The air strikes began much as everyone had imagined: U.S. planes, backed by British cruise missiles, swooped down from the clouds and dropped their payloads on poor, doomed Afghanistan. They came in waves, one after another, trying to hit their targets and dodge antiaircraft fire. But there was more than just bombs falling from the sky. Air Force C-17 cargo planes began dropping pouches of food, thousands upon thousands of "culturally neutral," vitamin-fortified rice cakes, each stamped with the American flag and the words: THIS FOOD IS A GIFT FROM THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
The war on Osama bin Laden is being waged not just with guns but also with butter. To understand the timing and intent of the bombardment, a senior Pentagon official says, look at the back side of a dollar bill. The eagle clutches an olive branch in its right claw and arrows in its left. Food aid and firepower, the official says, are happening together because "We want to send two images to the world at once."
By now everyone knows that little about this war has gone as expected. In less than a month, vengeance yielded to diplomacy, and last week diplomacy met up with charity and military might, and they all set out on the road to Kabul. If it was often hard to keep track of the many messages coming out of Washington, it was because those messages evolved as Bush's overseas coalition was born and took its first steps and then its first stumbles. The Bush team is settling into a patient, nuanced, two-front war in which humanitarian aid will be used to balm the anger of the Islamic world. As the U.S. gears up to wage war from as many as a dozen staging areas in Central Asia, it is also working on four other continents to mount a coalition to isolate the terrorists politically and economically.
The separate tracks are carefully interwoven: U.S. officials tell TIME that their immediate plan is to scare bin Laden and his aides out of hiding; gather as much intelligence as possible about their whereabouts; deploy commandos in and around Afghanistan to strike quickly if bin Laden can be found; and reassure Muslim leaders constantly that American war aims are limited. And as the President said Saturday, "Full warning has been given, and time is running out."
As the bombs drop, Bush will have one eye on the response from Muslims around the world, even those who reacted with glee at news of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The depth of those feelings, and those of other Muslims who were either dismayed or disgusted by the promise of a U.S. military response, posed an enormous problem for American policymakers from the start and led President Bush to feather his engines longer than he had planned. There seemed little reason to launch any kind of military action against bin Laden's adopted homeland if it was only sure to split Bush's coalition, deepen foreign resentment of the U.S. and leave bin Laden at large. And so Bush realized that while he was making war on Afghanistan, he had to make love to it as well.
On Thursday at the State Department, the President announced that he would send an additional $320 million worth of food and medicine to the region. "This is our way of saying that while we firmly and strongly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends of the Afghan people," he said. "We have made it clear to the world that we will stand strong on the side of good, and we expect other nations to join us."
There has rarely been such a sudden and dramatic shift in American policy and tone. An Administration that just a month or two ago emphatically believed in going it alone walking away from treaties, pushing its missile-defense scheme no matter who said what has thrown open its arms to embrace the pleasures of multilateralism. The change is expedient, of course America has a job to do and is taking all the help it can get but it is also smarter and subtler than Bush's critics ever imagined, or thought him capable of imagining.
Crisis has a way of pulling people together, of wiping away silly disputes, and the Bush foreign policy team has fallen more quickly into line than many thought possible just six weeks ago. Differences between the State Department and the Pentagon still spill into the newspapers, but the terror attacks have sent everyone on the foreign policy squad back to his or her strongest position and turned the group into a team. The need to build a coalition has vindicated Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose taste for multilateral solutions had made him the odd man out among the Bushies. The need for daily decision making has restored Vice President Dick Cheney to his favorite role, as unseen foreign policy adviser to the President. The need to wage war has reinvigorated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had been fighting a losing battle with his military bureaucracy. All of it has given a new focus and direction to George W. Bush.