Why Rumsfeld is Doing So Much Hand-Holding

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Rumsfeld meets Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz

The sound of guns being cocked inevitably sets pulses racing. And when those guns belong to the world's most powerful military machine, that sound is bound to provoke jitters among both foe and friend. Even more so when the targets are hard to find in a battle-scarred Muslim country, and the U.S. is asking for support from Arab and Muslim countries where its presence isn't exactly welcomed by the restive citizenry.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made no secret of the fact that he was setting out to calm some nerves in a lightning whip around the Middle East Thursday, stopping in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Oman before heading for Uzbekistan, the former Soviet Republic that may well become the key forward base for any U.S. military action in Afghanistan. And in what appears to be a parallel mission, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair — who has shouldered a good part of the coalition building responsibilities on behalf of the Bush administration — headed for Russia and Pakistan.

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The skittishness of the Arab allies is understandable. As regimes of varying degrees of authoritarianism, they're vulnerable to the anti-American rage among their citizens fueled by the ongoing U.S. campaign against Iraq, and by Washington's support for Israel amid ongoing violence in the West Bank and Gaza. The specter of U.S. military action in Afghanistan igniting protests that destabilize their own grip on power has given Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others cold feet about allowing their territory to be used as a staging ground.

Although they've promised wholesale cooperation with the U.S. against Osama Bin Laden's netoworks — which, after all, are dedicated to overthrowing pro-Western regimes throughout the Arab world — the Arab allies have insisted that Washington provide political cover by intervening more forcefully to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This week's sharp uptick in violence in the West Bank and Gaza may portend trouble for some of the Arab alliance partners if it precedes U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan. But their load is lightened, somewhat, by the fact that the primary form of cooperation the U.S. needs from them is at the intelligence level, which is relatively painless because it occurs outside the public eye and is mutually beneficial for both the U.S. and its Arab allies.

Pakistan may be in an even more precarious position, with a strong domestic Islamist constituency denouncing the military government's decision to support U.S. action and threatening to retaliate. Still, Pakistan remains the key ally in efforts to get Bin Laden, because of the deep involvement of its intelligence agency in the affairs of the Taliban. While intelligence cooperation from Pakistan remains the West's best bet for striking directly at Bin Laden, sensitivity to the fragility of the regime of general-turned-president Pervez Musharraf appears to have persuaded the U.S. not to ask for much in terms of rights to stage military operations from there.

Exempting Pakistan from too extensive a role as a staging ground raises the importance of Uzbekistan for U.S. operations inside Afghanistan. While the overwhelmingly Muslim former Soviet Republic run as something of a dictatorship by President Islam Karimov is not exactly a natural ally for Washington, there are sound reasons for making common cause. The Taliban and Bin Laden are intimately linked with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is fighting to overthrow Karimov. And cooperating with the U.S. also offers Uzbekistan an opportunity to break out of its traditional geopolitical dependence on Moscow.

But the prospect of U.S. military operations in what Russia considers its Central Asian backyard has sparked a fierce debate in Moscow's leadership echelons. One faction, believed to include defense minister Sergei Ivanov, resolutely opposes U.S. deployments in Uzbekistan, for fear that the Americans won't leave. But another faction holds that Russia has already lost some of its Central Asian possessions, and instead of trying to hold on against the tide should be cooperating with the Americans to advance Russian interests on a range of other fronts. President Vladimir Putin is believed to lean more to the latter view. And Russia's own interest in toppling the Taliban, manifested in its long-term support for the opposition forces, has made it more gung-ho than most allies on pressing for Western military action.

The European NATO allies have been the steadiest allies to date, with Britain's Labor Party premier often cast in a somewhat unlikely saber-rattling role. But while he may at times assume an attack-dog posture on public platforms, Blair is a firm advocate of diplomacy. Like the other Western European allies, he is a firm adherent of what Europeans are calling "the Powell line," believing the cautious, methodical and prudent coalition-building authored by the U.S. Secretary of State is essential to ensure a campaign against Al Qaida does not spark a wider war with unpredictable consequences. They have strongly opposed extending military action to Iraq or any other states considered possible targets for retaliation by Washington's more hawkish elements, for fear of breaking up the coalition and raising long-term dangers. Indeed, the Europeans believe that a wider war pitching Western nations against Islamic ones is precisely what Bin Laden wants, and they're being especially careful to avoid one.

Bush administration officials have stressed the long-term nature of the war against terrorism, which is precisely what makes maintaining the coalition so essential — because direct military action plays only a minor role in such a conflict, the lion's share of which is waged at the political, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and financial levels. And the trick, in which Secretaries Rumsfeld and Powell, Prime Minister Blair and a host of others are heavily engaged right now, is to ensure that whatever military action is taken doesn't throw the rest of the project off balance.