One of the strong points of the current administration from the point of view of those who follow national-security strategy is that this group actually has a strategy. The previous crowd was reactive tacticians; there were no specific long-term goals, just some vague statements, and in practice they responded (or chose not to respond) to whatever global events came along. However, the Bush team is guided by bona-fide strategic thinkers. The Bush war-fighting strategy has been active, has shaped global conditions rather than been shaped by them, and has been refreshingly consistent. It has been a pleasure to watch the strategy unfold, and especially to track the befuddlement of its nearsighted critics, whose objections are based on nothing more than expediency, and whose internal contradictions mount daily.
The president’s speech Wednesday night at the American Enterprise Institute, which has been something of a talent pool for the administration, brought together several strategic threads and showed the intellectual coherence with which the White House has approached issues in the Middle East. An essential underlying theme of the speech was freedom. In both Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, President Bush placed the United States solidly on the side of the people and against the dictators who control them. In both cases, the solution he proposed was regime change. Best of all, he made an important linkage between the two situations (discussed here last September) — namely that regime change in Iraq will facilitate regime change in the PA, because it will “deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron” as well as serve as a warning to those regimes that might be tempted to take up the slack. I do not think it is a coincidence that twelve Palestinian factions, including Hamas, are currently discussing a long-term ceasefire with Israel. This is the kind of linkage they understand.
One critic said that the president sought to “liberate a country that hasn’t asked to be liberated.” As though any Iraqi citizen has the freedom to do so? Saddam’s police state is at least as efficient as any of the 20th-century totalitarian states — countries in which nothing worked except the apparatus of oppression. As for the contention that it is wrong for the Coalition to impose a system based on western values, the president took a Jeffersonian stand recognizing the common desires of humanity regardless of cultural differences. To accept the counter-argument that freedom and democracy are simply western cultural constructs is to say that we hold it as a self evident truth that all Arabs are endowed by their creator, the merciful, the compassionate, with certain alienable rights, justly trampled by whatever criminal gang happens to control the state at the time.
The current sequence of events with respect to Iraq began last September when the president shifted the terms of debate with his speech at the UN and set the inspections process in motion. We are now nearing the logical culmination of that process, which has moved in a measured, predictable fashion. Saddam has been largely uncooperative, and only slowly given ground when placed under extreme pressure. He has shown his characteristic tenacity, but also his slightly off sense of timing when dealing with members of the Bush family. Just like 1991, he will no doubt make a number of very important concessions, but several minutes after the cruise missiles have been launched.
Saddam’s interview with Dan Rather was an unexpected public-relations coup, showing he has learned something since his disastrous media campaign in 1990. Mr. Rather was perhaps emulating his predecessor Walter Cronkite’s 1977 interview with Anwar Sadat, which was instrumental in breaking the ice between the Egyptian leader and Menachem Begin. As for Saddam, it was pure public relations. The debate gambit was classic, though he may have been watching too much Saturday Night Live. Perhaps he can promise to put his WMDs in a lock box.
The administration’s strategic vision for the settlement of the Palestinian question was laid out last June when the president called for new leadership for the PA. Yasser Arafat tried to preempt this announcement by having a law passed that promised Palestinian elections either by the end of 2002 or March 2003 at the latest. Arafat has not yet gone before the electorate, but perhaps he meant by the end of March. Two weeks ago he agreed to appoint a Prime Minister for the PA, as a nod to the “roadmap” process for resolving the Palestinian issue. Yet, he still has not named whom he will appoint, and the fact that it is an appointment instead of an election hardly qualifies as a serious attempt at democratic reform. One wonders why this should be his prerogative and not that of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, the powers of the PM are as yet undefined — a spokesman said he will “run the cabinet meetings.” In any case, this is just another stall tactic, a way in which Arafat seeks to show that he is taking action while not really doing so. I think he will find shortly that he no longer has the initiative in these matters.
Meanwhile on the terror front, an al Qaeda-affiliated website has posted a threat of a major terror attack to take place inside the United States sometime in the next week or so. There is also a rumor of a new bin Laden video to be released if and when Iraq is attacked, and of a bin Laden audiotape smuggled out of Pakistan for release in that same time frame. Recall also the recent threat that Osama himself would undertake a martyrdom operation against the homeland, a threat I view skeptically, but clearly the terrorists are up to something, or would have us think so. Thus while the president’s speech was very optimistic, and a lucid exposition of the benefits of regime change in Iraq and the PA for the U.S., its allies, the Middle East and the world generally, much still has to be accomplished. And clearly the time nears when much if not all will be.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.