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One war at a time

The past 12 months have been shaped by two powerful if antithetical national phenomena. First, vulnerability, symbolized by the elevated national alert level, seemingly weekly warnings from the FBI and systematic overflights of major U.S. cities by Air Force interceptors. Second is determination, a sense of singular resolve and purpose, universally felt in spite of the plunging stock market, rising unemployment and a highâ??if not unprecedentedâ??level of anxiety about the future.

As a country, we are--and we realize that we are--deeply susceptible to future terrorist atrocities. This fact will never fundamentally change, no matter how hard we try. Billions of dollars invested in upgraded security and historic reforms proposed in Washington can only buy us time and make the consequences of the next attack a little less dreadful. Vulnerabilities will always be out there, as Israel, a country that has suffered from terror despite the most elaborate security apparatus, shows all too clearly.

All this is not intended to sound the defeatist trumpet, but it should bring into perspective the massive changes in foreign and defense policy wrought by Sept. 11. It is perhaps easy to forget that the United States is now at war, one that promises to be the longest it has fought in over a generation. The fact that it is a defensive war in a fundamental, strategic sense should not obscure the absolute necessity of staying on the offensive at the tactical level.

The war's homeland front is fated to be its least successful, not because of poor leadership or planning but rather because of the practical impossibility of defending every conceivable target in an open society of 280 million people. A systematic assault--military, yes, but also diplomatic and financial--on the forces of terror beyond our borders is the only way we will assure victory in the end, irrespective of the efforts made in the realm of homeland security. At the same time, let us limit our aims and avoid trying to resolve all the world's terrorist problems, for there are far too many.

The international campaign began last fall in Afghanistan, and there it must continue as long as it takes. Remaining al Qaeda militants, ideologues and financial backers have to be brought to justice and the organization's infrastructure eliminated. Last week's attempt on Hamid Karzai's life shows that the state of the country is still highly volatile. Until his government can stand on its own, foreign troops need to stay in Kabul. If they leave too soon, the forces of terror and their apologists will regroup, and the government will inevitably fall. The costs of starting over will be far greater than those of getting the job done right the first time.

It is no secret that after bin Laden, Saddam Hussein is, deservedly, public enemy number one, and Desert Storm II may now be a foregone conclusion. And yet, such a course of action would not, as inviting as it may seem, be advisable in the face of current strategic realities. While the benefits of toppling Saddam and his cronies are beyond dispute, it is prudent to harbor grave doubts about a major operation that is based on questionable premises, faces opposition from virtually every U.S. ally and will lead to a highly uncertain conclusion.

When we went into Afghanistan, we had a clear mandate to dismantle a regime that caused great harm to the United States and had the potential to cause even more. Iraq does not pose a direct threat to U.S. interests at this time. I bring attention to the last three words in the previous sentence, for they are key. If we had concrete evidence of an imminent Iraqi attack against the United States or its regional allies, then by all means a preemptive strike would be warranted. In matters of supreme national importance, the unilateral use of force can be understood.

As things stand, there is no indication that Saddam plans to do anything but keep on blustering. He may desperately want to relaunch his "mother of all battles," but as an old-fashioned practitioner of realpolitik, he won't risk the end of his rule to make a political statement. He had every opportunity to use chemical weapons against allied troops in 1991, but the fear of overwhelming retaliation stopped him. Going out in a suicidal blaze of atomic glory is the dream of a fanatic, not a power-obsessed despot.

Among the countries that backed us last fall, not a single one is now clamoring for a war against Iraq. Britain will go along, but only grudgingly, and the rest of NATO has signaled stern disapproval. Russia and China are firmly against the idea. Our Middle Eastern allies, from Turkey to Jordan, will roundly condemn us if we try to oust Saddam. Clearly, there will be no coalition this time. The best that we can expect from our friends is sullen acquiescence. Shouldn't the president contemplate what has happened in the last year to make our closest allies so deeply skeptical?

No one argues that defeating Saddam is beyond our capabilities, but this operation will exhaust our armed forces and the national treasury at a time when both are already under severe strain. It will also irritate our allies at a time when, for the first time ever, we genuinely need their help in tackling the al Qaeda threat. In short, if we invade Iraq, we risk winning that battle at a cost of losing the war on terror.

Going forward, the United States should remain focused on Afghanistan operations. It is sensible to keep pressuring Iraq on the issue of weapons inspectors, but to open a second front now would be profoundly erroneous. I say this as someone who stridently believes in the sovereign right of self-defense, and who understands the importance of standing up to terror. The nation's vast power has to be aimed at achieving the single overriding objective that was enunciated so clearly one year ago: root out terrorism. In this war, especially, focus will surely lead to victory.

Pavel Molchanov is a Trinity senior.

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