A Global War: Many Fronts, Little Unity

Terror is not an enemy, but a method, used in different ways by different movements...But it is also a label that has been seized on by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and, in various shades, by leaders from Italy to Pakistan to set their own agendas. It has become the reference for our age. But what does it mean?

Perhaps great struggles are always cast in Manichaean terms of good and evil, with uglier truths, and nuances, concealed within that readily intelligible and readily exploitable model. This was true of the cold war. But it seems even more true of the war on terror, sometimes a Machiavellian construct tending to facilitate a might-is-right approach to governance.

Mr. Putin, invoking "the war on terror," is in fact confronting a war of decolonization. Chechens are fighting, with brutal methods equaled only by their adversary, to emerge from the Russian yoke.

by Roger Cohen, September 5, 2004

Whether or not the war on terror is winnable, it can determine who wins an election. President Bush went back and forth on the first question last week, but was relentless in setting a drastic paradigm for the November vote, portraying the election as a historic choice between a wobbly Democrat whose indecision could bring cataclysm and his own unwavering direction in America's hour of need.

The chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A." that accompanied this message at the culmination of the Republican National Convention - and the anger in John Kerry's voice as he retorted that he is more qualified, not less, to lead a war - gave a fair indication of the bristling strain in the post-9/11 national mood. Uncertain economy notwithstanding, this vote has a theme: the war.

Mr. Bush clearly thinks he can win on that terrain. But outside Midtown Manhattan, which was transformed into an obstacle course of checkpoints redolent of a war zone, the truths of the world's various battlegrounds looked less susceptible to crisp sound bites.

Russia, already rocked by two crashed planes and a suicide bombing, ended the armed takeover of a school by Chechen fighters with the loss of 200 lives or more. "War has been declared on us, where the enemy is unseen and there is no front," said Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov. That sounded familiar.

Months of calm in Israel were shattered by a bus bombing that killed 16 people; Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, claimed responsibility. At the same time, Hamas, well disposed toward France because of its opposition to the American venture in Iraq, joined a chorus of Arab voices calling for the release of two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq.

The cold war, at least from the distance of history, was straightforward enough: the free world against Communism. Aware of the force, and familiarity, of simple ideas, Mr. Bush has placed America once again in the throes of "a struggle of historic proportions." As he described it last week, that struggle is being waged by the "greatest force for good on Earth," against terrorists bent on America's destruction. Responding to "a calling from beyond the stars," America will, he insisted, liberate and democratize the Middle East.

Live from Madison Square Garden, that vision had a ring to it. It was couched in the religious idiom of the Republican Party base but calibrated to stir broader subliminal feelings: America as the vehicle of liberty against Nazism, Communism and now jihadism. At the very least it has put Senator Kerry, the windsurfing Democratic candidate, on the defensive. But as Hamas's double message backing France and bombing Israel suggests, neat geostrategic equations tend to unravel pretty fast these days.

Terror is not an enemy, but a method, used in different ways by different movements. The war on terror is a useful label. Most Americans know what it means and what a victory in that war would be: keeping their families safe from a reprise, perhaps nuclearized, of Al Qaeda's murderous assault on Manhattan and Washington.

But it is also a label that has been seized on by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and, in various shades, by leaders from Italy to Pakistan to set their own agendas. It has become the reference for our age. But what does it mean?

Perhaps great struggles are always cast in Manichaean terms of good and evil, with uglier truths, and nuances, concealed within that readily intelligible and readily exploitable model. This was true of the cold war. But it seems even more true of the war on terror, sometimes a Machiavellian construct tending to facilitate a might-is-right approach to governance.

Mr. Putin, invoking "the war on terror," is in fact confronting a war of decolonization. Chechens are fighting, with brutal methods equaled only by their adversary, to emerge from the Russian yoke. Max Boot, a conservative foreign policy analyst, said, "Russia is waging the kind of scorched-earth campaign that Michael Moore only dreams we are waging in Iraq."

Because of Russia's authoritarian past, and because of the West's willingness to turn a blind eye to Russia's more egregious acts, in the interest of improved ties with Moscow and a semblance of anti-terror unity, Mr. Putin can act with relative impunity.

