Back in the bad old days academics and spooks called "Kremlinologists" worked assiduously to try to decipher the meanings and intentions of cryptic statements and portents from the central governing institutions of the secretive and security-minded masters of the Soviet Union. Although the attempts to predict what the Kremlin might do next were often backed up by sophisticated analysis done by people with long experience – and sometimes by the kind of intelligence gathered by espionage – Kremlinology was never an exact science. Often the results of all that analysis were about as accurate as what might be derived from reading tea leaves or the entrails of animals – and sometimes less so. The predictions were as likely to reflect the assumptions and biases of the analysts as to grow from a dispassionate analysis of the – usually all too sketchy – available facts. READING PENTAGON TEA LEAVES Today, Americans seeking to figure out what their own government – you remember, the institution designed to be our servant rather than our master – will do next in the vaunted war on terror. To be sure, the difficulty may well be because the government itself (remembering that this term is in some sense an abstraction or oversimplification to describe a maze of institutions populated by ordinary human beings who sometimes have difficulty figuring out what they personally want to do next) hasn't decided yet. And there are wheels within wheels, backstage maneuvering, even personality quirks that are likely to affect ultimate courses of action – not to mention the fact that what has gone before will influence what comes next. Even given all that and more, however, it is fascinating that the government of a supposedly open and democratic society is so often a mystery to its citizens. In part this is because the government that has grown so massively in recent decades is unnecessarily large and complex. But in part it is because those who work in government feel little or no need to let mere citizens in on the secrets they hold as markers of power in the curiously insular and self-contained world that is official Washington. So trying to figure out what comes next is always something of a guessing game. Nonetheless, I can't resist the desire to participate. WORKING ASSUMPTIONS I have available no secret sources, no esoteric knowledge, just the ordinary tools of a working journalist. I call lots of people and read a lot. I also have some working assumptions that it seems only fair to share. My most important working assumption is that the current war is only secondarily about finding, punishing or stopping actual terrorists – although those making policy generally are constrained by the necessity of preserving the illusion that this laudable motive is the primary and only goal. As Randolph Bourne, one of the few liberal-to-radical American intellectuals not caught up in the exciting war fever surrounding the Great War (now downgraded to World War I) explained succinctly (and in more depth in articles too long to quote at length), "War is the health of the state." Therefore, I operate on the assumption that the main purpose of the current conflict (I still dislike calling it a war despite the de facto truth so long as Congress doesn't have the gumption to do the constitutional thing and declare war) is to expand and perpetuate the power of the permanent government, the ruling class, the people who think ordinary human beings are an unruly lot that need a whole lot of supervision and imposed discipline – and they're just the folks to handle the job. This class has an abiding interest not in a short war with clearly specified objectives that might yield a decisive victory, but in a long-running war with inchoate and constantly shifting objectives that will provide justifications for expanded government power for years and even decades to come. To be fair to this class, it hasn't exactly hidden its designs. Everybody from George Dubya to Rumsfeld to Colin Powell to the most junior spokesperson for the most insignificant department has hastened to assure the American people that fighting terrorism – or better yet, evil – will take a long time and require great sacrifices on the part of the noble American people. HELPING THE POWERFUL To a disinterested outsider this might not seem all that sensible, or at least not the only possible course of action, but for the most part the American people have bought it. They seem to want to trust their leaders in the wake of terrorism, even though some might argue that successful terrorist attacks amount to a massive failure by the very institutions that are now seeking even more power over ordinary American citizens. The leaders have been assisted by the fact that those running the government have also run the schools for more than 100 years. Thus eager young minds have had it drummed into them that being suspicious of powers and influences outside government – business, the media, genuinely independent scholars – that might serve as countervailing forces against overweening government is the very essence of sophisticated analysis, keen intelligence and cutting-edge progressive thought. At the same time the attitude has been fairly thoroughly inculcated that being suspicious of government is the sign of a reactionary, overwrought, paranoid and not very bright ideologue (Beelzebub, what a useful word! – apologies to C.S. Lewis). ASSUMING A LENGTHY WAR Given the assumption that the powers that be desire a long, inconclusive conflict that justifies long-term and gradually increasing restrictions on American liberties, it seems only sensible (to me) to figure that there will be other theaters once the conflict