February 7, 2002
In Israel’s Interest
President George W. Bush fired the first volley in the second phase of his anti-terror war last week when he used the annual State of the Union message to gird the nation for the challenges ahead.
But the biggest challenge may be the domestic one facing his administration: how to maintain public support for a war that could become a whole lot uglier and costlier.
Jewish leaders, many of whom have warned about the metastasizing terror network for years, are lining up behind the president. But their voices have been uncharacteristically muted. The reason: the widespread fear of charges that the war is being fought in Israel's interests.
The result is a kind of schizophrenia. Jewish leaders are almost all cheering an expanded anti-terror effort that they believe is vital for both Israeli and U.S. interests. But most are loath to focus too much attention on that connection, for fear of a backlash.
A backlash is unlikely today, but it could become a real danger if -- as Bush suggested -- the costs of the war begin to rise.
The easy part of the war was toppling the weak, unpopular Taliban government in Afghanistan. But Al Qaeda lives on, rooted deeply in dozens of nations.
Last week, Bush warned of "tens of thousands" of terrorists waiting to strike. That may be hyperbole designed to firm the resolve of the American people, but it may reflect reality; one of the most frightening aspects of this new war is not knowing exactly what we face.
War in Iran or Iraq is unlikely to be casualty free. Both have large, well-organized modern armies and nonconventional weapons, unlike the ragtag Taliban.
Experts say the terrorists are likely to launch new attacks in response to a widening U.S. effort, perhaps using crude weapons of mass destruction. How will public support for the war fare if radioactive debris is spread over major American cities?
All of these are variables in the internal cost-benefit debate now raging in the Bush administration. And they are factors in the deliberate low profile of the Jewish leadership on the next phase of the war.
Most Jewish leaders, understanding the volatility of public opinion in this new environment, don't want to be too far out in front of an administration that has still not decided its next move in the war.
If the administration does move forward aggressively, Jewish leaders don't want the expanded war to be portrayed as a proxy war for Israel.
The situation gets dicier if the United States does pursue the broader war -- and it turns sour. The ultimate nightmare scenario is this: a widened, inconclusive and very costly war, with the U.S. public turning strongly against it, and with pro-Israel forces portrayed as just about the only interest group pushing for it.
In 1990, columnist and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan tried to convince Americans that only Israel and its "amen corner" in Washington wanted war against Saddam Hussein. That argument didn't resonate with Americans, in part because the war was quick and clean, at least from an American standpoint.
But the sentiment it represents continues to scare Jewish leaders and mute their voices as the administration makes decisions that will affect the security of the nation -- and, indirectly, of Israel -- for decades to come.