WASHINGTON — The credibility of American power is being tested these days not in Iraq, but in north Pakistan.
This is where most Al Qaeda fighters who avoided US forces in Afghanistan have found a congenial home. It's the place from which Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are believed to be operating. The area is also teeming with Muslim extremists who endanger the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has stuck his head into the noose to help the United States.
So far America has urged the Pakistani Army, which is reluctant to act in this area, to clean it up the way the US got the Northern Alliance to do the lion's share of the fighting in Afghanistan. When the Pakistanis recently tried, they got their noses bloodied, losing 10 soldiers when their attack on an Al Qaeda hideout failed.
One reason the US is reluctant to join the fight in north Pakistan is that, despite the brave rhetoric, America still seems not to have overcome the Vietnam syndrome, fearing too many casualties. It might be said that the American military cannot openly operate in the confines of the sovereign nation of Pakistan, and that to do so would undermine General Musharraf. But the US already has military bases in Pakistan, and if it cleaned up the north, the Musharraf government might be profoundly grateful, while protesting mildly in public.
The north poses the greatest threat to the Pakistani government. Even more important, America would show terrorists everywhere that it means business.
People who study military power and international diplomacy may not agree on many things, but one thing is clear: Every time one nation threatens another, it is tested twice. First, will it win the particular contest? (Say, Bush against Hussein.) Second, will its future threats be effective? Every time the US declares it is going to catch bin Laden, make him public enemy No. 1, and unleash everything it's got, and he gives us an obscene gesture (or sends a tape), we lose not merely that round, but we also begin to look like a nation with a lot of swagger and not much else.
If Washington had never announced that Saddam Hussein would be ousted, US resolve may not have been on the line in Iraq. But the Bush administration has put down this marker. Few doubt that the US will act in the end. But for now, all the world knows is that Hussein has succeeded in peeling away most US allies on the issue of ousting him; that the US is having a tough time getting use of the bases it needs to attack; that the fear of heavy casualties has given Pentagon planners the willies; and that the US needs to wait for cold weather because its soldiers have to wear special gear to protect them from chemical and biological attacks, which makes summer fighting too hot for them.
Perhaps America should have postured less and prepared more.
The United States is also on record that it will fight terrorism wherever it occurs, in some 60 countries. One of the first on the list is, of all places, the Philippines, in which more than 1,000 US troops have trained, advised, and assisted the Philippine Army in catching a few hundred bandits from the Abu Sayyaf group.
The US now stresses that the jungle is thick, and the climate is hot and humid. But so it was when America made this forgotten piece of real estate a test of its resolve and capabilities. The US is not doing much better in Colombia, nor in some 50 other countries in which terrorists must yet be engaged.
On the domestic front, the newly invigorated FBI has been unable to lay a glove on the anthrax killer. No wonder even the relatively moderate Arab nations are taking a "wait and see" approach as to who will prevail.
You may say, "But we showed them in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union failed there after 10 years of war and we won, with next to no casualties, within a few months."
Indeed, the world was impressed with American might and commitment in those brief days.
But since, it has begun to ask, "What did you say was your goal in Afghanistan? To defeat the Taliban? To engage in nation-building? Or to eradicate bin Laden and his gang? And if this last one was what you were after, did not the fact that you relied on local warlords to do most of the fighting result in most Al Qaeda leaders and foot soldiers changing their addresses, but not much more?"
In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously warned the first President Bush not to go wobbly. Today, the US should threaten less and deliver more. Pakistan, a major ally, seems a good place to show American mettle. It is an easier nut to crack than Iraq, and the US need not wait for the winter or anything else, other than finding its backbone.
Amitai Etzioni is the author of 'The Monochrome Society.'