in Afghanistan is declared over – whether bin Laden's head is presented on a silver platter or not. Nation-building in the wake of bombing is rather boring, after all, with few dramatic photo-ops or opportunities for correspondents to feel like courageous heroes. Furthermore, although they would never admit it and wouldn't accept the reasons I gave in my column last week, at some level I believe most of the powers that be know that nation-building as they will practice it is bound to fail. The useful idiots at the Weekly Standard and New Republic have been beating the drums for going after Saddam Hussein and Iraq for years, and with special intensity since 9/11, although Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, the PLO and even Iran have been touted as worthy targets. IS SADDAM NEXT? Noticing that Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has been all over cable television for the last week or so, receiving more public attention than before, might serve to reinforce the idea that Iraq will be next. Wolfowitz has long been a special favorite of the neocons and neo-whatevers, a hawk on regimes that build weapons of mass destruction. The fact that he's being pushed forward might be an indicator that everybody's favorite worst guy since Hitler will be the next target. When I talked to Ted Carpenter at the Cato Institute last week, however, he suggested that it might not be so straightforward – the corridors of power are filled with confusing mazes and secret passageways, after all. He reminded me that what Wolfowitz has actually been saying now that he's more in the public eye, is that there's still a great deal of unfinished business that will demand intense American attention in Afghanistan. I may have missed things, but I don't think he has even mentioned Saddam Hussein in public. Could it be that Wolfowitz is actually distancing himself from his neocon coterie and the Saddam-next scenario? Rumors abound that the neocons and the Standard crowd are not held in great favor by the Bushies. Dubya is said to have been annoyed that they called him a wuss during the China spy-plane incident earlier in the year. Papa Bush has publicly criticized Kristol and others who have complained that we didn't march on Baghdad during the Late Great Gulf War. MARGINALIZING THE NEOCONS Bush administration officials are said to have been annoyed at criticism from the Standard and New Republic crowds that they weren't being aggressive or decisive enough in the early stages of the Afghan conflict, waging only a sissy bombing war. Serendipitously enough, harsh editorials and articles from both magazines hit print the day Mazar-e-Sharif fell to the Northern Alliance and the Taliban (apparently) began to come apart. I don't doubt that many in the administration still want to go after Iraq with a full-scale attack eventually. But the Bushies, more than the Standardites, value allies and semi-decent relations with the Europeans – and it isn't just Colin Powell. The French are dead-set against attacking Iraq right now, and the British have offered demurrers. Dubya's new best friend, Vladimir Putin, is said to have weighed in against doing Iraq right now. Even the Israelis have said that their intelligence hasn't been able to find a direct link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terror attacks. Given all this, my guess – and I am the first to acknowledge that it is a guess, though I think it's a reasonably informed guess – is that Saddam won't be next. Maybe later. Or maybe they'll keep him around as a handy focus of hatred whenever some other phase of the all-consuming war on terror isn't going very well or is lagging in popularity. ON TO SOMALIA So my best guess – and it's hardly exclusive to me, is that Somalia will be next. Several administration officials have mentioned Somalia as one of the possible targets. There are apparently still some pockets of people in Somalia who may or may not be closely affiliated with al-Qaeda, but are widely believed to be. A recent Time.com article notes that Somalia might be a likely operating base for al-Qaeda if Afghanistan is made truly inhospitable. The semi-amateur but somewhat respected Internet intelligence service Stratfor.com did a piece last week on Somalia as a base of U.S. operations in the extended war on terror. The Washington Post on December 11 did a piece noting that a five-member US delegation visited Somalia a couple of days earlier. A day later the London Telegraph had a piece saying flat-out that, "America is planning to attack al-Qaeda fugitives in Somalia and has relied on Britain to persuade neighboring Kenya to allow special forces to use bases there." Somalia might be perfect in several ways. It is the site of a major American embarrassment that began under Bush pere. It has virtually no central government. Most authorities believe that the al-Qaeda affiliates there are relatively small and unsophisticated, so it shouldn't be all that difficult to achieve a few mediagenic victories. A Somalia campaign would validate the claim that the US is serious about a worldwide war against terrorists wherever our doughty intelligence agents find them without moving first on some Arab or Middle Eastern country that would cause controversy among the putative allies. It would keep the justification for increased security measures and other restrictions on American liberties active. It would lengthen the war without great risk of unacceptable American casualties. In short, it would be the health of the state. Of course, that's just my guess.
Chinese President Xi Jinping warned his new US counterpart Joe Biden not to push Europe into an alliance against Beijing