IS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION really getting serious about fighting the war on terrorism?
On the one hand, there was still plenty of happy-talk flying fast and furious this past week. President Bush's speech Thursday night was upbeat and spared him media attacks for not addressing the nation on homeland security. But the American people don't really need to be told how to lead their lives. They need to see their government doing its job, both at home and abroad.
What they've seen too often instead are government agencies spinning madly to make it look like they're on top of the situation. The FBI, which has run itself into a brick wall in the anthrax investigation, has been declaring confidently that it has "a plan" and is sticking to it. The fact that the FBI hasn't the vaguest clue who sent the anthrax letters hasn't stopped it from leaking like mad the implausible "theory" that it may have been the work of some domestic extremist.
Meanwhile, on the day President Bush gave his "Let's Roll" speech, Attorney General John Ashcroft embarrassingly declared that the United States had "emerged victorious in the opening battle in the war on terrorism." Why? Because "two periods of extremely high threat have passed" without an additional attack. Sorry, but glad as we are that a couple of weeks have gone by without another terrorist catastrophe, that is not a "victory."
On the other hand, there are hopeful signs. As this magazine goes to press, there are indications that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's efforts to increase the pace and violence of the American offensive in Afghanistan are beginning to bear fruit on the ground. The Northern Alliance seems to be making progress in its effort to capture the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif--a key stepping stone to removing the Taliban government in Kabul.
Until now, top American military officials, despite Rumsfeld's prodding, have been slow to escalate and have been resisting the call by civilian officials for a wider ground war. The commander in the region, General Tommy Franks, has seemed more interested in preserving what he recently called "the easiest exit strategy we've had in years" than in crushing the Taliban. According to our sources, deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley recently expressed deep frustration with the military brass for its slow-as-molasses approach to the war. There is reason to believe he was reflecting the views of his boss, Condoleezza Rice. But four-star generals don't take orders from deputy national security advisers, or even from national security advisers. When will President Bush step in and find himself a Grant to take over from the McClellans?
Another sign of seriousness on the part of the administration would be greater urgency in planning for a military campaign against Iraq. The New York Times reported this past week that Saddam Hussein maintained a secret terrorist training camp for Islamic radicals from other countries, and that among the lessons taught at the terrorist school was how to hijack a passenger plane without weapons. We know that the mastermind of the September 11 attack, Mohamed Atta, held meetings a few months before with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. And Iraq is the only nation in the world, other than the United States and Russia, to have developed the kind of sophisticated anthrax that appeared in the letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. What will it take for the FBI and the CIA to start connecting the dots here? A signed confession from Saddam?
The good news is that the winds appear to be shifting within the Bush administration on the Iraq question. While Secretary of State Colin Powell continues to promise the Arab world that the administration has no plans to go after Iraq, Condoleezza Rice seems to be throwing her considerable influence on the side of the hawks at the Pentagon. Rice said publicly last week, referring to Saddam's continuing efforts to build and stockpile weapons of mass destruction, that "there is plenty of reason to watch Iraq." Unlike Powell, she did not rule out any response. Privately, we have learned, she's even tougher. Rice recently told a visiting diplomat that the administration would deal with Iraq "at the right time" and that "we don't need a smoking gun" before taking action.