US Calculates a War with Little Room for Error ; Risk of Spawning Terrorism, Weakening Moderates in Mideast

Article excerpt

As President Bush rallies a war-ready American public with talk of winning a "crusade" against evil, quieter calculations are under way here over the tremendous risks to US security of waging an all- out war on terrorism.

The risks - especially of using US ground forces in the Middle East - range from destabilizing moderate Arab regimes and turning the region more hostile to America to inciting new terrorist attacks, possibly with weapons of mass destruction, according to a rising chorus of experts and former officials.

This is not to mention the grave risk for US soldiers. American military casualties are almost certain in what US officials acknowledge will be a long, open-ended campaign against an elusive enemy capable of continually reinventing itself. Far from the sanitized bombing of Kosovo in 1999 - or even the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf - this conflict will require commandos using guerrilla- like tactics.

"Antiseptic warfare," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "will not work with this enemy."

The upshot is that, behind the rhetoric about ridding the world of "evildoers," the Bush administration must walk a tightrope,

balancing the imperative of fighting terrorists with the risk of unleashing new threats, these experts say. Key to staying on the tightrope, they suggest, are a meticulous strategy, prudent planning, and a crystal-clear mission.

"There is no margin for error," said Ken Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff, in a television interview Sunday.

Public statements over the past week by top American officials suggest that the Bush administration is engaged in an intense internal debate over exactly what the right strategy should be.

The voices vying for Mr. Bush's ear

On one side are the more hawkish calls - mainly from the Pentagon - for using military force to overturn governments and regimes that back terrorism.

Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz, for instance, last week called for "ending states who sponsor terrorism." Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be a key target for officials such as Mr. Wolfowitz, who pushed for the United States to take over Baghdad during the Gulf War.

Critics of this approach point out that the US has not yet determined which nations were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or other terrorist strikes. Without such information, military action against other countries could constitute a dangerous effort to "settle old scores," rather than to conduct a targeted antiterrorist campaign.

In an apparent effort by the Bush administration to rein in its most hawkish members, a newspaper report Monday cited unnamed officials as saying Mr. Wolfowitz had misspoken, and meant to say the US should end state support for terrorism - not states. …

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