Why Bush won't move on to Syria ... this term

In the wake of the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, many analysts claim there has been a fundamental change in the nature of warfare. They argue that the spectacular results of the US invasion of Iraq can be easily replicated elsewhere with the same low cost. And the opponents of the war are afraid just that will happen. Critics of Bush policy, who span the political spectrum, theorize that the administration's grand plan is to quickly move on to new targets like Syria, Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

Both views are wrong.

The idea that there is a new kind of war where only bad guys are killed is somewhere between exaggerated and silly. And the administration isn't going to take on one country immediately another just because the Pentagon thinks it can. The political operatives in the White House know that the optimal number of wars per presidential term is one.

President Bush has nonetheless been among those making a case for war without collateral damage. After touring a Boeing plant in St. Louis that produces F-18s, he told the assembled workers: "More than ever before, the precision of our technology is protecting the lives of our soldiers, and the lives of innocent civilians. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation. Terrorists and tyrants can no longer feel safe hiding behind innocent lives."

But has war really been so dramatically revolutionized that it is now painless except to the evil few? In Desert Storm, it took 100 hours to rout the Iraqi Army. After a decade of sanctions, no-fly zones, and US air strikes, that Army was far weaker than the first time around. Clearly US weapons are more precise, but would they completely change the result of a conflict with a determined foe using different tactics, as in Vietnam? Would an enemy with the resources to contest the total US domination of air and sea not make it much more costly for the infantry? What if opponents could hit major population centers of US allies with artillery and missiles, as North Korea and Syria can? And what's really known of the extent of civilian casualties in Iraq?

This particular war became inevitable, however, once the administration's foreign policy became dominated by neoconservatives. Two prominent neocons, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, wrote in 1996 that the conservative movement was adrift. Their prescription for recovery was a foreign policy based on US dominance, defense spending, and moral clarity.

Once in power, the neocons faced the challenge of selling the public on spending ever more on defense at the expense of social programs. Without a war, the neocons would have been unable to justify their worldview.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the quick war on Afghanistan didn't provide that justification - it was dealt with with a few Special Operations Forces. The Iraq war, then, seems not so much the result of the neo-cons' assertive approach, but an indispensable part of their policy. So while Secretary of State Colin Powell played good cop on the world stage, his salesmanship had no real effect on policy other than to soften its edges for public relations purposes.

Imagine the damage to the neocon universe if Hussein had cooperated instead of stalled, and if the UN inspectors had succeeded. Multilateralism would have shown unilateral action to be unnecessary. The Euro- wimps who spend so little on their militaries would have proved collective action was sufficient to address the threat. And the conservative vision of imperial American order would have dimmed. So the neocons had to have a war. But that doesn't mean they'll be spoiling for another one next week.

Hussein was the perfect target for attack - he was evil and weak. Finding a foe with that uncommon combination won't be easy unless the US limits future enemies to nations where victory is cheap. Iran is popularly perceived as evil, but isn't weak. Syria is weak, but not demonstrably evil. Besides, despite what the neocons may lie awake dreaming about, the purpose of this war was to avoid regime change in Washington. Another one too soon simply wouldn't do.

Dennis Jett, dean of the International Center at the University of Florida, was US ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and worked on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

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