. . . a misdirected response
TWO YEARS after a gang of reactionary religious zealots flew commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush commonly speaks about a diffuse global war on terrorism, and former CIA chief James Woolsey has even described the conflict as World War IV. There is a danger in this imprecise way of naming an enemy and invoking a worldwide struggle of indefinite duration. The danger is that repetition of these misleading definitions will be used to rationalize an antiterrorist strategy that embroils Americans unnecessarily in other countries' domestic power struggles. To fall into this trap is to play into the hands of Osama bin Laden and his associates, who would like to provoke the global holy war they preach between Muslim believers and supposed Western crusaders.
Instead of loose talk that acts like America's mortal enemy is an abstract noun -- "terrorism" in all its forms and manifestations -- Bush would be wise to distinguish Al Qaeda and the groups affiliated with it from Islamist movements that may be trying to overthrow regimes in their own countries but have not declared war against the United States.
When US intelligence agents and armed forces turn up in countries such as Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Mali, Djibouti, or Uzbekistan, they appear to be waging the global war against all Islamists that bin Laden invokes, and Washington appears to be validating the grandiloquent ideological claims of Al Qaeda.
There is a genuine need for intelligence and law-enforcement cooperation against Al Qaeda and its affiliates -- America's declared enemies. But a promiscuous entanglement in the internecine conflicts of countries ruled by vicious dictators risks a strategic blunder.
Pursuing Bush's indiscriminate war on terrorism, US military and intelligence personnel are currently on the ground, cooperating with the corrupt and repressive regimes of, among others, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and the Mauritanian strongman Maaouyah Ould Sid Ahmed Taya. These undemocratic rulers exaggerate the threat of small Islamist groups in their lands to excuse thuggish suppression of all dissent.
If Washington allows itself to be identified with these and other despotic clients in the war on terrorism, opposition movements against despised local rulers could be transformed into anti-imperialist struggles against America, as the reviled foreign power behind the local tyrant and his torturers.
This is precisely what bin Laden and his Egyptian partner Ayman al-Zawahiri allege in their statements for public consumption -- that "crusader America" is the "far power" standing behind collaborationist regimes in Muslim countries that the Al Qaeda ideologues define as the "near power."
Nothing would better suit Al Qaeda's recruiting tactics than to be able to point to US backing for the Karimovs of the Muslim world as proof that America is at war with all Muslims, not merely the fanatics of Al Qaeda who target Americans. Bush must not nourish that fantasy by confusing a campaign against one aberrant Islamist faction with a world war against all terrorists.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.