Cover Story

A patient nation

President Bush: "The American people aren't going to see exactly what's taken place on their TV screens, but slowly but surely, the results are coming in."

Issue: "A patient nation," Oct. 13, 2001

in Washington-On Amtrak's busy Washington-to-Boston route, the trains are more crowded than they've ever been-and more silent. The hush invariably deepens as the trains approach New York. Blasé businesspeople commute regularly throughout the Northeast corridor, but they can't help looking up from their newspapers and laptops now. On every face is an expression of pure disbelief. Some move their lips, as if breathing a silent prayer. Others weep openly. The haze that so long shrouded the World Trade Center site is gone, and the jarring new landscape is all but unrecognizable. The twin towers were more than just the architectural embodiment of the brashest city in the world. Anchoring the southern tip of Manhattan and visible for miles in every direction, they were also the city's geographic reference point. Without them, the whole region seems strangely disorienting. Almost a month after the attacks, disorienting was a word that continued to describe just about every facet of life. From politics to economics and from national security to international relations, the familiar reference points were obliterated, leaving many Americans feeling lost and confused. The mixed signals coming out of Washington certainly didn't help. On Oct. 2, the Bush administration announced its plan to reopen Reagan National Airport. The darkened facility on the banks of the Potomac was the last visible symbol of the nation's collective fear of flying and a constant reminder that things were not yet back to "normal." "There is no greater symbol that America is back in business than the reopening of this airport," Mr. Bush said at a news conference held in the abandoned terminal. The Washington Monument, visible over the president's shoulder, served as a reminder that planes using the airport are just seconds away from the country's centers of power. Nevertheless, Mr. Bush insisted, "It's time to start flying again." But comments from other administration officials just two days before seemed more likely to send people into bunkers than into airplanes. "We think that there is a very serious threat of additional problems now," Attorney General John Ashcroft said on CBS's Face the Nation. "And, frankly, as the United States responds, that threat may escalate." Later, on CNN, he acknowledged that the country still faces "all kinds of threats" from terrorists: "I think there is a clear, present danger to Americans.... It's very unlikely that all of those associated with the attacks of Sept. 11 are now detained or have been detected." That same day, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card raised the stakes still further: "I'm not trying to be an alarmist, but we know that these terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda, run by Osama bin Laden and others, have probably found the means to use biological or chemical warfare, and that is very, very bad for the world." The comments were a radical departure from the administration's usual script, which for the past month had emphasized a return to normalcy. With army surplus stores already selling out of gas masks and reports of doctors hoarding antibiotics in case of an anthrax attack, the apocalyptic overtones coming from the White House seemed especially jolting. A jolt may have been just what the administration had in mind. Its request for additional police powers had been stalled in Congress for a week amidst fears of potential civil-rights abuses. With the clock ticking down on the invasion of Afghanistan, the president asked Congress to pass his anti-terrorism legislation by Friday, Oct. 5. Both liberals and conservatives had resisted pressure from the administration, but in light of talk of new terrorist attacks-and biological weapons, in particular-Congress moved quickly. On Oct. 1, the House Judiciary Committee passed a compromise version of the so-called Patriot Act, stripping some of Mr. Ashcroft's more far-reaching requests while still drastically expanding the government's law-enforcement powers. Investigators, for instance, could obtain easier access to telephone wiretaps and e-mail communications, but not blanket access to student records, as the administration had requested. The Justice Department would also be allowed to detain foreigners for up to seven days without filing criminal charges; Mr. Ashcroft had requested a waiver on all time limits. As the legislation moved to the full House on Oct. 3, opponents predicted a tough fight. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), one of the most conservative members of the House, said that despite the changes to the bill, "I still have several serious concerns that would prevent me from supporting it." Even with quick passage in the House, a conference committee was still required to iron out differences with the Senate, leaving lawmakers pessimistic that they would meet the Oct. 5 deadline. With four aircraft carriers moving into the Persian Gulf, the Justice Department's domestic investigation took on added importance overseas, as well. Although Osama bin Laden was presumed guilty almost from the moment the second jet slammed into the World Trade Center, President Bush needed more than assumptions to rally foreign governments to the cause. Using leads from the FBI, CIA, and other law-enforcement agencies, the administration said it had pieced together evidence linking the hijackers to Mr. bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. In yet another sign that war was imminent, Mr. Bush revealed his evidence-much of it still top-secret-to world leaders on Oct. 2. Meeting in Brussels, Belgium, NATO immediately threw its full support behind an American offensive. "The facts are clear and compelling," said Secretary-General Lord Robertson after the U.S. briefing. "The information presented points conclusively to an al-Qaeda role." Having established Mr. bin Laden's part in the hijackings, NATO formally invoked Article 5, the section of its charter guaranteeing a unified response when one of its members is attacked. But just what that "unified response" might look like remained unclear. "We don't intend at the moment to discuss how NATO will translate this decision into operational action," Mr. Robertson said. "The United States are still developing their