US calculates a war with little room for error
Risk of spawning terrorism, weakening moderates in Mideast
WASHINGTON — As President Bush rallies a war-ready American public with talk of winning a "crusade" against evil, quieter calculations are under way here over the tremendous risks to US security of waging an all-out war on terrorism.
The risks - especially of using US ground forces in the Middle East - range from destabilizing moderate Arab regimes and turning the region more hostile to America to inciting new terrorist attacks, possibly with weapons of mass destruction, according to a rising chorus of experts and former officials.
This is not to mention the grave risk for US soldiers. American military casualties are almost certain in what US officials acknowledge will be a long, open-ended campaign against an elusive enemy capable of continually reinventing itself. Far from the sanitized bombing of Kosovo in 1999 - or even the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf - this conflict will require commandos using guerrilla-like tactics.
"Antiseptic warfare," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "will not work with this enemy."
The upshot is that, behind the rhetoric about ridding the world of "evildoers," the Bush administration must walk a tightrope,
balancing the imperative of fighting terrorists with the risk of unleashing new threats, these experts say. Key to staying on the tightrope, they suggest, are a meticulous strategy, prudent planning, and a crystal-clear mission.
"There is no margin for error," said Ken Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff, in a television interview Sunday.
Public statements over the past week by top American officials suggest that the Bush administration is engaged in an intense internal debate over exactly what the right strategy should be.
On one side are the more hawkish calls - mainly from the Pentagon - for using military force to overturn governments and regimes that back terrorism.
Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz, for instance, last week called for "ending states who sponsor terrorism." Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be a key target for officials such as Mr. Wolfowitz, who pushed for the United States to take over Baghdad during the Gulf War.
Critics of this approach point out that the US has not yet determined which nations were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or other terrorist strikes. Without such information, military action against other countries could constitute a dangerous effort to "settle old scores," rather than to conduct a targeted antiterrorist campaign.
In an apparent effort by the Bush administration to rein in its most hawkish members, a newspaper report Monday cited unnamed officials as saying Mr. Wolfowitz had misspoken, and meant to say the US should end state support for terrorism - not states.
On the other hand are officials, most prominently Secretary of State Colin Powell, who stress the effectiveness of nonmilitary tactics using US diplomatic, financial, intelligence, and legal resources.
"We have to attack on all fronts," Mr. Powell said in a broadcast Sunday. Nonmilitary methods are likely to be "just as effective" against terrorists as blunt force, he said earlier.
Experts say that stealthy, quiet action may in the end accomplish far more than the kind of large-scale military retaliation that the American public now seems primed for.
"There's tremendous pressure for a big, visible response," says Michèle Flournoy, senior adviser at the International Security Program of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "But some of the more effective means of dealing with terrorism are covert in nature. The irony is that the most visible response may not be the most effective - and the most effective may not be as visible."
In terms of military options, experts stress that the use of force must be carefully tailored to the enemy. Take, for example, the case of Afghanistan, where chief suspect Osama bin Laden has built his base of operations.
"People talk blithely about invading or sending in ground troops," says Anthony Cordesman, a former defense official now at CSIS. "A ground invasion of Afghanistan makes no sense whatsoever. You'd be invading a country to try to chase down someone who can run and hide almost everywhere."
"In reality," Mr. Cordesman says, "only [US] special forces [such as the counterterrorism Delta Force, the Navy Seals, and the Green Berets] may be useful for surveillance and seizing or killing terrorists."
Possibly the greatest risk of all for America would lie in moving too quickly and conducting a bungled military operation that could weaken two of its most valuable assets: the support of world allies and of the American public.
Mr. Bush, in telling the American people this weekend that they "must be patient," seems to understand this.
Indeed, the US military and intelligence services still have a long way to go in preparing for the struggle against terrorism, according to former US officials.
"We have a great deal to do to fit ourselves for the longer-term struggle," former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleberger said on a television panel. Former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey added that the CIA is currently not ready to do the job.