

Copyright 2001 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), October 02, 2001

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