WASHINGTON — Though public support for revenge is high, President Bush's military options are constrained by the difficulty of targeting nomadic terrorists and hardships imposed by the terrain.
Still, few doubt Bush will order retaliation.
"After the bloodiest day in American history since the Civil War, those American deaths can't go unanswered," said Dan Benjamin, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "America won't stand for it."
With the death of thousands of Americans at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on four hijacked airliners, Bush has an outraged nation behind him. And Tuesday's airborne attacks drew near-universal international condemnation.
Bush characterized the attacks as "acts of war," setting the stage for a response in kind.
But against whom and where?
Bush has suggested that the United States would not only go after the perpetrators of Tuesday's violence but against countries that harbor them.
Preliminary evidence pointed to fugitive Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, implicated in the 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in east Africa and sheltered in Afghanistan. U.S. investigators also are looking into the possibility that other terrorist groups or cells could be involved as well.
White House aides said privately that Bush wanted to act swiftly.
Although the United States could go it alone on retaliatory strikes, presumably against targets in Afghanistan, U.S. officials suggested the action would be more effective if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was involved.
Setting the stage for such possible joint action, 19 NATO ambassadors meeting Wednesday in Brussels, Belgium, agreed that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington could be deemed an attack on the whole alliance, if investigators determine they were directed from abroad.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to be preparing U.S. forces for possible combat. He told the troops in a videotaped message: "The task of vanquishing these terrible enemies . . . falls to you."
Robert Gates, director of the CIA during the first Bush administration, said it was important for the current president to carefully frame his objectives and to limit potential civilian casualties.
"Nobody should underestimate the difficulty of going after and finding a specific individual like bin Laden," Gates said. "It's a highly complicated intelligence challenge."
He recalled the difficulty in locating former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega when the United States invaded Panama in December 1989. And in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "was not going to wait for us on his verandah," Gates said.
Former President Clinton tried to target bin Laden after the 1998 embassy explosions, ordering strikes against his camps in Afghanistan as well as a suspected chemical-weapons plant in Sudan.
But bin Laden escaped harm. And controversy remains over the true character of the plant in Sudan.
Sandy Berger, who was Clinton's national security adviser, said Bush is confronted with a series of hard options.
"Cruise missiles are not rifles, and Afghanistan is a thousand miles from the nearest body of international water" from which to launch missiles, Berger said. Still, he added, "What happened yesterday is a qualitative escalation that requires us to consider a different risk calculation than we have in the past."