- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

A year and a half ago I argued the invasion of Iraq needed to take place in the summer of 2002 — before the first anniversary of September 11.

Unfortunately, President Bush listened to Tony Blair and not to me, and the prime minister wanted to go “the extra mile” with the U.N., the French, the Guinean foreign minister and the rest of the circus. The extra mile took an extra six or eight months, and at the end of it America went to war with exactly the same allies she would have had in June 2002.

The only difference was that the interminable diplomatic dance emboldened Jacques Chirac and the other obstructionists, and permitted a relatively small antiwar fringe to blossom into a worldwide “peace” movement. It certainly didn’t help the war’s “legitimacy” in the eyes of the world: Indeed, every passing month severed the Iraqi action from September 11, 2001 dynamics and diminished that legitimacy.

Just as important, taking a year to amass overwhelming force on Iraq’s borders may have made the war shorter and simpler, but it also made the postwar period messier and costlier.

With the world’s biggest army sitting around in Kuwait for months on end, the Iraqi regime had time to move stuff around, hide it, ship it over the border to Syria, and allow interested parties to mull over tactics for a post-liberation insurgency.

So, as to timing, I think I was right, and Tony Blair and Colin Powell and the other “voices of moderation” were wrong.

Now Mr. Blair seems to have secured an understanding that Mr. Bush won’t rush off and invade anywhere else, lest it further “strain” the “vital” “alliance” with France and Germany. In that sense, another prediction — that “Iraq is the last war” — seems to be proving more accurate: Henceforth, I reckoned, “engagements in the war of terror will be swift, sudden and as low-key as can be managed.”

Thus, the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force in Djibouti announced last week they had scuppered several planned attacks on Western targets in the Horn of Africa and killed or captured at least two-dozen plotters. The American troops arrived without fanfare in June 2002, set up shop in an old French Foreign Legion Post and operate in seven countries in a region that is fertile soil for terrorist recruiters. Nothing the Task Force does will require U.N. resolutions.

The difficulty will be ensuring this approach remains focused, is ambitious enough and moves quicker than the terrorists can adjust. The trick is to keep your eye on the big guys rather than this or that itsy-bitsy plotter. In other words, don’t let the war on terror shrivel into a Wesley Clark-sized police operation, reacting to each individual atrocity, such as the recent slaughter in Istanbul.

We ought to be clear that, though this isn’t a conventional war, a victory for America will require the defeat of certain other countries. Among them:

(1) Syria: Boy Assad is in the unusual position, for a Middle Eastern dictator, of being surrounded by relatively civilized states — Turkey, the new Iraq, Jordan and Israel. He has an all but worthless military. His Saddamite oil pipeline has been cut. Yet he continues to destabilize the region and beyond.

There’s a credibility issue here. If Washington cannot impress its will on Bashir Assad when it has 140,000 troops on his border, more distant enemies will draw their own conclusions. The U.S. should not be negotiating with Damascus, and should nix plans to build Syria a new pipeline from Iraq: Mr. Assad can have a terrorist state or he can have oil, but he can’t have both.

I was on the Iraq-Syria frontier in May and, although it’s certainly porous, that cuts both ways. It would concentrate Mr. Assad’s mind wonderfully ifAmerican forces were to forget where exactly the line runs occasionally and answer Syria’s provocations by accidentally bombing appropriate targets on Junior’s side of the border.

(2) Iran: CNN had a headline last week: “Compromise struck on Iran’s nukes.” Not all of us are reassured to see the words “Iran,” “nukes” and “compromise” in the same sentence. A nuclear Iran will permanently alter the balance of power in the region. America needs to prevent that and help the somewhat leisurely Iranian resistance reach tipping point.

(3) Saudi Arabia: The war on terror is, in one sense, a Saudi civil war that the royal family has exported to the rest of the world. The rest of the world should see that it’s repatriated.

First, their longtime man in Washington, Prince Bandar, should be returned to sender, and replaced by a “normal” ambassador — one who is not a member of the royal family and who clears off after five years. Second, Washington should clamp down on the Saudis’ bulk purchase of its diplomatic service: No U.S. diplomat should be allowed to take a position with any organization funded directly or indirectly by Riyadh. Third, Washington should also put squeeze the Saudis financially: There’s no reason why my gas-guzzling SUV should fund toxic madrassas around the globe when there’s plenty of less destructive oil in Alberta, Alaska, Latin America and Iraq.

Profound changes in the above countries would not necessarily mean the end of the war on terror but would come pretty close. These changes would remove terrorism’s most brazen patron (Syria), its ideological inspiration (the Islamic Republic of Iran) and its principal paymaster (Saudi Arabia). Closing down regimes that are a critical source of manpower (such as Sudan) and potentially dangerous weapons suppliers (like North Korea) will also be necessary. They’re where the battle must be fought: It’s not just terror groups; it’s states that provide them infrastructure and extend their global reach.

Now America — and Britain, Australia and Italy — are fighting defensively, reacting to well-timed atrocities as they occur. The best way to judge if we’re winning and how serious we are is how fast the above regimes are gone. Blair speed won’t do.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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