This is my second entry in the "Iraq: What If" blogburst.
It's spring, 2003. The battle for Afghanistan is essentially over -- the Taliban and Al Qaeda are broken in the country, and the Northern Alliance (long recognized by the US and the UN as the legitimate government of Afghanistan) is consolidating their power and preparing for the first free democratic elections in their history.
And in the White House, the inevitable question arises: where do we go from here?
"So, people, we've decimated Al Qaeda and tossed out the Taliban. Is this war over? Is it time to declare victory?"
"I don't think so, Mr. President. You called this a 'War on Terror,' not a 'War On Bin Laden,' and he wasn't the only terrorist out there. He's just the one to get lucky or good enough to hurt as that badly. There are plenty of other terrorists out there."
"OK, then. Who are we talking about here, and what have they done that would justify taking action against them?"
"Well, for starters, there's Hezbollah. They're mainly in Lebanon. They were the ones who blew up our Marine Barracks back in 1984. They kidnapped, tortured, and killed our CIA chief and an Army Colonel back in the 80's. They were behind several hijackings, including the one where a Navy man was shot and his body was tossed out on the runway. They blew up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 of our Air Force people and injuring almost 400. They also bombed a Jewish center in Argentina. And those are just sidelights from their regular attacks on Israel."
"And remind me why we haven't taken the bastards out before now?"
"They enjoy a great deal of popular support in Lebanon, and are the de facto government of the southern part of the country."
"OK, put them on the list of maybes. Who else we got?"
"There's Hamas. They've mostly gone after Israel, not us, but they've killed Americans. They're also the ones who invented the suicide bomber."
"Lousy bastards. But they don't directly target Americans?"
"No, sir, their primary focus is Israel."
"Put them on the 'maybe' list, with a question mark. Next?"
"Jemaah Islamiyah. They're out of Indonesia, and want to create a fundamentalist Islamic state there. They blew up the Bali night club last year, and are big allies of Al Qaeda."
"Hmm... sounds good. Put them at the top of the list for now."
A while later, the President asks another question.
"You know, 9/11 didn't just happen. Bin Laden declared war on us over ten years ago. He tried to blow up the World Trade Center before, he tried to blow up a couple of our embassies, damn near sank one of our warships, tried to set off a bomb in Seattle at the Millenium celebration. He told us he wanted to hurt us, and did several times. Why the hell didn't we take him seriously?"
"I'd have to say, Mr. President, it was because our position was that these were criminals, and should be treated as such. We've had warrants out on Bin Laden and his top people for some time, but people were afraid to use the military for what many saw as a law-enforcement problem."
"That ends now. Today. These people aren't criminals, they're terrorists. They use paramilitary tactics to wage their own form of war against us. From now on, we fight war with our own warriors."
But Mr. President, the military isn't prepared to fight a war on terrorism. Neither is the government. For one, who do we declare war on? Congress will want to know who we're fighting. For another, how will we know when we've won? There's nobody who can sign a surrender."
"I know the military isn't set up to do this, but they're smart people. They'll figure it out. And as far as Congress goes, if any of them has a better idea, I'll listen."
"But we also have extensive commitments already around the world. For example, a good chunk of our military is tied down maintaining the sanctions on Iraq, enforcing the no-fly zones, and such."
Bush paused for a moment. "We fought Saddam 12 years ago, and my dad beat him. Ever since then he's been a pain and a drag on us. And while we were paying all the attention to him, Bin Laden sneaked up behind us with a 2-by-4 and sucker-punched us but good."
"And what's Saddam gonna do? We've kept him penned in for a good ten years. He can't hurt us directly, but these other people can -- and have."
"Mr. President, we have strong evidence tying Saddam to terrorist support. For one, he makes no secret about paying families of suicide bombers. For another, he's given a great deal of support to many of the terrorist groups we mentioned above."
"As much support as Syria, or Saudi Arabia?"
"Well, no, but..."
"He's a problem, all right, but we've got bigger fish to fry right now. We'll still keep an eye on him, but it's time to pull back a little and look at the REAL threats."
And with that, the US eased up on Iraq and pursued other terrorist organizations directly.
Naturally, the UN was in a furor. For years, the US had treated terrorism as a legal matter, and that was OK. The UN treated it as a political matter, and that was even better. But now the US was fighting back, and fighting hard. The near-destruction of the Bekaa Valley by a massive use of conventional weapons outraged many, who waved the bloody shirt of innocent Lebanese who had the misfortune to live near terrorists. Stealth bombers and cruise missiles destroyed terrorist camps in Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria. Their hosting governments were given 30 minutes warning to not interfere; those that did try to defend their sovereignty saw their aircraft shot down and the bases that launched them devastated.
The Democrats in Congress were, predictably, outraged. They accused the president of waging war without a formal declaration, and having a "cowboy mentality." They say that every person we kill creates dozens of new enemies out for vengeance.
And meanwhile, Saddam sees all this coinciding with the easing of the sanctions, and sees his opportunity. He works to very quietly encourage more instances of terrorism, especially outside the Middle East. And he also starts even more quietly feeding information on other terrorist groups, hoping to provoke more US attacks. And all the while he continues to build up his own supply of chemical and biological weapons, and work harder towards nuclear ones.
Finally, it reaches its breaking point. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly votes to condemn the United States. In the Security Council, a measure imposing sanctions on the US is introduced. And when it comes to a vote, we find ourselves standing alone as Great Britain abstains and France votes "aye." The measure fails from our veto, but the damage has been done. Dozens of nations announce that they are imposing their own sanctions independently of the UN.
The US responds by saying that any sanctions will be answered with reciprocal actions, and a severing of foreign aid to that nation. In the meantime, several terrorist bases in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia are levelled by cruise missiles and B-52 carpet bombings. And the CIA and military Special Forces cooperate to track down and assassinate the leaders of several of the groups.
And that's where it stands: The United States is not merely alienated, but ostracized by most of the world. Many terrorist organizations have been decimated, but many more remain. And Saddam -- free of the spotlight of constant US observation and action, continues his brutal oppression of his own people while developing more and more weapons and sponsoring terrorism around the world.