Bush's Aides Look To Next Enemies

WASHINGTON -- In the run-up to the war to oust Saddam Hussein, U.S. President George W. Bush and his aides sometimes acknowledged that the war was about far more than just Iraq.

It was the first step in a new strategy that promised, they said, to spread democracy in the Middle East, create a new beginning for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and send what Bush called "a clear warning" to other governments "that support for terror will not be tolerated."

Iraq was No. 1 on the "axis of evil." But the new strategy extends to Syria and Iran, North Korea and shadowy terrorist groups around the world.

Some of Bush's closest aides assert that there is already a "demonstration effect" in which the U.S. and British forces in command in Baghdad will be able to exert pressure on Iraq's neighbors in ways they could only imagine a few months ago.

"What you are seeing is an impressive demonstration of American will and American capability," said one senior official, who often parted company with the more hawkish side of the administration but believes the images being broadcast now around the world will have a clear effect.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already warning Syria on Wednesday that it had ignored his past cautions against aiding the Iraqi leadership. He said it was too soon to say if the United States would take action against Syria, which after Iraq is considered high on the Bush administration's list of enemies.

"No one has thrown down the gauntlet," he insisted, sounding like a man who was preparing to do so.

Moving against Syria would be an indirect way of cutting off aid to Hezbollah, labeled by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as the "A-Team" of terrorists, although many experts worry that Hezbollah could draw renewed strength from the Iraqi war.

Bush has said that the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, forced him to an entirely new concept of national security -- one that intercepted threats early, before they could damage U. S. citizens. Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, pressed him to make a radical break with the age of containment and deterrence.

It was left to Rice to compose the new strategy into a 33-page document published in mid-September. It said the president would take pre-emptive action against hostile nations and terrorist groups developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. In a further warning, it also said the United States would never allow U.S. military supremacy to be challenged in the way it was during the Cold War.

The document never mentioned Iraq. But it did not need to: Only a week before, Bush had issued his challenge to the United Nations to enforce the disarmament of Iraq, or he would.

"The publication of the strategy was the signal that Iraq would be the first test, but not the last," said one senior official involved in its drafting. It included the phrase, "We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively," including "convincing or compelling states" not to aid terrorists.

Iraq became the petri dish in which this experiment in pre-emptive policy grew. But some experts worry that the effects of the Iraq war could go in unintended directions.

Iran and North Korea might actually accelerate their nuclear programs, perhaps building a fearsome arsenal as fast as possible to increase the cost and dangers to the United States if it were to attack them.

Terrorism experts argue, in addition, that the war could be used to recruit militant Muslims to join al-Qaida and other groups in coming months.

Administration officials note that both Iran and North Korea have been uncommonly quiet in the last few weeks, assessing events. But with his impending victory in Iraq, Bush believes he has fundamentally changed the balance of power.

Iraq, a country in the middle of the world's most unstable region -- bordered by Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Kuwait -- will become in Bush's words, "a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."

Iraq's collapse clears the way for Bush to fulfill his pledge to get more involved in negotiating a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, possibly by sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, administration officials say.

A consensus has settled in the Bush administration that such involvement is imperative, especially as a means to allay anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. But it is less clear that involvement would lead to greater pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians such as pulling back troops, or lifting curbs on Palestinian activity.

Many Europeans say Bush would not do anything, with an election approaching, to upset Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Israel's supporters in the United States, many of them conservative Republican backers of Bush.

Senior Pentagon officials and senior counterterrorism officials have suggested that the U.S. government will now turn its attention to Hamas, the Palestinian group that has used terrorism to fight for a Palestinian state, and Hezbollah, which has strong ties to Syria and Iran.

Indeed, in recent weeks, Rumsfeld has spoken more openly about Syria's support of Iraq and the threats it has posed to coalition forces. At a press briefing last October, Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, said that Hezbollah was clearly on the administration's radar screen.

"It is an organization that is functioning in many continents," Feith said, adding that Hezbollah's operations are based mainly in Lebanon, which is controlled by Syria.

"It's supported by the Syrians and the Iranians. It has operations and cells in Africa, in South America, in Asia. We are certainly watching it, conscious of it, and it is one of the key international terrorist networks; there's no question about that," he said.