Washington hardliners want 'every snake in the swamp'

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The Independent US

The US issued a stark warning to its Nato allies yesterday that terrorists could be willing to use weapons of mass destruction and demanded pressure not just on Afghanistan but on other states which harbour terrorists.

The deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, issued a chilling description of the "alarming coincidence" between "states that harbour international terrorists and those states that have active and maturing weapons of mass destruction programmes".

Regarded as the leading hawk within the Bush administration, Mr Wolfowitz still kept to the emerging American position that phase one of its military activities will be directed against the Taliban. He played down the imminence of a big military strike, stressing that a sophisticated strategy was being drawn up. "We are going to try and find every snake in the swamp we can but the essence of the strategy is to drain the swamp," he said.

From the outset, Mr Wolfowitz has argued for US retaliation, not just against Osama bin Laden and the immediate perpetrators of the attacks but against states which sponsor terrorism – above all Iraq.

Now nothing would delight the US more than to use the war on terrorism as an excuse to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But most policy makers in Washington realise this simply is not possible. Mr Wolfowitz is an increasingly lone voice in an administration all too aware that anything which smacks of a general offensive against Muslim countries of which the US disapproves might destroy moderate Arab support – the most important but also the most fragile part of the coalition Mr Bush wants to build.

"Colin Powell has emerged as perhaps the key figure," says a senior Western diplomat in constant contact with the administration. "His measured, deliberate approach is prevailing. Everyone realises that this is a war which has to be fought, but that it's a war you can't win with a spectacular strike."

On occasion Mr Powell has got too far out in front. Mr Bush has called the Taliban murderers. His secretary of state has professed no objection to the Islamic fundamentalist regime remaining in power provided it hands over Mr bin Laden and his followers. It was Mr Powell who promised to make public proof of Mr bin Laden's responsibility for the outrages, only for the President to make clear 24 hours later that most of the information was classified. But by and large the "Powell Doctrine", not long ago mocked as an anachronism overtaken by today's new and messy forms of war, holds sway: take your time, amass all the force you need and more, build up alliances and hold your hand until you are absolutely sure of your targets and objectives.

This approach seems to have been embraced by the Vice-President Dick Cheney, Mr Powell's comrade-in-arms in the Gulf War, by the National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and – most importantly – by Mr Bush.

Even erstwhile hardliners like Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, promise no quick fixes in this "war without a D-Day", which will end, if it ends, without the ceremonial surrender of an enemy.

In short, the Bush administration is being forced to adopt the gradualist, multilateralist approach so conspicuous by its absence in the old age of go-it-alone, to-hell-with-the-world policies on missile defence, global warming and the rest, which died on 11 September .

Nothing thereafter gratified the administration as much as the swift support of the United Nations Security Council. In a reciprocal gesture little noted amid the drumbeat of military speculation, Congress this week reversed years of intransigence to vote the release of almost $600m (£400m) of unpaid dues to the UN. Washington may choose to approach the world body again in the coming weeks for further support.

That sum alone, of course, will not buy the coalition Mr Bush is seeking to build – far more delicate than the Gulf War coalition put together by his father in 1990 against Saddam.

This one consists of concentric circles. In the innermost one are countries ready to join any military operation, first and foremost Britain, followed by other close Nato allies although there is so far little sign America wants to use the alliance's military command structure – which requires a consensual approval among all 19 states – for any operation.

Then there is Russia, more squarely aligned with the US than in any conflict since the end of the Cold War. In the next circle are Washington's traditional allies in the Arab world and the region: among them Egypt, Saudi Arabia and estranged friends like Pakistan. The fourth and final category is the strangest, containing bed fellows like Iran whose ingrained hostility to the US is suddenly being tempered by a common hatred of the Taliban.

The trickiest group is the third; for all their public support for Washington, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are twitching uncomfortably, watching events in Israel as closely as those around Afghanistan. So too is Pakistan, Cold War ally turned edgy antagonist, until it was forced to fall into line behind the US after 11 September. In return, Mr Bush has lifted many sanctions, but Islamabad warned again yesterday against a direct US-led attack on the Taliban regime.

A few right-wing columnists apart, everyone in Washington is alive to these dangers – and so, it would seem, is public opinion. A New York Times poll this week showed colossal majorities in favour of military action against those responsible for the suicide attack, even if the operations lead to large US casualties.

But if at the outset there was a gung-ho clamour to shower Afghanistan with bombs and missiles, it has abated. Like their government, ordinary Americans have come to believe that revenge is a dish best served cold. They understand that not only military strategy but also diplomacy requires that this war is fought below the radar screen; a war prosecuted with all the means at America's disposal – but one in which others who contribute can profess not to be involved.

So far the delicate diplomatic edifice is holding together. One devastating, high-profile military strike could upset every calculation. But, whatever the backstage arguments of the hawks, one thing is clear. Unless we have been cunningly and utterly misled, Mr Powell and the moderates have dominated the argument until now. For who, in the immediate aftermath of the horrific events of 11 September, would have predicted that, two weeks later, America would not yet have fired a single Cruise missile?