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The political mood in the country has never been more belligerent. Public opinion
polls taken even before the full force of anthrax hysteria engulfed the country
showed that four-fifths support not only the use of ground troops in Afghanistan,
but also military action against other countries in the Middle Eastand
three-quarters of Americans favor military action against countries outside the Middle East.
These numbers free the Bush administration from any political constraints on
widening the war beyond Afghanistan. The zero casualties mentality
that governed our military brass for the past two decades went up in smoke when
the hijacked plane exploded in the Pentagon. It has now evaporated in the country
as well. In the wake of the bioterrorism scare, fear and frustration will drive
even higher the public frenzy to lash out with bombs and bullets at someoneanyone.
The escalation strategy is now clear, particularly after Dubyas October
11 prime-time press conference: We will expand military strikes against other
countries ad seriatim. There is no question that Iraq is next on the
list. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, let
slip on Meet the Press that we are selecting targets in Iraq. And when
Dubya went out of his way to publicly praise Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagons
No. 2 and its most fervent hawk on Iraq, his goal became obvious.
The administration is already leaking selected intelligence designed
to soften up the American people for a new war in Iraqwe are being told
of meetings between the hijackers leader, Mohammed Atta, and Iraqi secret
service officers in Czechoslovakia, and of the British-educated Iraqi scientist
Rihab Tabar (nicknamed Dr. Germ) as the mastermind behind the anthrax
attacks (even though the former head of Russias chemical and biological
warfare programKen Abilek, now a U.S.-based consultanttold Ted Koppel
on Nightline that he is convinced al-Qaeda purchased the anthrax and
other toxins and technology from Russian scientists left impoverished when their
huge chemical and biological weapons establishment of 30,000 technicians was
dismantled). But the sanguineous despot Saddam Hussein is easy to hate, and
it will take very little to convince Americans that he must be the next target
in the long war.
We are plunging down that bloody road with no debate in Congress. Indeed, major
figures in both partieslike Joe Lieberman and John McCainare already
voicing their support for hitting Iraq. And this even though the Gulf War demonstrated
that Saddam cannot be toppled by air power aloneit will require investing
the entire country with a huge army of occupation to end the Baath regimes
sorry history. The use of tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan is already
being called for by congressional Republicansnot just hard-right ignoramuses
like Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, but also moderate Long Island Rep. Peter King and
influential Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer. When an invasion of Iraq confronts our
finger-in-the-wind elected representatives with the prospect of thousands of
their constituents coming home in body bags, the cry of nuke Saddam will be widespread.
However, Bush will not move with full force against Iraq until the Taliban
falls. And those in the punditocracy like the Wall Street Journals
Al Huntwho predicted on CNN that the Taliban will collapse within
a weekare dreaming. The air campaign to pave the way for the minority
Northern Alliances entrance into Kabul is only stiffening the resistance
among Southern Afghanistans Pashtun majority, for the fratricidal history
of Afghan civil war makes the prospect of ethnic cleansing in the event of an
Alliance victory very real.
International politics is rather like chess; one has to be able to think eight
to ten moves ahead. Thats something American presidents of the past 50
years have not been very good atthey cannot see farther than the next
election. Bush is no chess player, and the madness of militarizing the campaign
against terrorism becomes clearer every day, for war has its own momentumonce
set in motion, the machine operates on its own inexorable logic, divorced from
rational political goals.
U.S. military action in Afghanistan is already outpacing Bushs murky
political objectives. American efforts to put together a coalition government
under the aegis of the octogenarian King Zahir have stalled amid the squabbling
of the heroin-dealing warlords who are our purchased allies. Pakistan, of course,
detests the Northern Alliance, and neither has it forgotten that the king tried
to annex part of Pakistan in the 60s.
President Pervez Musharraf will face enormous difficulty in keeping the lid
on growing opposition in Pakistan if a hastily cobbled-together regime considered
hostile to Pakistani interests takes symbolic power in Kabul. Musharrafs
limited purge of his military and intelligence chiefs is an admission of weakness,
not a demonstration of strength: More than a quarter of Pakistans military
are Pashtun, and, in addition to the ethnic and religious sympathies that bind
much of the officer corps and most of the Pakistani intelligence service to
the Taliban, the corruption of the Pakistani military by heroin-trafficking
links them economically to the Taliban-supporting local Afghan chieftains as well.
