WASHINGTON -- Parallel to the international war against terrorism, a smaller "war" of interests, beliefs and realities is going on beneath the surface, which could endanger the final outcome of everything that has been accomplished since Sept. 11. So far, this parallel conflict is being contained by cool heads in the administration, but that could change at any time.
Essentially, the discussion is over Baghdad: whether Iraq and its "state sponsorship" is really to blame for the terrorism that has struck America and whether we should not then go "straight to Baghdad." That simple exhortation is deeply misleading.
The "Get Iraq" campaign, which to some people means finishing the Gulf War, started within days of the September bombings, long before the anthrax attacks and the new questions they raised. It emerged first and particularly from pro-Israeli hard-liners in the Pentagon such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and adviser Richard Perle, but also from hard-line neoconservatives, and some journalists and congressmen.
Soon it became clear that many, although not all, were in the group that is commonly called in diplomatic and political circles the "Israeli-firsters," meaning that they would always put Israeli policy, or even their perception of it, above anything else.
Barbara Slavin, the USA Today diplomatic correspondent, wrote in mid-October that "Pentagon officials, frustrated by the anti-terrorism campaign's focus on Afghanistan, have quietly gone around the intelligence establishment and asked a former CIA director to look for an Iraqi connection to the Sept. 11 attacks." The sources said that James Woolsey was sent to "seek evidence that would justify U.S. attacks on Iraq." She called it an "unorthodox role," which is surely a kind description.
The campaign also has another target, which has now become obvious in the think tanks, in Congress and in daily meetings here. This bitter attack on both Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeks to discredit both, partly to discount the idea that the Palestinian conflict plays a core role in terrorism against America, and also partly to diminish, or ruin, the United States' relations with any Arab states.
Usually the attacks take the form of criticizing Egypt and Saudi Arabia for not taking a more active role in supporting the United States. Much of the pro-Israeli part of the campaign is directed at proving that this fall's terrorism was instigated not by "Arab street hatred" over the war in Israel and Palestine, but by "unrepresentative" and "oppressive" Arab governments.
The U.S. diplomats I have spoken to, most with long experience in the Middle East, are uniformly enraged by these campaigns. Next to the war, it is the main topic at receptions and meetings. "It's a very simple proposition," one former ambassador to the region told me. "Now's the chance for us to get rid of all of Israel's enemies in the Middle East." And another formerly high-ranking diplomat told me, "It's the old story, that Israel simply can't bear to see any Arab countries close to the United States."
Friendly Arab delegations who have visited here, such as a delegation of high-level Egyptian businessmen who were here last week to express their sympathy, have been assured by the highest levels of the administration that there are no plans to attack Iraq. This has been the restrained and cautious policy of the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense.
The visitors also point out that, even as this campaign against them was gaining steam in Washington, 15,000 American troops were participating in exercise "Bright Star" in Egypt with Egyptian troops, the Egyptian government was openly supporting the United States, and overflight rights were immediately granted for U.S. planes.
Leading Arab ambassadors have also warned privately that any attack on Iraq would sabotage Arab participation in the series of "coalitions" forming around the conflict. These other agendas, as they euphemistically call them, would drive the moderate Arabs away from the West. They point out, again privately, the fragility of this moment when the Arab masses are at best ambivalent about the anti-bin Laden campaign because of the war with the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Israel's hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused even to temper his attacks against the Palestinians, despite President Bush's constant requests. Even many of his own coalition say that he wants to destroy the Palestinian Authority, to see the Palestinian radicals installed as the next "government," and then to work toward driving the Palestinians into Jordan.
The Bush administration, concerned by the rising speculation about Iraqi involvement in the anthrax mailings, this week attempted to clarify the public rhetoric. There was still no proof of Iraqi involvement, spokesmen said. And when and if there is, the United States will revisit the question of Iraqi complicity.
Meanwhile, it does not take a von Clausewitz or a Sun Tzu to figure out, militarily and also politically, that it would be the worst kind of madness to isolate America in this difficult, poisonous struggle. The idea of thrusting America into two wars at once and eviscerating the support it needs in the region is not some mischievous theoretical game. It is a deadly, real-life game, and its players should certainly know better.
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