Even as the conflict in Afghanistan rages on, power brokers in Washington are already debating where the US should open the next front in the war on terrorism. Such aggressive talk worries Simon Pearson, a novelist and retired British Royal Air Force pilot who finds himself living in a world disturbingly similar to the one he predicted in a 1999 novel.
In that book, Total War 2006, Pearson envisioned a world in which the US finds itself in a global war against a range of countries and groups that resent the American-led West's economic and ideological world dominance. The flashpoint of Pearson's predicted conflict: A terrorist attack by a radical Islamic group, followed by a unilateral US assault on Iraq.
A former fighter pilot who flew missions over Iraq after the Gulf War and now serves as a civilian military consultant to the British government, Pearson says the Bush administration must understand it cannot afford to act unilaterally in the post-Cold War world. With Washington conservatives arguing for an expansion of the offensive, Pearson says he worries the US might escalate the conflict in a way similar to that predicted in his book. Such action, he says, would shatter the fragile international coalition which has thus far backed the attacks in Afghanistan.
"If America is perceived to be rushing around out of the blue, taking out Saddam Hussein, that would be very difficult for any non-American to stomach as a matter of principle," Pearson said. Iraq is not simply another target, he argues: An attack on Baghdad has the potential to alienate a number of allies and potentially launch the world into a much larger war. This was evident back in 1999, says Pearson, and he believes it should be even moreso now.
Nonetheless, President George W. Bush told US troops at a Thanksgiving dinner in Kentucky that the attacks in Afghanistan represent "just the beginning" of the campaign against terrorism. Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz is leading a push to make Iraq the next phase. He is backed by conservatives such as Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon, who has said that "there can be no victory in the war against terrorism if, at the end of it, Saddam Hussein is still in power."
Pearson predicted such possibilities in 1999 thanks to painstaking research and military acumen. Using military records, Pearson blended technical details with political trends to piece together a series of worst case scenarios, starting with the unilateral US strike on Iraq. "The Arab world, for all its misgivings about Saddam Hussein's regime, was outraged at what was described as an act of state terrorism," Pearson wrote. "France, Russia and China were equally appalled."
Such was Pearson's perspective in 1999. Today, many European governments are already uncomfortable about the war in Afghanistan. Several nations, most recently Spain, have balked at Bush's order allowing for terror suspects to be tried before secret military tribunals. Polls across Europe show popular support for the attacks receding. Even in Great Britain, America's staunchest ally in the offensive, a survey released Nov. 20 found barely half of the British public supported the bombing campaign. Pearson says Europeans have been willing to back the war in Afghanistan largely because Bush asked for an international mandate.
"One of Bush's cleverest moves was getting a legal endorsement for his attack on the Taliban regime," Pearson says. "Europeans need to get the approval of the rest of the world. They never want to act until everybody says it's okay."
What worries Pearson is that Bush does not appear eager to wait for a similar mandate before expanding the campaign. At home, Bush seems to have all the support he needs. A recent poll found over 90 percent of Americans support the use of ground troops in Afghanistan, and almost three-quarters are ready to send American troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
Still, Pearson warns it would be a huge mistake for Bush to believe that support at home was enough. And finding enough evidence linking Iraq to terrorism to justify an attack on Baghdad -- if such evidence exists -- will be difficult and time consuming.
For all its uncanny parallels to current events, Total War 2006 remains a piece of fiction. The warnings it contains, however, are based in fact. And as the real world increasingly takes on the characteristics of Pearson's chaotic and dangerous fictional one, those warnings are becoming disturbingly timely.