Al Qaeda vs. the White House
William Pfaff IHT
Saturday, December 28, 2002
PARIS Al Qaeda wants revolutionary change. Its attacks on America in September 2001 had the paradoxical effect of propelling the United States on to a policy course that may eventually prove more radically unsettling for world order than anything Islamic militants could ever have expected to do on their own. These are developments that will dominate international relations in 2003.
By overturning America's pre-Sept. 11 assumptions of invulnerability and self-sufficiency, Islamic militants provoked the United States into "war" against terrorism, disarmament of what President George W. Bush calls the "axis of evil" and an attempt to impose a new order on international society through military force and political and economic pressures.
The result, however, has been more disorder rather than order, stimulated by Al Qaeda's continuing attacks, defiance by rogue nations and the amalgamation of international terrorism with long-standing issues of separatism and nationalist revindication.
The imminent, if not quite inevitable, American military intervention in Iraq is expected by the Bush administration to have stabilizing consequences throughout the region. This is a highly improbable outcome, and evidence of the administration's disposition to prefer ideology to empirical evidence.
Conquering Iraq, even if the intervention has a United Nations Security Council mandate, will deepen frustration, instability and anti-American bitterness throughout the Islamic Middle East, and in major Islamic countries elsewhere.
The edifice of assumptions built up by the Bush administration to win popular U.S. support for its new level of global engagement is fragile. Failure might logically precipitate withdrawal into "homeland defense," an improbable but not impossible reaction. It would more likely produce extreme measures.
Middle Eastern instability has already increased because of the Bush government's new policy on Israel and Palestine. Washington has accepted the Sharon government's definition of Israel's needs and priorities, and has effectively abandoned the role sought by previous American governments as broker between the parties. This has changed the Middle Eastern balance.
Iraq is also a potential turning point so far as relations with Europe are concerned. The West Europeans some time ago parted with the United States on policy toward Palestine and Israel, and they have no wish to be part of a war between civilizations.
To them, terrorism remains a problem of politicized violence, to be dealt with by police and internal security agencies, not armies and air forces.
For them, Al Qaeda is less of a threat than Basque separatist terrorism, or the risk that Northern Ireland (or Algeria) could again collapse into sectarian violence. Despite European fears of political disagreement with Washington, 2003 may well be the year EU states openly break with the United States on policy toward the Muslim world.
Washington's efforts to integrate the existing politico-strategic order into an American-dominated system - through NATO expansion, pressure to amalgamate NATO and EU, the globalization of the American military through a system of integrated regional commands, base systems and alliances - is another current source of tension.
The Bush administration's determination to deal with its problems through military means is described by some critics as an intellectual legacy of the Trotskyism of many of the neoconservative movement's founders. The movement dominates administration foreign policy.
It seems a rightist version of Trotsky's "permanent revolution," destroying existing institutions and structures in the millenarian expectation that all this violence will come to an end in a better and happier world.
The Qaeda attacks empowered a policy faction in the United States convinced of America's moral right and political competence to banish "terror" by reordering international society, guided by an optimism that has no empirical evidence to justify it. In practice, this policy has generated disorder, not order. Two radicalisms - Al Qaeda's and Washington's - are at work, and in 2003 they will continue to feed on one another.