Bali Bombing Fuels Debate on Iraq War
Bush Aides Worry That Attacks Will Erode Public Support for Confronting Hussein
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 17, 2002; Page A18
Some Bush administration officials have become concerned that the rash of attacks in Indonesia, Yemen and Kuwait in the past week could undermine public support for a confrontation with Iraq by reminding Americans that the country still faces a long struggle in the war on terrorism.
One senior administration official said that, in the debate over the congressional resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) made a forceful argument that a war against Iraq now would not only undermine the war against terrorism but possibly expand it.
"The odds of another strike against the people of the United States by al Qaeda or another international terrorist group goes up when we attack Baghdad," Graham said during the floor debate last week, before terrorists killed more than 180 people at a Balinese nightspot.
"In the past few days, after Bali, people around here have thought the argument that Senator Graham made will have some resonance with the public," the official said.
Another administration official said the Bali attacks had reopened a debate in some quarters of the government about whether a war with Iraq would distract and weaken the campaign against terrorism. But he said that proponents of a confrontation with Iraq were just as adamant that the attacks made the case for action against Hussein, since they suspect he is closely linked with terrorist groups.
Since the Bali attack, President Bush and other top aides have tried to address those concerns by stressing their belief that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's possible possession of weapons of mass destruction is linked to the broader battle against terrorism. Earlier this week, Bush said "both are equally important." He asserted that "we need to think about Saddam Hussein using al Qaeda to do his dirty work."
Yesterday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also linked the two struggles. "Disarming Saddam Hussein and the war on terrorism are not merely related, they are one and the same," he said. "And if we can defeat a terrorist regime in Iraq, it will be a defeat for terrorists globally."
Wolfowitz, a strong advocate of dealing with Hussein, asserted that Hussein "supports and conspires with our terrorist enemies. He lends them both moral and material support."
Wolfowitz added that waiting until other problems have been resolved is too dangerous. "There will always be problems with acting at any time. But one thing we can say with certainty: The danger of acting grows with time because if military action against Saddam Hussein becomes necessary, the greatest danger will be his weapons of mass destruction," he said.
One senior administration official said that if the United States were to back off Iraq because of Bali, "it would look like a weakness of will on our part. It would suggest that terrorism works."
In fact, the official added, the effect of the bombing is to reinvigorate the campaign against terrorism by both the Indonesians and the Australians. He said that he didn't think it would lessen the demand for action against Iraq by Americans. "The public has a lot more common sense than that."
But Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution who served in the Clinton administration, said he believes the Bali attack undermines the administration's case for a war against Iraq at this time. "Bali shows that al Qaeda is still out there. It has teeth. It can bite hard."
Pollack added that the administration might gain some support for a war if the Bali attack convinces Americans that there are "still nasty threats in the world" that must be addressed.
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said people who were using the Bali attacks to halt a war against Iraq are engaged in a "a pathetic rearguard action" to prevent military action. "There are plenty of people in Washington who don't want to do things," she said. "Sorry, buddies, you've lost."
Pletka said "an incident in Bali, I hate to say it, will not have much resonance with the American public," compared with a major attack against a U.S. target.
To date, the administration has provided little proof of any links between Hussein and al Qaeda. Chas Freeman, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, said that the idea that a secular leader such as Hussein would link up with "religious diehards" who despise his government is "a very strange notion indeed."
But Freeman said the administration's assertions might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the United States does launch an attack. In that case, he said, Hussein might "make an alliance with the devil" and promote terrorist attacks if he had nothing to lose.
Pollack said that since the administration has not provided evidence of links between Hussein and al Qaeda, "the rhetoric doesn't buy them much." But a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of Americans surveyed believed that "Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the September 11 attacks."
"If the president wants us to take action on Iraq and conduct a war on terrorism, we can do that," one official said.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company