So, Who's Next?

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It is in the nature of empires to confuse victory in battle with a mandate for unending dominion and to find out the hard way that the two are different. Hannibal was unable to translate triumph at Cannae into final victory over Rome; Napoleon, with all of Europe at his feet, disastrously marched the Grand Army into Russia. A little more than a year after the British slaughtered 11,000 Sudanese at the Battle of Omdurman while losing only 48 of their own men, they were on the run from the artillery and rifles of the Boers.

To be sure, past is not prediction. Simply because other imperial powers have succumbed to hubristic temptation does not mean that the U.S., basking in the glow of military triumph in Iraq, will do the same. But some cheerleaders of the Bush Administration have said enough to make those outside the U.S. believe that Washington wants to change more regimes than just Iraq's and that it is happy, if necessary, to go its own merry way, ignoring the interests and concerns of others. In the most notorious of such comments, James Woolsey, a member of the Pentagon's advisory Defense Policy Board and former director of the CIA, claimed the U.S. was now engaged in "World War IV" against not only Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq but also the mullahs of Iran and Syria's "fascists." On NBC's Meet the Press, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz mildly dissociated himself from Woolsey's views while allowing "there's got to be change in Syria." But in the Middle East, where governments and commentators are reeling from the American victory, some are viewing Woolsey's remarks as settled policy.

In fact, within the Bush Administration there is no agreement on what the next step should be. Military action against Syria or Iran, says a White House official, is "not being contemplated in any serious way. It has not been discussed at any level in interagency meetings." That does not mean a new military adventure won't happen. But as long as there's any chance that it will, it's worth going back to first principles, to remember what it is that the Bush Administration wants to achieve in foreign policy and assess how it might best realize its goals.

Since September 2001, the overarching mission of the Administration has been to enhance the security of the U.S. and its allies by cracking down on global terrorists and the states that succor them. It is an article of faith in Washington — and in London — that if terrorists ever possess weapons of mass destruction, they will use them. Hence states that have connections to terrorism must not be permitted such weapons. Within that framework, encouraging the development of democratic structures in the Middle East — the pet project of some neoconservatives in the Administration — is a way of advancing the primary policy. Citizens of states with legitimate channels for political expression are less likely, the argument goes, to be swayed into the terrorists' camp. In other words, if there were a group of democratic states in the Middle East, including a democratic Palestine, the troubles of the region would no longer spill over into the wider world.

If you accept that analysis, then what should the Administration do now? The government of Iran has supported terrorism in the past — it is, with Syria, a supporter of Lebanon's Hizballah — and has long coveted nuclear weapons. In principle, the mullahs of Tehran should be quaking in their sandals. Indeed, one State Department official says a debate is emerging within the Administration along the lines of, When do we start shifting our policy toward isolating Iran and toward bringing down that regime as well?

The most likely answer is, Not anytime soon. For a start, obvious American pressure on the theocratic hard-liners in Iran would make the position of liberal reformers there untenable, forcing them to choose between nationalism and the perils of appearing to be U.S. lackeys. Second, the U.S. would have no allies in a war against Iran and powerful enemies arrayed against it. The British, who maintain diplomatic relations with Tehran, have made it plain that they would not join in any such campaign. London points out that there is no record of U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Iran as there was for Iraq, and there is no international consensus that the mullahs pose a threat outside their borders. Russia has important economic ties to Iran and has a vital national interest in seeing that the oil-rich Caspian Basin is not dominated by those who are beholden to the U.S.

But if the mullahs can sleep relatively easily, their proteges in Hizballah should not. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — considered a dove in this Administration — last year showed his talons. "Hizballah," he said, "may be the A Team of terrorists. They're on the list, and their time will come. There is no question about it." A senior Republican foreign-policy analyst says a possible attack on Hizballah's camps is "not too big to swallow."

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