Six weeks after witnessing terrorist disasters strike New York and northern Virginia, Americans realize they face even more terrorism in the form of anthrax attacks. Washington now resembles a capital under siege.
Some Americans, outraged by the terrorists, are urging President Bush to get revenge not just on Afghanistan, but also on Iran and Iraq because their potential threat to Americans. Instead, we should back Bush and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, in their difficult efforts to forge a worldwide coalition to oust Afghanistan's Taliban government and crush the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which it harbors.
Powell's recent meetings with the leaders of Pakistan and India highlighted the delicate diplomacy that is required to sustain the fragile coalition that he and Bush have tried to build. These two countries have been adversaries since their founding in 1948, when Great Britain withdrew from the Indian subcontinent. They fought three wars, two of them involving the disputed territory of Kashmir. That conflict may erupt again as new border incidents strain an uneasy cease-fire. Added to the danger is the fact that both countries have nuclear weapons.
Pakistan is governed by a military regime headed by General Pervez Musharraf, the key figure in U.S. plans to oust Afghanistan's Taliban regime But the Pakistani public supports the Taliban, and opposition leaders have mounted large anti-American demonstrations in major cities.
Musharraf now finds himself in the delicate position of supporting the United States while his public does not. A part of his difficulty is that Pakistan helped the Taliban militia to gain power in Afghanistan six years ago and supported its drive to pacify the country. The Pakistani leader realizes that his country created a "Frankenstein's monster" which it can't control.
Musharraf told Powell that he could support a short U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban, in return for generous economic aid, but that sustained bombing would inflame Muslim opposition in his major cities. Washington is complying with the economic aid package, but it cannot guarantee a short bombing campaign. Musharraf might be removed from power if the bombing results in large casualties and massive refugee flows of the Afghani people.
Powell sought during his visit to New Delhi to restrain Indian government from retaliating against Pakistan for harboring Islamic separatists who strike Indian outposts in Kashmir. Also, India has different political objectives in Afghanistan than does Pakistan. If Powell fails to avoid war between these two neighbors, the U.S. effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan may fail too.
In another Asian country with a large Muslim population, Indonesia, anti-American violence now threatens the stability of the government of President Megawati Sukarno. If Indonesia, the world's most populist Muslim country, is torn apart by Islamic extremists, the strategic outlook in East Asia will change dramatically.
The most serious challenge to Bush and Powell's coalition diplomacy lies in the Middle East. Here the problem is the inability, so far, of the United States and the Europeans to bring about a solution to the dangerous Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No Arab state, even those that are friendly to Washington, has given Washington strong support for its military campaign against Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
After Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Oman last month, he reported that their leaders provide the U.S. military with the needed military support. But he was careful not to elaborate because those governments do not want their own people the extent of this cooperation.
In reality, most Arabs distrust America because of what they see as its strong support of Israel against the Palestinians. They say the Palestinians have a legal as well as moral right to their own homeland. Arabs generally accept bin Laden's propaganda against American bases in Saudi Arabia and Washington's unwillingness to curb Israel's suppression of the Palestinians.
President Bush and Secretary Powell pressed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week to pull Israeli troops out of Palestinian cities. They warned that it was difficult for them to build a coalition against bin Laden's terrorist network so long as Israel and the Palestinians are not negotiating for peace.
George Bush tried to nudge the peace process along recently by declaring that the United States envisioned a Palestinian state resulting from a peace settlement in which each side recognized the right of the other to exist in peace. Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister and Bush's staunch ally in the war on terrorism, welcomed Yasir Arafat to London and declared Britain's support for a "viable" state of Palestine, one where no Israeli enclaves existed inside a new Palestinian state.
What is occurring is a strong British-American initiative to force concessions from Israelis and Palestinians, in accordance with the comprehensive peace plan outlined earlier this year by an international team headed by former Senator George Mitchell. This group recommended that, in return for international guarantees of borders, Israel should withdraw from the Occupied Territories and agree to a Palestinian state, with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Will Prime Minister Sharon, the hard-line current leader of Israel, agree to the Mitchell proposals? Probably not.
Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, came close last year, with President Clinton's help, to making such a deal with Yasir Arafat. But even if those two leaders had reached agreement, there was serious doubt within Israel that Barak would win his own parliament's approval. In February he was voted out of office because hard-liners denounced him for selling out to the Palestinians.
To complicate Bush and Powell's efforts at coalition building, some members of Congress are urging them to enlarge the war on terrorism and force a confrontation with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Senator Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's vice presidential running mate last year, urges this course. He argues that if we are embarked on a worldwide anti-terrorism war, we should finish the job in Iraq that was started during the Gulf War in 1991.
There is some merit in this argument. Saddam Hussein would surely build weapons of mass destruction if economic sanctions and American and British aerial surveillance were ended. So far, however, there is no evidence that the Iraqi dictator has aided bin Laden. He probably fears the establishment of an Islamic regime in his own country, as he did in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary zealots came to power in neighboring Iran.
The reality for Bush, Powell, and Rumsfeld is that their coalition among Arab countries for war in Afghanistan is not transferable to the Persian Gulf. That is because Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States will deny the Navy, Army, and Air Force use of their territory to wage war against either Iraq or Iran.
This prospect does not impress those members of Congress and media commentators who are urging the president to "take the war to Iraq." This debate will intensify in the coming months.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST