By Lee Walczak
"Sustained, comprehensive, and relentless." With those words, delivered in a terse Oct. 7 address to the nation, President George W. Bush described the long-awaited U.S. military response to the September 11 terror attacks on America -- a wave of cruise-missile strikes and bombing raids on Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan.
By ordering early military action -- a far cry from the four months' preparation that preceded Operation Desert Storm during his father's tenure -- a President newly defined by the September 11 crisis has entered by far the most difficult phase of his campaign to end the plague of global terrorism. It's called the "results" phase.
Bush, it must be said, has done an admirable job of paving the way for the bloody days that lie ahead. He has unified the nation behind his leadership, taken great pains to weave consensus on Capitol Hill and among America's allies, and has repeatedly and clearly laid out the country's objectives in an ensuing battle.
Now, as the fighting -- and the casualties -- begin, the national resolve will be tested on a distant battlefield. Militarily, American forces are now committed to finding Osama bin Laden and possibly wiping out Taliban government resistance, paving the way for a transitional government manned by questionable elements of the insurgent Northern Alliance. Once Taliban fighters are dispersed to the hills -- at least, that's the plan -- mobile strike teams will disperse through Afghanistan's harsh lunar landscape in a lethal game of hide-and-seek with bin Laden's wily guerrillas (see BW Online, 10/8/01, "Taking Territory Isn't This War's Aim").
While that drama is playing out, the U.S. anti-terror coalition will also face strains. Islamic fundamentalists in countries as far-flung as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia can be expected to foment domestic unrest and, perhaps, seek to topple governments. Israel will likely face extraordinary provocations aimed at estranging Arab members of the alliance. Meanwhile, as TV crews begin to enter Afghanistan, the world will take in the inevitable reports of civilian casualties. Critics of the operation will seize on any collateral damage to press for a more humanitarian approach under the U.N. umbrella.
The biggest imponderable, in this early phase of the military campaign, is how bin Laden's "sleeper" agents inside the U.S. and Europe might react. American intelligence officials expect a second round of domestic terrorism, possibly aimed at major commercial centers throughout the country. That threat, alone, could puncture the brief sense of normalcy that has pervaded American life over the past week or so, as grisly TV images of Manhattan's Ground Zero were replaced by pictures of Americans shopping and taking to the airways again.
Restoring a sense of economic confidence has been a crucial element of national reconstruction. Now, with the U.S. holding its collective breath awaiting terror's Act II, the Bush Administration will have to redouble efforts to reassure citizens that terror strikes on the scale of the Pentagon and World Trade Center actions are a long-shot.
Fortunately for the White House, Bush has grown visibly in the early weeks of the crisis, and he seems much more prepared for the rigors ahead. In each week since September 11, Bush has seemed more confident and lucid about U.S. objectives. He has not minimized the challenge of fighting terror's unseen enemies, but he has still managed to project decisiveness and resolve.
Bush's national security team, spearheaded by nimble coalition-building of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has swung into action with the practiced ease of advisers who have had decades of experience in preparing for warfare. On the domestic front, the signs are equally reassuring. The new Homeland Security Director, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, is a take-charge official noted for his organizational skills.
Bush, even in his finest hour, cannot match the eloquence of British Prime Minster Tony Blair, who has emerged as the alliance's most compelling advocate for the moral case against international terror. But the man from Midland, Tex., shouldn't lose any sleep over rhetorical flourishes. In his typically simple and direct way, Bush is communicating resolve and confidence to an American people in need of just such reassurance. He has in place a top-flight team of military strategists and domestic crisis managers.
Now he needs to start delivering on his promise to turn the tide against global terror networks, a vow that many analysts caution will be difficult to make good on in the short time frame that most Americans think in. But one thing is for sure as Bush begins his great and defining quest -- he's off to a strong start.
Walczak is Washington bureau chief for BusinessWeek
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht