Bruce Anderson: A confident America is choosing its next targets

'Anger, public support and military success have created a formidable momentum in Washington'
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The Independent Online

When Americans wish to summon the emergency services, their equivalent of a 999 call is to dial 911. This may explain why "911'' has now passed into the language as shorthand for the events of 11 September. While I have been in Washington for a conference, all those to whom I have spoken have prefaced their remarks identically: "Nothing will ever be the same again''.

Broadly speaking, that is true. The American political psyche has changed profoundly, with new possibilities opening up and old ones foreclosed. For the foreseeable future isolationism is dead as a political force here.

That is not explained solely by the assault on the US mainland. The course of subsequent events has played a crucial role. It is worth remembering how a pessimistic assessment might have read in the early, tragedy-afflicted hours. Looking three months ahead, it might have foreseen mayhem in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and The Gulf, with the overthrow of friendly regimes and a rocketing oil price. It might also have been feared that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban would still be secure in their fastnesses, because the Russians had put pressure on the Central Asian republics to deny the Americans facilities. It was not impossible that the zero-sum Kremlinites, who believe that any American embarrassment is a Russian opportunity, would have prevailed.

The Americans would still have used cruise missiles and bombs against Afghan targets – but it was always going to be easy to bomb the place back to the stone age, without weakening al-Qa'ida's ability to hit at the West. In mid-September, the pessimists might have expected further atrocities, which would have induced mass panic in American cities, plus a collapse in stock prices. In such circumstances, a severe recession would have been inevitable: the only question would have been whether a depression could have been avoided. The American public mood would have been oscillating between ugliness and despair.

Premier Blair would, no doubt, have been begging President Bush not to use nuclear weapons against Afghanistan, partly because of the impossibility of identifying worthwhile targets. But the Americans might have been ready to disregard this advice. The world could have been moving nearer to the edge of the abyss; the peoples of the West would rarely have approached the Christmas festivities in a gloomier state of mind.

On 11 September, none of that was inconceivable. So the outcome of events has been better than the most incorrigible optimists would have dared to predict. This has boosted American confidence – and American resolve. For there is a paradox. Those who are the happiest at the way the war has gone are also the most insistent that a conflict in Afghanistan was only the first phase of a broader campaign. When President Bush declared that America's struggle was not only against terrorists but against states which succour them, it was not hyperbole in the shadow of outrage. It was the new basis of American foreign policy.

Somalia could be the next target. The Americans have scores to settle, after President Clinton's cack-handed intervention and the deaths of American servicemen. But a strike against Somalia would not merely be a matter of revenge. That country is an African Afghanistan, in which nominal control by a barbarous regime provides a cloak for anarchy and terror.

That said, Somalia would only be a sideshow. The real challenge comes from Iraq. The National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has outlined the administration's thinking on Saddam Hussein. She said that it did not matter if no evidence linked him to Mr Bin Laden. For three years, he had been refusing to allow UN arms inspectors to operate, so that he could acquire weapons of mass destruction. Though Ms Rice did not use the phrase casus belli, Her meaning was clear.

In the Pentagon, the view is that Saddam is much weaker than his reputation might suggest. The Kurdish region of northern Iraq is already autonomous, while his troops only control the southern Shia territories by daylight, and he has little public support. It is likely, therefore, that the Americans will shortly give Saddam an ultimatum on arms inspection. Assuming that he rejects it, the no-fly zones will be extended, the bombing of Iraqi targets will intensify and special forces will move into the north.

The hope will be to provoke Saddam into invading Iraqi Kurdistan. Much of that is rolling country, ideal for tank warfare – and for anti-tank warfare. If Saddam's troops and armour moved north, they would have no cover and would be subjected to a relentless assault from the air. After the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the Americans came to a conclusion which is now integral to their military doctrine. Bombing works.

The Americans also believe that Saddam's forces are much weaker than they were at the time of the invasion of Kuwait. Eleven years later, he has only a third as many men under arms, who have to use the same tanks and planes as he had then, which are now that much further into obsolescence, especially after a decade of Iraqi maintenance. In that same decade, the quality of American hardware has never stopped improving. The smart weapons of Desert Storm have been replaced by munitions that are smarter still.

Some of the Pentagon's calculations could create problems, for operations in Iraqi Kurdistan would require Turkish help. The Turks, who defeated their own Kurdish terrorists only after long years of bloodshed and heavy expenditure, would need to be reassured that the aim of American policy was to reconstruct Iraq including the Kurdish areas, and not to inflame Kurdish separatism.

The Russians are also a factor. They used to regard themselves as Iraq's allies, and the Iraqis owe them $10bn. But far from giving Saddam leverage on Moscow, that debt may now encourage tacit Russian support for the Americans. The Russians realise that so long as Saddam is in power, they will never recover their money.

The Americans are also relaxed about Saudi Arabia. One is assured that, in private, the Saudis always complain at any suggestion that they were a brake on America's anti-Saddam ambitions in 1991. The Americans believe that whatever might be said to placate people in the mosques, the Saudi rulers will be immensely relieved when Saddam falls.

Naturally, the timetables for action against Iraq are not being divulged. But the plans are well advanced, and do not depend on international support. The Americans would prefer to operate with the help of a coalition, but the military entry fee would be nominal. The Americans have the weaponry they need, and if necessary, they will operate as a coalition of one.

Anger, public support and military success have created a formidable momentum in Washington. This is the least self-doubting administration since JFK's. America still has a high regard for some allies, and especially for Britain. But those allies had better understand the new reality. In future, their power to persuade America not to use its power will be minimal.