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Jewish World Review March 4, 2002 / 20 Adar, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Surprise strikes could come before next U.S. move -- JUSTIFIABLY heady about its victory in Afghanistan and now planning wider attacks on President Bush's "axis of evil," the administration needs to guard against attacks designed to upset U.S. strategy.

In his State of the Union message, Bush announced the goal of eliminating not only global terrorism but also the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of "evil" states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

It's a laudable mission, but various nongovernment foreign policy experts fear that administration "arrogance" or "hubris" after Afghanistan might lead it to ignore the possibility of surprise strikes from those on the U.S. "enemies list."

One scholarly hawk, professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, warns, "We're feeling powerful and competent and we may think we have the initiative, but we could wake up and find that someone else has seized it."

Cohen worries that the terrorist group Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, might launch rocket attacks on northern Israel, triggering a massive Israeli attack and a regional Middle East war that could upset the administration's schedule for attacking Iraq.

Meantime, Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center says he can envision anti-American elements trying to assassinate Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to plunge that country into chaos or staging terrorist raids in Kashmir to drive Pakistan and India to the brink of nuclear war.

At the moment, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is contained within their territory, but there are any number of scenarios by which it might break into a regional conflict, diverting America's attention from the campaign against the "axis."

Next month Vice President Cheney is scheduled to make an 11-nation trip to the Middle East, which most observers believe is an effort to win support for U.S. action against Iraq.

Judging by public statements from U.S. officials, Bush seems to have decided he wants to move to end the rule of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein but is still considering how and when.

He seems content to allow the increasingly restive Iranian public to work on a regime change there, perhaps with U.S. covert and propaganda assistance.

There's a debate among foreign policy experts as to whether Bush's labeling Iran as part of the "axis" was helpful or hurtful.

Kemp, a sometimes JWR contributor and former Reagan administration national security aide, thinks it was counterproductive and might possibly drive traditional enemies Iran and Iraq into closer cooperation against the United States.

He also believes aides to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami when they say that if Khatami had more power, he'd curtail Iranian-sponsored terrorism and move internally to liberalize Islamic rule and move toward democracy.

By declaring Iran a U.S. target, Kemp argues, Bush has weakened Khatami in his struggle for power with fundamentalist mullahs, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who control the nation's security, intelligence and military apparatus.

Other scholars, such as Cohen and Rob Sobhani of Georgetown University, say that Khatami is either unwilling or unable to change the regime.

Sobhani argues that by labeling Iran "evil," Bush successfully appealed past Khatami to a population that's fed up with theocracy and that wants a secular democracy, possibly headed by Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed Shah.

In Asia last week, Bush practically announced that North Korea was No. 3 on his "axis" action list by saying that he welcomes South Korean efforts to negotiate away the North's missile and nuclear threats.

On Iraq, administration officials go out of their way to say that "no decisions have been made" and "no timetable has been set." Yet they also say that the United States is intent on "regime change" and will pursue the policy unilaterally if necessary.

Although administration officials are under discipline not to talk about their differences in public, various outside experts believe a battle is raging within over timing and methods, with Pentagon hawks arguing for a massive, Afghan-style precision-bombing campaign designed to force the Iraqi army to depose Hussein or face destruction.

Outside experts, such as retired Gen. Thomas McInerney, say that mission would be "easier than Afghanistan" because U.S. forces have been involved with Iraq for 10 years and know where key military targets are.

"Desert Storm took 42 days 10 years ago," McInerney told me. "Saddam's army has half the strength it did then, and its readiness is a quarter what it was. We have more precision munitions and we have total surveillance of the battlefield. What's more, we have just one objective - getting rid of Saddam - rather than expelling an army from Kuwait."

McInerney said it should take only 20,000 or 30,000 U.S. ground troops to follow up the bombing campaign and that the United States could expect assistance from anti-Saddam elements in Iraq, including Kurds, Shiites and dissident elements in the military.

He said recent reports of Hussein's execution of 10 generals, including commanders in his supposedly dependable Republican Guard, is evidence of deep restiveness within the Iraqi army.

On the other hand, others in the U.S. military and State Department are thought to believe that the United States needs to mobilize 200,000 or more troops to be sure of success and that it needs to assemble international support.

Besides, it will take up to six months to replenish the precision munitions expended in the Afghan campaign. So it will be awhile yet before the United States can strike. We need to be careful, though, that we don't get hit first.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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