Bush whips up a desert storm
The US is walking into the Middle East trigger-happy and its former Arab allies are too scared to help. The situation is ripe for chaos, writes Gay Alcorn, Herald Correspondent in Washington.
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) Saturday, October 13, 2001 http://www.smh.com.au/news/0110/13/world/world3.html
On the streets of Egypt, 20,000 students shout "US Go to Hell!" On the streets of Jakarta, separatist Muslims threaten to kill the American ambassador and destroy the embassy, screaming: "Americans are terrorists, Kill them all!" On the streets of Pakistan, Jordan, South Africa, Iran and Bangladesh, outraged Muslims protest, sometimes violently, sometimes peacefully.
"How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?" United States President George Bush asked during a media conference yesterday. "I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed. I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."
Could it be that the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has not told his boss about the resentment of US power, especially in the Middle East, even among those who deplore the attacks of September 11?
Is he unaware of the long-standing protests of friendly countries such as Egypt and Jordan about America's pro-Israeli policies and the simmering anger over sanctions against Iraq which the United Nations says have contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths?
In his media conference, Mr Bush's admission that he viewed the protests with disbelief was arguably the most crucial revelation. If the President does not understand Muslim anger, or will not discuss it openly with the American people, where will his war against "evildoers" end up?
One of America's closest friends in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, has refused to freeze assets of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden because of the royal family's fears for its own survival against an Islamic uprising. The New York Times reported that the rulers of Saudi Arabia have also upset the Bush Administration because of its reluctance to fully investigate the hijacking suspects, at least six of whom obtained US visas in Saudi Arabia. Of the 19 countries the US has announced have frozen assets of terrorist organisations, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were noticeably absent.
Yesterday, Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal was in New York touring the rubble of what was once the World Trade Centre, and offering a $US10 million donation. New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani rejected it after the prince said the US "should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause. Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek." For the US, the struggle is between good and evil, and nothing else. "We [are not fighting] a war against Islam or Muslims," said Mr Bush."We're fighting evil.''
Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, pointed out this week that the positions of Middle Eastern states are the reverse of what they were during Gulf War in 1991, in which a US-led coalition ousted Iraq from Kuwait. Then, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority opposed the US; now, they strong supporters. Then, Saudi Arabia and Egypt backed the US; now, they are mostly silent.
"What this reflects is that Jordan and the Palestinian authority are too weak to avoid the choice of us and Osama bin Laden, whereas Egypt and Saudi Arabia are too scared to make that choice. Their silence signals their fear to their own public," Mr Indyk said.
The difference was that Iraq threatened the Arab order. Now, bin Laden's real targets are Arab regimes themselves.
Mr Indyk's view is that the predicament is an Arab problem, and one that the US should press. "What we need them to do is to get up their courage, stand up and lead their people," he said.
But others say the US has a profound public relations problem in the Middle East that it is failing to address.
Every day this week, missiles have obliterated the Taliban regime's military infrastructure and communications networks in Afghanistan, and each day, individual packages of food were dropped for the starving Afghan people. Yesterday, Mr Bush announced another initiative aides said was his own idea. Each American child, he said, should give or earn one dollar for the starving children of Afghanistan and send the money directly to the White House. "One of the truest weapons that we have against terrorism is to show the world the true strength of character and kindness of the American people," he said. "Americans are united in this fight against terrorism. We're also united in our concern for the innocent people of Afghanistan.''
Political analyst William Saletan, writing in the online magazine Slate, insisted that the US needs to move beyond gestures and directly answer American critics in the Middle East, specifically bin Laden's justifications for the September 11 attacks. Bin Laden, who Mr Bush called "the evil one", presented point by point the Muslim world's indictment of America, which, however cynical, struck a chord among many Arab and Muslim people.
In the video, bin Laden says " a million innocent children are dying ... in Iraq" because of US-imposed sanctions following the Gulf War. "Israeli tanks rampage against Palestine." The 6,000 people killed in the terrorist strikes were not innocent victims but American, who were "killers who have abused the blood ...of Muslims". The nations that support the US in the declared war on terrorism were "hypocrites", sell-outs to the West, and not true Muslims.
"The White House seems to think that if it ignores bin Laden's message, the message will go away," said Mr Saletan. "In the war for Muslim public opinion, we've become pacifists.''
The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, noted the same problem while travelling through the Middle East this week. "One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world."
The problem will become more acute as the struggle against terrorism moves beyond al-Qaeda, the loose network the US blames for the terrorist attacks, and the Taliban regime, which is financed by bin Laden, and has refused to hand him over for trial. Mr Blair said the fight to "root out terrorism where it may exist all around the world" would be sustained and relentless.
James Lindsay, a former US foreign affairs adviser, says that it is clear that there is an "Afghanistan-first strategy, but not an Afghanistan-only policy". So far, the Bush Administration has put aside the argument made by Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz that the US should oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but few believe the issue is resolved.
There is great regret in the Republican Party that Mr Bush's father, President George Bush snr, failed to deal with Saddam after the Gulf War, and contempt for the Clinton administration's "containment plus regime change" policy. There have been no weapons inspections in Iraq since 1998, and America's enforcement of a "no-fly" zone, and its continuing economic sanctions, have failed to eliminate Saddam's grip on power.
Iraq accuses the US of seeking to use the terrorist strike to settle "old scores".
Washington's letter to the UN on Sunday stating that it reserved the right to take military action against nations other than Afghanistan alarmed countries in the Middle East, as well as allies such as Britain.
The problem with Iraq, which is believed to be developing chemical and biological weapons, is that there is no evidence linking it to the September 11 attacks bar a meeting between hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official in June last year. That information was leaked to the media by the Pentagon, which this week reportedly asked former CIA director James Woolsey to look for proof justifying an attack on Iraq. The fatal case of anthrax in Florida has only increased suspicions that Iraq was involved.
"I wish we could find a connection, but we have not," a senior official in Jordan told The New York Times. An Israeli intelligence expert said he was "sure Saddam Hussein is very happy, but not more than that".
The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, denies a split with the US over widening the military campaign beyond Afghanistan, which he said was not "on the agenda at present". To date, Mr Powell's view that a precipitous attack against Iraq would "wreck" the coalition against terrorism has prevailed so far, at least without firm proof of an Iraq-al-Qaeda connection. Yet Mr Bush was equivocal when directly asked about Saddam. "We're watching him, very carefully," he said.
In the US, Iraq is a special case. There is evidence that elements within Saudi Arabia and Iran have directly funded al-Qaeda, yet there is no serious discussion in Washington about military action in those counties.
Mr Lindsay says that if there is evidence linking Saddam with al-Qaeda, particularly evidence that Iraq gave the organisation biological or chemical weapons, the US will take military action.
Patrick Clawson, of Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the issue has less to do with the terrorist strikes than with Iraq's "horrific capabilities " with biological and chemical weapons.
"An awful lot of the governments in the region in the Gulf think Saddam is a really big problem and should go away but they're not convinced the US has the stick-to-it-ness," he said.