In this context, the American bombing has created what the BBC has rightly
characterized as a humanitarian, political and security crisis on
the Afghan-Pakistani border, where tens of thousands of hunger-mad Afghan refugees
are massing. The BBC and others have filmed the Taliban rounding up the men,
separating them from the women and children, and stocking them in barbed-wire
camps for conscription or ethnic cleansing. But whether Pakistan continues to
keep them out at gunpoint, or lets them enter (something that this country,
which is $140 billion in debt and already hosting some 4 million refugees, cannot
afford to do), these refugees constitute a political powder keg whose existence
further destabilizes Musharraf and increases his vulnerability to a coup. (If
he goes, who controls Pakistans nukes?)
Add to this volatile mix the mounting civilian casualties from American bombing
(including the destruction of a hospital, confirmed by U.N. observers) and one
wonders how long Musharraf can hold onparticularly with India using the
war as cover to step up its military activity in Kashmir, thus inflaming both
the Pakistani military and the masses in the street. Moreover, Seymour Hershs
fine reporting in The New Yorker has underscored just how fragile is
the sclerotic Saudi princes hold on their country. No wonder both Pakistan
and the Saudis are pleading for Bush to stop the bombing. If the terrorists
think the air campaign in Afghanistan has made the endlessly corrupt Saud family
ripe for overthrow, they could strike the highly vulnerable Saudi oil fields,
ending the cash flow that allows the 6,000 princes to stay in power (an eventuality
which would drive oil to $100 a barrel and send the world economy plummeting
rapidly into a Depression).
Yet these gaping flaws in Bushs war policy are not being challenged by
congressional Democrats, whose leadersTom Daschle and Dick Gephardtstill
harbor illusions that they are viable presidential candidates, and so are loath
to challenge on any front the conduct of a popular war. Now, in the wake of
the anthrax scare that sent the cowardly House skedaddling, the Bushies are
floating a proposal to let the president govern by decree for at least 30 days
without any congressional approval or restraint if he decides a national
emergency warrants it. The power of the purse is Congress only real
rein on a president, and abandoning it even temporarily would blow a major hole
in our constitutional system of checks and balances that could not easily be repaired.
If you think the country wouldnt sit still for such a measure, think
again. Just look at the exaggerated anthrax scareafter all, as Dr. Ezekiel
Emanuel pointed out on the Wall Street Journals op-ed page, 280
people would have to die of anthrax to equal the risk of driving 50 miles in
a car (about one in a million). Yet Americans are gorging themselves on
overpriced Cipro (10 bottles cost $2,100 in New York but only $160 in Mexico),
thus leaving the pill-poppers prey to lethal, antibiotic-resistant strains of
influenza and other diseases; buying useless gas masks (ineffective without
full body suits); and flooding emergency rooms with demands for anthrax tests
at the first runny nose.
State and local health systems, the first line of defense against bioterrorism,
are already teetering on the edge of collapse, their overworked personnel exhausted
to the point of limited competence. If the public has become so deranged at
what is, at the moment, a very limited danger, imagine what happens when our
citizenry finds out that our country is completely unprepared for the kind of
massive deaths the spread of plague or Ebola-type viruses, all airborne, could engender.
The likelihood of Bush being granted sweeping powers will measurably increase
when Republicans almost certainly retake both houses of Congress next year during
a deepening war with more U.S. casualties. Meanwhile, the rush to shred our
civil liberties is unimpeded. The House rejected the compromise anti-terrorism
bill that Rep. John Conyers and others managed to engineer in the Judiciary
Committee, and substituted for it the much more draconian Senate version, which
Tom Daschle helped whip through the Senate with only one dissenting voteRuss
Feingold of Wisconsin. (In the House, only 75 Democrats stood up to oppose the
unadulterated Ashcroft package.)
At this point, it is hard to see a way out of the crisis the long war is creating for our democracy. One is reminded of the old Russian proverb: An optimist is only a pessimist who has not yet heard the bad news.
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