In Israel, Palestinians have adopted the most abhorrent of methods for their fight - blowing up busloads of children - but that does not alter the fact that they are engaged in a national struggle for a homeland. The war-on-terror label has been useful for Mr. Sharon because it has perfectly aligned him with the United States. But, especially in the broader Arab world, America's enemy and Israel's are not always the same, whatever links may exist between Islamic terror networks.

America's principal enemy, the one Mr. Bush was invoking so insistently but also so vaguely last week, is in fact Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, a terrorist grouping that benefits from images of the plight of Palestinians, but whose true objective is the destruction of the West and the United States as its personification. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit wrote in a recent book, "Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies," the target here is "the idea of America itself, as a rootless, cosmopolitan, superficial, trivial, materialistic, racially mixed, fashion-addicted civilization."

Perhaps it does not matter, in strategic terms, that the war on terror has become such a catchall phrase. As the Republican electoral platform published last week put it, "Only total and complete destruction of terrorism will allow freedom to flourish." No matter the group or the aim, the platform argues, terrorists are all murderers for whom the only solution is eradication.

But perhaps it does matter. Henri Laurens, a French historian of the Middle East, argues that the American lumping-together of the nihilists of Al Qaeda with the terrorists of Hamas, Hezbollah and even Chechnya, who are engaged in what they see as national liberation movements, was "a fundamental error that has given greater margin to bin Laden's international jihad." He suggested that Mr. bin Laden had won the first three-year phase of the war since Sept. 11, having succeeded in "destabilizing the politics of the Middle East, getting the American military out of Saudi Arabia, and opening a front in Iraq that stands at the center of the region that interests him and is a tremendous source of recruitment."

The problem with such arguments, of course, is that quantifying anything in the war on terror is very difficult. There is no real way of knowing if, since the invasion of Iraq, more or fewer young Arabs are now opting for terrorism as a career choice. Statistics on Soviet missiles were a lot simpler and more scientific.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official in Mr. Bush's State Department, took a different view from Mr. Laurens. "A largely unheralded accomplishment," he said, "is that the last three years have made the world a far more difficult place for terrorists." Their bases have been destroyed, their finances disrupted, their sponsors discouraged. He suggested that the Bush administration's bold focus on reforming the Middle East was significant not least because it would bring new pressure on Egypt, where one-third of the Arab world lives.

What is now clear is that the war on terror, however it progresses or is exploited outside America, is a galvanizing domestic political issue. Speaker after speaker at the convention came close to portraying Mr. Bush as a savior-president, spoken of in the same breath as Lincoln and Roosevelt, compared in inspiration to the Statue of Liberty, cast as the man standing between America and disaster, all of mankind and mayhem.

Will Americans buy this portrayal in sufficient numbers to re-elect Mr. Bush? That remains an open question. But the power of the presidency, of being the commander in chief in a time of war, was evident last week, and Mr. Kerry now faces the fact that the Republicans have framed the debate in ways that may be difficult to shake. "Freedom is on the march," President Bush claimed, with himself as engine. What the Democrats need, and have not found, is the wrench they can toss in those relentless Republican mechanics.

A crossroads had been reached, it seems, not just in the election campaign but in the war on terror. On the one hand, there are forces driving the world to buy into Mr. Bush's vision: Even tiny Nepal now finds itself facing anti-Muslim riots in Katmandu because 12 Nepalese who went to Iraq to work alongside Americans were slaughtered.

On the other hand, resistance to the American view is growing, spurred by what many see as the provocative drift of rhetoric and actions under the Bush administration.

"France has always resisted the vision of a clash between Islam and the West," Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, said pointedly last week as Yasir Arafat, among others, insisted that France is a friend of Islam and that its journalists should be released. But Ayad Allawi, the American-backed interim prime minister of Iraq, challenged France. "No neutrality is possible," he said, and France would not be spared because it was not fighting alongside his government.

That fight, for Mr. Bush, goes beyond Iraq. It was clear last week that he has sought to get a big part of the United States pumped up to demonstrate in the Middle East what he called "the transformative power of liberty."

America has entered another epic struggle. It does so even as Europe puts its faith in international institutions and laws. Transformative upheaval, especially on the old colonial terrain of the Middle East, is not the European thing these days. So the continent, like much of the world, is worried, groping for a common understanding of how the various targets of terror might best cooperate to define, resist and crush it.

Roger Cohen writes the "Globalist" column for The International Herald Tribune

Source: The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/05/weekinreview/05cohe.html)

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Posted September 6, 2004