How US strike might ripple around world
An overly broad military campaign could erode US standing in Mideast, South Asia.
WASHINGTON — With the first riposte in an international war on terrorism looking more imminent each day, a quiet chorus of diplomatic, anti-terror, and Middle East experts is cautioning the United States that the pitfalls of military action could be severe.
Over recent days, support has solidified in several key governments - including those of Pakistan, Europe, and China - for the US to take some military action against Afghanistan's Taliban government. At the same time, military action that is too broad, hits civilians, or is seen widely as an attack on Islamic countries could severely deteriorate America's lot in the Middle East and South Asia, experts warn.
The result could be inflamed opinions of America in regions that already view the US negatively, the spawning of more terrorists to fill No. 1 target Osama bin Laden's ranks, and even the overthrow of friendly regimes in favor of more hostile ones.
Few voices, at home or abroad, appear to hold that no military response is appropriate for the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. This reflects not only the universal opprobrium the attacks have met, but also some support for the idea of the US aiding rebellious Afghanis to oust the Taliban.
But as the Bush administration weighs the risks of military action, there is unease that it may give the long-term impact of war short shrift. Others see not enough soul searching over conditions that feed international terrorism - ranging from US support for unpopular regimes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Our first priority has to be not to create more enemies than we already have," says Daniel Benjamin, a counter-terrorism expert who served in the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. Joining other analysts in emphasizing Pakistan, he says actions that destabilize the already weak regime of the country's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, could lead to a much less friendly regime in Pakistan - a country with nuclear-arms capabilities.
While calling some military action "the necessary response for a country deeply wounded," Mr. Benjamin says that an ill-conceived war presents extraordinary risks. "If we turn the Afghanis into martyrs, we'll have extreme problems in the moderate Islamic world."
President Bush's advisers are discussing the dangers of military strikes, with the Defense Department's civilian administrators, including Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz taking the most hawkish stand.
At the other end of the scale are State Department officials, including Secretary Colin Powell, who caution that broad military strikes could upset allies - such as Egypt and Indonesia - that the US wants to keep on board in the antiterrorism war.
Mr. Wolfowitz and Defense Department advisers, including analyst Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Review Board, favor extending the military campaign to countries like Iraq.
Other officials temper that by saying proof of a country's links to terrorists who are acting against the US should be found first.
Still other analysts say the US will come up short unless it approaches this battle as essentially a struggle between ways of thinking.
"We can't counter people's minds with smart bombs and missiles," says Jerrold Post, a political psychologist who was consulted extensively by the American government during the Gulf War. "This is as much a war of words as a war of bombs."
The "genius" of Islamic terrorist Mr. bin Laden has been to focus economic despair and dissatisfaction with authoritative regimes - widespread in the Arab and Islamic worlds - on the US. "It becomes a moral imperative to strike the US," Mr. Post says.
To counter extremists' attraction, Post says, the US must do more to discourage potential recruits from joining terrorist groups, while promoting dissension within those groups.
Some negative consequences of military action are probably unavoidable, says terrorism expert Martha Crenshaw. But she adds that the US will lose sight of long-term goals to its peril.
"We won't be able to do all that we want to do at once," she says, but a "war" in the short term makes other aspects of that struggle against terrorism - "alleviating poverty, addressing grievances, and reducing anti-Americanism" - more difficult.
Some analysts, warning against overreliance on a military
solution to terrorism, see encouraging signs that a consideration of risks is playing a key part in the Bush administration's deliberations. For example, experts say Mr. Rumsfeld's acknowledgment that referring to the military campaign as "infinite justice" was potentially offensive to Muslims indicates sensitivity to the US impact on the region.
Others say Bush's own words are beginning to suggest that the US wants to retaliate militarily in a way that avoids making matters worse. Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, found reassurance in Bush's speech last Thursday, in which the president said the target is terrorist organizations "with global reach."
"There are always risks to military intervention, but not as grave as when the definition of what we are going after had been much broader," says Mr. Telhami.
What no one suggests is that the right calibration of a military response will be easy to develop.
"We don't want to fight the jihad (holy war), but we have to do what we have to do," says Mr. Benjamin. "It's an extraordinary challenge."