Headlines, North America | Analysis

POLITICS-U.S.: Administration Factions Battle Over Bush’s War

Analysis - By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 21 2001 (IPS) - Even as President George W. Bush heralded the coming U.S. war against global terrorism, factions within his administration were already fighting over the breadth and scope of battle.

”Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda,” Bush told a joint session of the U.S. Congress Thursday night, referring to alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden’s organisation, ”but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

He delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, demanding, among other things, that they immediately turn over bin Laden and all leaders of his network. ”They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate,” he declared.

As Bush set the stage for war in Afghanistan, however, factions within the administration were feuding over whether the war should be extended to Israel’s enemies in the Middle East, particularly Iraq.

The outcome of the internal fight will largely determine the size of the international coalition that rallies behind Washington’s efforts in the coming weeks and months.

The assumption is that the narrower the range of targets – particularly if they are confined to Al Qaeda and the Taliban – the broader the coalition and the longer it will hold together. Conversely, the broader the range of targets, the narrower and more tenuous the coalition will be.

The internal fight – which pits rightwing and neo-conservative forces concentrated among senior political appointees in the Pentagon and on Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff against the State Department – has been leaking onto the inside pages of U.S. newspapers over the past several days.

But the publication in the Washington Times Friday of an open letter to Bush from some 38 prominent neo-conservatives, most of them staunch supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, suggests that the internal debate is becoming much more intense.

The letter, whose signatories include Washington’s former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Defence Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, and another former Pentagon official, Frank Gaffney, calls on Bush to launch ”a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”

The letter, sent by a relatively new group, the Project for the New American Century, also calls for possible strikes against Syria and Iran, as state sponsors of Hizbollah, a guerrilla group that blew up U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and harried Israeli forces in southern Lebanon until their withdrawal in May, 2000.

At its simplest, the battle pits the administration’s unilateralists – including its most ardent advocates for national missile defence, a tough line toward China, and rejection of any number of international treaties – against the multilateralists, who have argued for much greater continuity with former President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, including deepening U.S. engagement with the United Nations and other international agencies.

Among the leading figures in the debate are Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith, and Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby on the unilateralist side. Ranged against them are Secretary of State Colin Powell and his senior advisers. Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, normally allied with the unilateralists, have not yet come down firmly on either side.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the administration’s repeated appeals for an international coalition to fight global terrorism suggested that Powell and the multilateralists, after suffering numerous policy defeats in previous months, were firmly in charge.

”As the World Trade Centre buildings tumbled,” wrote P. Edward Haley, a foreign policy specialist at Claremont McKenna College, in a typical commentary, ”American unilateralism crumbled as well.”

But that notion has come increasingly under attack from unilateralists within and outside the administration, particularly since Washington began exerting pressure on Sharon to reach a cease-fire with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

They have argued that Al Qaeda could not have pulled off the attacks without the help of governments presumably much more sophisticated than the Taliban.

”Someone taught these suicide bombers how to fly large airplanes,” Perle, widely considered the godfather of neo- conservatives inside the administration, argued on the day of the attacks. ”I don’t think that can be done without the assistance of large governments.”

Although it was shown quickly that the skyjackers learned their skills at pilot schools in the United States, this did not deter Perle and other unilateralists from concentrating their fire on Iraq as the most likely state sponsor.

While acknowledging that bin Laden and Hussein have communicated from time to time, most independent analysts have dismissed the possibility of Baghdad’s involvement in the latest incident. Cheney himself said publicly last weekend there was no evidence to tie Iraq to the attacks.

But the unilateralists have continued to press their case that, if Washington is serious about rooting out terrorism, this is the moment to strike at Saddam Hussein.

Powell, however, has argued within the administration that, in the absence of proof tying the Sep. 11 attacks to a broader conspiracy, military action against any state beyond the Taliban at this point not only risks shattering an international coalition, but also could turn the tide of public opinion in Islamic countries solidly against Washington and the governments which support it.

Powell chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War and is supported in his view by key veterans of Bush’s father’s administration, including Bush senior himself. Close European and Arab allies concur.

”Iraq is already seen by people throughout the region as having suffered disproportionately at our hands since the Gulf War,” noted one Congressional aide. ”An attack now without solid proof that Saddam was somehow involved in these attacks would make it simply impossible for Arab governments to back us.”

Perle and his allies have poured scorn on the need for Arab support, or even the backing of other key states, such as Russia or even some of its European allies. They have argued that the coalition built around the Gulf War against Iraq actually prevented Washington from ”finishing the job” by ousting the Iraqi leader.

For now, the two sides in the administration appear to have agreed on a lowest common denominator: military strikes against bin Laden and against the Taliban if it does not comply with U.S. demands. By all indications, however, the debate over a broader set of targets is not finished and the open-ended nature of the war that Bush has committed himself to suggests that the struggle within the administration has only just begun.

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Headlines, North America | Analysis

POLITICS-U.S.: Administration Factions Battle Over Bush’s War

Analysis - Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 21 2001 (IPS) - Even as President George W. Bush heralded the coming U.S. war against global terrorism, factions within his administration were already fighting over the breadth and scope of battle.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

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