The Marines are in Afghanistan. The Taliban is dug in at Kandahar, and the fight does not promise to be easy, but now it's a superpower in the air and on the ground against the remains of an army that never had full control of one of the poorest nations on earth.
Already, the United States is beginning to wonder where the war on terrorism will take it next. At the beginning of this week, President Bush hinted that Iraq might find itself in the cross hairs, as he said that those states that "develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations" are potential targets in the current war, along with those that harbor terrorists. President Bush warned that Saddam Hussein needs to once again allow United Nations weapons inspectors inside Iraq's borders. The president left the "or else" unspoken.
Three years after the last inspectors were kicked out of Iraq, and 10 years after the Gulf War, the new rhetoric on Iraq represents a change in emphasis. President Bush also seemed to expand the aims of the broad-based war against terrorism beyond those outlined in his Sept. 20 address to a joint session of Congress. Is the new focus on Iraq, linking this longtime foe to the war on terrorism, a prelude to renewed U.S. military action there?
The world would be a safer place without Saddam Hussein. Even so, taking on Iraq would be on an entirely different order of difficulty from fighting the Taliban. For one, it's worth noting that the United States is only now putting regular troops on the ground in Afghanistan. The northern alliance has acted as our proxy force, in concert with our airstrikes. For another, the Iraqi armed forces are much more sophisticated and deadly than anything the Taliban has had to offer. Finally, the anti-terrorism coalition would likely splinter if military action were taken against Iraq.
One must assume that President Bush and his advisers are aware of all these pitfalls. They must also be aware of the leverage that the Untied States can wield in its foreign policy-making while it has its armed forces mobilized for war. While American pundits are speculating over whether U.S. Marines will next land in Iraq, the Bush team is probably hoping to reach another audience, composed of Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin.
The United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait. But under the so-called oil-for-food program, Iraq can export more than 2 million barrels of oil a day in order to buy food and humanitarian goods. The United States and Britain fear that Saddam Hussein is using this oil money to rebuild his military. Recognizing that the 1990 sanctions have become all but meaningless under oil-for-food, the U.S. and the U.K. want to scrap most of the original trade restrictions on Iraq, while imposing "smart sanctions." Smart sanctions would tighten the arms embargo against Iraq and block back channels through which Hussein is able to buy military hardware and other technology.
The oil-for-food program, which must be renewed every six months, is currently up for a vote on extension. Iraq does not want a change from oil-for-food to smart sanctions, and Russia has so far backed Iraq on this issue. While President Bush was sending Iraq a tough message on terror, U.S. and Russian diplomats were meeting to try to find a compromise that would allow some version of smart sanctions to go through.
Right now, the U.S. Marines are busy with the Taliban. Whom they will fight next, and where, is anyone's guess. And sometimes keeping 'em guessing is as effective as any weapon.
Dan Rather works for CBS News.
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