Accessibility links

U.S.: Washington Keeps Options Open Amid Debate Over Broadening War

  • Charles Recknagel

In a letter yesterday, Washington informed the UN Security Council that it reserves the right to widen its military campaign against terrorism to include organizations and countries beyond Osama bin Laden's suspected network in Afghanistan. The statement has again sparked debate over whether Iraq could be added to America's target list.

Prague, 9 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Washington's letter to the UN comes as yet another notice to the world community that the U.S. is still investigating the 11 September attacks and is keeping all options open in punishing the perpetrators.

The letter, delivered yesterday to the Security Council by U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte, said that the U.S. may find that its "self-defense requires further actions with respect to other organizations and states."

It also said "there is still much [the U.S. does] not know" about those behind last month's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and adds that the inquiry "is in its early stages."

The letter underlined a theme that U.S. President George W. Bush has sounded frequently since the beginning of America's war on terrorism. That is that countries sponsoring terrorism must change their ways or face the consequences. On announcing the launch of strikes on Afghan targets on 7 October, Bush said:

"Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their peril."

The latest notice that the U.S. reserves the right to broaden military actions beyond Afghanistan drew reactions from Washington's allies and enemies alike.

Following the release of the letter, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in Luxembourg that, for London, Afghanistan remains the sole target. He told reporters that "the agreement at the moment is that [strikes] are confined to Afghanistan. That is where the problem is and that is the military action in which we are involved." London is America's closest ally in the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism.

But Iraq, which the U.S. State Department lists among seven state-sponsors of terrorism, warned that Washington may be seeking to implicate it in the war on terror. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri accused Washington of seeking to use what he called "the pretext of terrorism" to "settle [accounts] with Iraq."

Analysts say that it remains far from decided in Washington whether and when the U.S. might broaden its military campaign against terrorism, and whether targets would include Iraq. But they say the option is being actively championed by U.S. conservatives and several influential members of the Bush administration.

Gerd Nonneman, a Gulf expert at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies in Lancaster, England, sums up the arguments for including Iraq in any broader U.S. campaign:

"It all comes down to the idea that Iraq has been, under Saddam Hussein's regime, a problem [which] in the past we haven't dealt with properly, that there are future threats which could possibly emerge, and we have no idea about how far development of these threats has gone because there no longer is any monitoring inside Iraq. So there is this general sense that there is a potential threat that somehow ought to be dealt with."

Iraq has refused to re-admit UN weapons inspectors for almost three years, and Washington has said Baghdad may again be trying to stockpile or develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

In a letter to Bush last week, more than 40 U.S. foreign policy leaders and experts urged him not to limit the war on terrorism to bin Laden and the Taliban but to also move against Iraq, and possibly Iran and Syria. Tehran and Damascus support the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah and some Islamic Palestinian militant groups that Washington lists as terrorist organizations.

Similarly, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- who has long lobbied for toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- has called for making Iraq an early target in the antiterrorism campaign.

This week, U.S. Senate minority leader Trent Lott, a Republican, said recent comments by Wolfowitz that Iraq will become a target at some point are "probably right." And Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat and former vice-presidential candidate, said reported contacts between the hijackers and Iraqi intelligence officials may justify U.S. action against Baghdad in the future.

The camp arguing for expanding the war on terrorism to include Iraq also argues there is evidence that the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York was an Iraqi agent. That evidence, while disputed, has been augmented by some suspicions against Baghdad over the 11 September attacks, including the reported meeting in Europe several months ago between hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official.

But so far, Washington has yet to state any case publicly against Iraq over the 11 September tragedy. And some key officials, such as U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, say they have yet to see the necessary proof.

At the same time, there are many influential voices in Washington arguing against any expansion of the current war on terrorism for fear of making it unmanageable.

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to both former presidents Gerald Ford and the senior George Bush, said the current Bush administration has to "walk a fine line between those [demanding] a strong response and those who are frightened by the idea of a response by an America cut loose, lashing out in every direction."

Secretary of State Colin Powell is reported to be among those who favor a "go slow" approach, particularly as the U.S. seeks to create a broad international coalition to root out global terrorism. Key to that effort have been diplomatic efforts to enlist Arab and Muslim states. Their presence is sought, in part, to counter efforts by bin Laden to portray the war on terrorism as a war by Western powers against Muslims.

Nonneman says that any broadening of Western targets to include Iraq would likely spark popular resentment in the Muslim world, where there is broad sympathy for the plight of ordinary Iraqis who have suffered under a decade of sanctions. He says that could create domestic pressures that would make it difficult for moderate Arab governments in the region to remain in the current U.S.-led coalition:

"It would destroy any chance of holding together the broader coalition against the current target, the Al-Qaeda network and Afghanistan. [At] this point, in a position where they are already quite tenuous about the risks posed by joining the current coalition, it would be impossible for most of the [moderate Arab states] to stick with the U.S. and the U.K. in a campaign that would start to include Iraq as a further target."

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies currently are taking a cautious approach to supporting military strikes on targets in Afghanistan. Most have said they will take political and financial steps to crack down on Al- Qaeda's network in the region. But they have said little publicly about extending any military cooperation for operations against Afghanistan.

As the debate continues in Washington over whether to ultimately broaden the war on terrorism, there are few signs it will be resolved soon.

Following a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Riyadh last week, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz told reporters that "we are sure that the U.S. is not thinking of undertaking any attack on any Arab country." But he added that the kingdom "could not demand guarantees from the U.S. [about] any action it will undertake."