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Turning Towards Iraq: The Rout of the Taliban is Not Enough for the White House Hawks, They Have Saddam in Their Sights


21 November 2001

Inside the White House the president is pacing, demanding his late-night fix of apples and peanut butter. Downstairs in the mess, the staff are debating the hot questions: do Arab extremists hate Americans because of specific policies in the Middle East or just because Americans are democrats who allow women to fly spaceships? Along the corridor, the grizzled chief of staff is busy grilling an Arab-American colleague whom, he suspects, is a terrorist on an undercover mission to kill the president.

That's how it is inside the White House - the Bartlet White House as seen on TV's The West Wing, whose September 11 special aired on E4 last night. The scene inside today's White House is probably just as dramatic - even if the writing isn't quite as good. The debate raging among the Bush team centers instead on a two-word question: what next? Or, more precisely, where next?

An excitable scriptwriter would imagine that debate infused with gung-ho swagger, officials punching the air and slamming high-fives, having secured the fall of Kabul a matter of days earlier. But that seems wide of the mark. The Washington I visited last week was not coursing with post-victory adrenaline. There was little of the yah-boo crowing and gloating that the rout of the Taliban elicited here.

Why not? First, there was hardly any mainstream US anti-war movement to gloat against. Second, the wiser Washington hands realize that even the limited goals of the war's first phase - capturing Osama bin Laden, eradicating al-Qaida and banishing the Taliban - are not yet complete. But it's also because of America's mood, which remains deep in mourning. More than two months on, America is still firmly in grief mode. TV programs still end with slow-motion montages of flags and firefighters. The New York Times continues to dedicate a page a day to obituaries of those slain at the World Trade Center: heartbreaking, elegiac portraits of the McKays, Rosenthals and Saadas who remind you just how diverse a city it was that had its heart ripped out on September 11. (The paper aims to keep going until it has paid tribute to every last victim.)

So the debate now under way takes place in a minor key. Two camps are beginning to form. The first, led spiritually if not actually by secretary of state Colin Powell, urges caution. It notes that Phase 1 is not complete and reckons Phase 2 should consist of the rebuilding of Afghanistan, lest it ever again be come a safe haven for terrorists. Their talk is of aid, infrastructure and the UN.

The trouble for the caution camp is that they are running low on credibility. They counseled restraint earlier too, wanting to wait until a post-Taliban coalition was negotiated into place before unleashing America's military wrath. When that produced no results, the hawks were given their head instead - and last week they won their reward.

Which leaves the hardmen with the upper hand in today's Washington. It is Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon hawks who feel vindicated, insisting that Afghanistan has confirmed what Kosovo had already showed: that US airpower works miracles.

Thus emboldened, the hawks are pushing their version of Phase 2: kill Saddam. The most public advocate of the case is Richard Perle, the former Reagan official once branded the Prince of Darkness, who remains close to both Rumsfeld and his beyond-hawkish deputy, Paul "Veloceraptor" Wolfowitz.

"No one in the administration thinks this thing ends with al-Qaida," says Perle, an Airfix-style model of a Stealth bomber at his side, a poodle named Reagan nuzzling at his feet. "If we end this with Afghanistan, and leave all the other terror-sponsoring regimes intact, then I don't see how we can call this a victory." (There is an unlikely echo here of those war skeptics who also doubt whether flattening Kabul will do much to beat back the menace of global terror. Strange times, indeed.)

For Perle, the logic could not be clearer. Terrorism requires state sponsorship, a place where men of evil can plan, train and indoctrinate for havoc. Afghanistan was a target because it had become just such a place. If there are others, America cannot leave them unhindered. In Perle's view, Iraq fits the bill perfectly. He cites an Iraqi defector to the US who has described a hijackers' training course run by Baghdad. Others detect Saddam's hand behind the spate of anthrax mailings and speculate on why the September 11 ringleader, Mohammed Atta, allegedly met a Baghdad official in Prague earlier this year.

If that does not convince, the hard-liners have another line of assault. They insist that Saddam poses a direct threat, with his proven willingness to use weapons of mass destruction and his apparent determination to add a nuclear arrow to his quiver. On Monday, the hawkish US defense official John Bolton took that message to Geneva where he warned an arms conference that Iraq had "developed, produced and stockpiled biological warfare agents and weapons."

George Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice added to the chorus on Sunday when she told NBC: "There could be only one reason that [Saddam] has not wanted UN inspectors in Iraq, and that's so he can build weapons of mass destruction." America's best-informed rightwing commentator, William Safire, says Rice's statement is the clear signal that Saddam is next in Bush's sights.

What's the game plan? First, political support for opposition movements in the Iraqi north, where Baghdad's writ no longer runs, and south. Help them organize and exploit the hatred Iraqis feel for their dictator. Then let US air power rain down on Saddam's army. His collapse will come soon after.

There will be opposition, of course. At home Democrats are wary of taking on an enemy that could prove much deadlier than the Taliban. Abroad, Britain has already signaled its wariness and the so-far compliant Arab states could hardly back a US attack on a fellow Arab nation. But Perle doesn't care. "It'd be nice to have other countries with us, but this war is not going to be settled by a show of hands. If we'd subjected the war against Hitler to a show of hands, we'd all be speaking German."

Why are Perle, Rumsfeld and Co so keen on a fight with Iraq? They are convinced that state sponsorship makes terrorism possible and that, with Kabul removed, Baghdad remains fanaticism's number one patron. But they might also be playing a subtler game. Washington knows that the continued US presence in Saudi Arabia is a provocation which Bin Laden has been able to exploit. Yet so long as Saddam is lurking near by, the Americans cannot leave. With him gone, the boys could pull out and come home.

There might be a more human motive at work, too. Toppling Saddam remains the unfinished business of the first Bush administration. His defiant hold on power infuriates the Bushies, now reunited in office a decade later. Their failure to "finish the job" during the Gulf war still galls them and they want to rectify their mistake. That feeling goes all the way to the top. For just like President Bartlet, President Bush thinks a lot about his dad.

Jonathan Freedland.
Published in the Guardian.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.



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