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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2001 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Fred Barnes

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On "Message": Sometimes winning the war is more important than sending the right signal -- THE word you don't want to hear from the Pentagon brass, civilian or uniformed, or from the White House is "message." When you do, it means that a military maneuver in Afghanistan, usually a bombing raid, may not amount to much by itself but is making a point with a terrorist, the Taliban, a member of the U.S.-led coalition, or another party involved in the war against terrorism. And it means something more as well: The American agenda in the war on terrorism is burdened with goals other than merely winning the war as quickly and decisively as possible.

Yes, the opposite is also true. Sometimes the war effort trumps other concerns. The critical need to bring Russia on board against Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the terrorist network has shoved aside American distress over Russian human rights violations, particularly in Chechnya. At home, budget considerations have been dismissed to fund the war adequately. And sanctions against Pakistan for developing a nuclear arsenal have been lifted to reward General Musharaff, the Pakistani leader, for siding with the United States. All three were wise decisions.

The problem is dubious decisions that limit the war effort or distract from it. For instance, the Taliban has concentrated troops around Kabul and made them ripe targets for heavy bombing. But the bombing hasn't been heavy. Why not? Because the United States doesn't want to take Kabul yet or let the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance capture the city. That would interfere with "nation-building" plans, currently far from complete, to patch together a broad-based, post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. And it would upset Pakistan, which opposes the Northern Alliance. Also, heavy bombing might anger Muslims everywhere. The result: The war is being prolonged, at least around Kabul.

Might it not make sense to win the war now and worry about a new government later? After all, the United States will play a major role in whatever protectorate is established after the war is won. American officials can look out for Pakistan's interests then as well as now. As for the Muslim street, we learned a decade ago in the Persian Gulf War than it doesn't matter. Heavy, brutal bombing of Iraqi forces drew no meaningful protests from masses in Arab and Muslim countries.

A smart rule of thumb in the war was enunciated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It's that the strategy against terrorism will determine the coalition instead of the coalition determining the strategy. But this isn't happening now with the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Bush administration is leaning on the government of Ariel Sharon and pushing Israel to ease up on the Palestinians, despite the assassination of an Israeli cabinet member, and begin a new round of talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. This is aimed at soothing the anxiety of Arab nations and making them feel more comfortable in the coalition against terrorism. In other words, the coalition is determining the strategy--at Israel's expense.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue also touches on the question of distraction. The administration--the State Department anyway--has decided that the war is producing opportunities for diplomatic breakthroughs. One is the chance to move ahead on Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. Another is the opportunity to improve relations with terrorist-aiding countries such as Iran and Syria. But wouldn't it be wiser to avoid these distractions and work with single-mindedness to win the war both overwhelmingly and soon? An effective display of American military power would give the United States more influence than it now has in dealing with all these countries.

After the airborne assaults on two Taliban sites in Afghanistan last Friday, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared a bit disappointed that dramatic military victories hadn't been achieved. But he said a powerful message had been sent to the Taliban that U.S. forces could attack whenever and wherever they wish. Better to have attacked and achieved a victory, however, than to have attacked and sent a message.

Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001 The Weekly Standard