thinking, and they will come back to the alliance in due course when that thinking is crystallized." It was an odd, disorienting statement coming a full 21 days after the most deadly terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil. Even with nearly 30,000 soldiers in or headed toward the region, the administration had yet to clearly enunciate its goals for the campaign. That left America's closest allies at something of a loss. In a rousing speech to the Labour Party convention in Brighton, England, Prime Minister Tony Blair warned the Taliban they would be forced out of power. "There is no diplomacy with bin Laden or the Taliban regime," he said, rallying his traditionally anti-war party to the American cause. "The aim will be to eliminate their military hardware, cut off their finances, disrupt their supplies, target their troops.... We will put a trap around their regime. I say to the Taliban: Surrender the terrorists or surrender power. It is your choice." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer immediately thanked the British for their support-but backpedaled on Mr. Blair's ultimatum to Afghanistan's rulers. Asked if the administration agreed that the Taliban must go, Mr. Fleischer would allow only that "the president has said repeatedly that the United States will act decisively to protect the United States and our friends from all terrorist attacks." The apparent confusion surrounding America's military goals in Afghanistan may be partly by design. Chief of Staff Andrew Card confirmed the administration would "like to see a more stable government" in Kabul, but the United States does not want to be viewed as propping up a puppet regime there. It was the last such regime, installed by the Soviet Union, that paved the way for a Muslim fundamentalist uprising and ultimately the country's takeover by the Taliban. At the same time, however, Mr. Bush cannot afford to leave in place a radical Islamic junta that will aid and abet whatever terrorist group rises up in place of al-Qaeda. "The United States is not going to get into the business of choosing who rules Afghanistan," Mr. Fleischer promised. "But the United States will assist those who are seeking a peaceful, economically developed Afghanistan that does not engage in terrorism." To overthrow the Taliban without alienating moderate Muslims, Mr. Bush announced he would provide covert aid both to the Northern Alliance and to various anti-Taliban groups in the south. The administration hopes the combination of outside pressure and internal strife will split the Taliban apart, making it easier for U.S. troops to enter the country and eliminate al-Qaeda. There were signs last week that the strategy might be working. Diplomatic sources said Taliban commanders were defecting in large numbers, whether to save their own lives or to jockey for position in a new regime that many now consider inevitable. The Taliban are also reportedly having trouble drafting new fighters from among villagers who resent their heavy-handed brand of Islam. And a movement among some tribal heads to unite behind Mohammed Zahir Shah, the 86-year-old former king ousted in a 1973 coup, may provide an alternative that all the disparate malcontents of Afghanistan could live with. Not that the Taliban plan to give up easily. In a visit to troops massed along the eastern border with Pakistan, Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah urged his soldiers to "Fight hard against attacks, defend your country.... If your enemy is strong, our God is the strongest." Meanwhile, the group's supreme commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar, taunted his country's would-be invaders: "Americans don't have the courage to come here," he said in a radio address broadcast throughout the capital city. To Americans still reeling from the barbaric attacks in New York and Washington, such rhetoric begged for a swift, decisive response. Pictures of the Afghan capital leveled by U.S. bombs and cruise missiles would begin to rebuild a sense of security that collapsed with the World Trade Center. Indeed, polls showed almost unprecedented levels of support for military strikes. President Bush, however, was at pains again last week to emphasize that the war on terrorism would not produce the kinds of pictures that kept Americans glued to their TVs during the Persian Gulf War. "We are a patient nation. We're a nation who's got a long-term view," the president reminded his countrymen on Oct. 1. "Sometimes we'll have success in the near term. Sometimes we have to be patient.... The American people aren't going to see exactly what's taken place on their TV screens, but slowly but surely, the results are coming in." Among the results Mr. Bush listed: The U.S. obtained airspace and landing rights from 27 nations; both Russia and China pledged support and intelligence; nearly 50 bank accounts linked to al-Qaeda were frozen around the world; 349 military aircraft were stationed near Afghanistan; and some 150 suspected terrorists were arrested by cooperative governments overseas. Still, those longing for the odd familiarity of a shooting war dominated by American technological superiority may have their wish soon enough. Whether the Taliban fights to the last man to defend Osama bin Laden or simply implodes beneath the weight of its own dogma, the war on terrorism will have only just begun. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that al-Qaeda operates in 50 to 60 different countries, some of which are better armed and better organized than Afghanistan. And his frequent sparring partner within the administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, held out the most ominous scenario of all: an attack against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Asked by a CBS reporter whether the administration had ruled out targeting Iraq, Mr. Powell replied: "The president has focused on the first phase of the operation. It deals with al-Qaeda, it deals with Osama bin Laden, it deals with the general issue of terrorism around the world.... He has ruled nothing out with respect to the second, third, or fourth phases of our campaign militarily." With Iraqi defectors reporting that Mr. Hussein has been busy stockpiling chemical and biological weapons since the end of the Gulf War, another invasion of Iraq would look at once familiar and chillingly different-much like the New York skyline itself.

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