The Pentagon announced last week it is moving the Marine commander for Central Asia from Hawaii to Bahrain. The transfer consolidates the top combat commanders of the four service branches at forward battle stations along the Persian Gulf-fueling speculations of a coming attack in the region.
While skirmishes against Yemen and Somalia are rumored, the Pentagon is offering no roadmap to its next battlefield in the war on terrorism. But President George Bush did assign mile markers in his State of the Union address. He called Iran and Iraq, along with North Korea, "an axis of evil," aiding terrorists and arming themselves with weapons of mass destruction "to threaten the peace of the world."
With military operations in Afghanistan winding down, U.S. forces in Central Asia are up. In addition to Marine and Navy commands in Bahrain, the Army command in Kuwait and the Air Force command in Saudi Arabia are bolstered with 1,000 war logisticians. Each morning at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time the four commands teleconference with Gen. Tommy Franks, who directs the unified Central Command from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla. The command covers 25 nations from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia and includes Iran and Iraq. Multitasking in wartime is not new for the group, based out of MacDill Air Force Base. Its track record includes managing a successful Operation Desert Storm as well as a besieged military intervention in Somalia.
Having promised action against state sponsors of terrorism since 9/11, Mr. Bush is now naming names, opening the door to confrontation that could include military action. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," he said. Arms proliferation experts long have cited the three nations as secretly producing and trafficking in such weapons.
North Korea, Mr. Bush said, is arming itself with missiles "while starving its citizens." North Korean officials expressed shock at the citation and condemned "the moral leprosy" of the Bush administration. A foreign ministry spokesman said the president's statements "pushed the situation to the brink of war after throwing away even the mask of dialogue and negotiations."
To anyone listening five days earlier in Geneva, Mr. Bush's comments on the communist regime in Pyongyang were no surprise. At a UN Conference on Disarmament, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told reporters it is "just a fantasy" to say that North Korea is living up to an agreement to halt nuclear weapons production. That pact, made with the Clinton administration in 1994, would give North Korea two nuclear power generators in exchange for an end to weapons making. But defectors, including a nuclear weapons researcher who fled to China late last year, say Pyongyang instead moved its nuclear program to underground bunkers away from U.S. inspectors.
In Iraq, hardline rhetoric preceded Mr. Bush's remarks, which highlighted the regime's decade of producing anthrax and nerve gas, as well as stonewalling international weapons inspectors. Addressing Iraqis on the 11th anniversary of the "mother of all battles" on Jan. 17, Saddam Hussein called the United States since 9/11 "a metropolis of force" that "is going headlong in antagonizing the world." He said the United States is an "untamable horse" that "will be killed if it is let loose without rider or rein to control it.... Breaking loose will definitely be neck-breaking for the United States. It is the road to its collapse towards the abyss."
Apart from Mr. Hussein's foamy speeches and the timidity of European allies, a mandate against Iraq is building. Increasing calls for action against Mr. Hussein come from unexpected quarters, including Democrats in Congress (like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joe Biden) and pragmatists in the foreign-policy establishment (like Henry Kissinger).
"The clock is ticking," Muhammad Jassem al-Saqer, chairman of the Kuwait Parliament's foreign affairs committee, told U.S. officials. "The later you move, the more dangerous he becomes."
Mr. al-Saqer and other prominent Kuwaiti citizens, including academics, former officials, and 10 other members of parliament, toured the United States the week of the president's speech, ending with a stop at Ground Zero in New York. They said 9/11 was a "defining moment" that set the stage for a confrontation between Islamic fundamentalists and "the majority of Arabs who stand for human rights."
Faisal al-Mutawa, a businessman and co-founder of the National Democratic Movement in Kuwait, told The New York Times the United States must "stay and get engaged with us.... We want to privatize Islam rather than make it part of the purview of the state."
Naming Iran was the thorniest call for Mr. Bush. Iran's alliance with Russia and with opposition groups in Afghanistan-together with open hostility toward the Taliban-promised a way to warm ties between Tehran and Washington early on after 9/11. Some diplomats wanted to lift sanctions against the fundamentalist Islamic regime. After the president's remarks, State Department "unnamed officials" whined to The Washington Post, prompting a headline like this: "Bush's Speech Shuts Door on Tenuous Opening to Iran."
Longtime observers hope so. "Iran is the mother of all terrorism and no good will come of sidling up to its dictators," said Michael Ledeen, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute. For Iranians who want democracy, Mr. Ledeen said, the president's remarks "have filled them with hope."
Since last April, 60 parliamentarians in Iran were summoned to court on political charges; many received prison sentences and hefty fines. But that has not stopped new momentum since 9/11 for a populist reform movement of teachers, students, and others (including women soccer fans who take a stand against the cleric-led government by showing up without head coverings at soccer matches). For them a new battlefront on terrorism could open a road to freedom.