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Bu$h Has Run Out Of Ideas, But He Had Only One To Begin With

Radicalised Muslims are preparing for a war in both Iraq and Afghanistan that could continue longer. They believe that America is both tougher than the Soviet Union, and softer. No one has any illusions about America's military capabilities. But they also know that each time a body bag returns to a small town, Bush loses another piece of the heart of America. They believe that Bush has run out of ideas. But then, Bush had only one to begin with.
M.J. Akbar: Bush has run out of ideas, but he had only one to begin with

| | 15-09-2003

Has 9/11 been subverted by 4/9? The answer lies in the difference between the two wars that the US President George W. Bush has started, and which his successor may have to end.

Two years ago, September 11, 2001, gave American policy a moral purpose. It knew its enemy, and it was not Islam; it was a danger called terrorism that lurked below the civilised world, its shadow armies protected by fundamentalists, some of whom were also in power.

The DNA-word was "fundamentalist" not despot or tyrant or dictator. The list of tyrants is much longer than the list of fundamentalists in power, and in any case the issues are separate. The war against terror also had the virtue of focus. Afghanistan, whose Taliban regime had nurtured Osama bin Laden, was the recognised, indeed self-declared, epicentre.

There was no ambiguity when America opened its campaign against Afghanistan. There was also unprecedented international support. Islamic nations were at the head of the queue to commiserate after 9/11; more to the point, they were sincere. It took Pakistan one phone call and six hours of Army-brass discussions to walk away from the Taliban, arguably its most important foreign policy investment in five decades.

So what went wrong by the time the statue of Saddam Hussain toppled in Firdaus Square in Baghdad on April 9, this year?

It began to go wrong the moment the logic of war shifted. When Bush asked for support in America's war against terror, he got it without pause or reservation. But when his advisers persuaded him that he needed to dominate the Muslim world in order to succeed in his war against terror, the dynamic shifted along with the dialectic.

Saddam, afflicted by demons of a filial past, was linked to terrorism without a shred of evidence. The moral pedestal started to wobble. The war against Saddam was manufactured out of deception.

Saddam has much to answer for, including unacceptable brutality towards his own people, but support to fundamentalists was not his preferred politics. The deception is now being shrugged off by Washington, but the rest of the world is not so sanguine.

We are informed by the US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that the official excuse, weapons of mass destruction, was a "bureaucratic fudge", and that the real reason was America's need to shift its military bases from Saudi Arabia. When the rationale shifted to "assertive nationalism" or "democratic imperialism" (for those at the receiving end, the difference is semantic: both are code phrases for old-fashioned imperialism), America lost the world.

Uniquely, an impressive peace movement sprang up from nowhere even before a misguided missile had been fired in the "shock and awe" campaign. The world recognised what Washington refused to admit, that this was not a war of liberation but a war of occupation. Iraqis understood this immediately, which is why their relief at Saddam's departure has not translated into a welcome for American troops.

I am relieved that "shock and awe" has gone out of circulation, except in columns written by satirists. The awe has disappeared from Baghdad, and the shock is creeping into Washington.

Bush's foreign policy has become a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome. America wants to be loved by those it has taken hostage, because its motives are so noble. But victims remember and also measure sermon against reality: thousands of mothers in Iraq want to know whether their dead sons had any human rights.

Now that "victory" in Iraq has become an invitation to a poisonous swamp, the bullying rhetoric, and the cowboy swagger of the likes of Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and White House Spokesperson Ari Fleischer that preceded the war have given way to suggestions that all America wanted was to provide Iraq with a free press.

People are not na´ve. Indeed, the only children in this confrontation might be those who renamed French fries "Freedom fries" and poured drink into the Potomac while sneering at countries that made chocolate and cheese.

Asking the chocolate nations for chocolate soldiers as well as cash for reconstruction (another term that irritates: who destroyed Iraq and therefore made reconstruction necessary?) must be privately galling for the Bush administration. But the Bush refuses to sound chastened. Anyone who opposes his fractured worldview is dismissed as terrorist, or perhaps terroristic.

Now for the bad news. In the past year, Bush has recruited more Jihadis to the cause than bin Laden could have dreamt of. This assertion will raise hackles in Washington, but does not change the fact.

It may surprise the wise in Washington to learn that even a terrorist needs a cause before he goes on that suicide mission that is playing such havoc on the nerves of young American soldiers who no longer understand what they are doing in Iraq. Iraq has bred Jihadis from different countries in a manner that Afghanistan never did. Once again, you have to ask yourself why.

The war against the Taliban was seen as a just war, or at least a justified war. The occupation of Iraq reeks of palpable superpower arrogance.

When in 1998 bin Laden declared Jihad against America, the Al Qaida manifesto accused the enemy of "occupying the lands of Islam in its holiest of places, the Arabian peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples". There were hardly any takers for such a sweeping condemnation of America in 1998. Not so now.

Ironically, but also logically, Iraq has helped energise the dormant Taliban in Afghanistan; and radicalised politics in neighbouring Pakistan. The only genuine mass leader left in Pakistan is the populist cleric Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who is pleased to justify all that the Taliban did, even if he is careful not to reveal what the Taliban intends to do.

Last October, during a tour of the major cities of Afghanistan, I could already see a growing helplessness on the face of Kandahar. Senior officials of the Karzai government admitted that Osama was alive and active, and that there was little they could do about it. They knew that the Taliban were back, and another long decade had begun.

Radicalised Muslims are preparing for a war in both Iraq and Afghanistan that could continue longer. They believe that America is both tougher than the Soviet Union, and softer. No one has any illusions about America's military capabilities. But they also know that each time a body bag returns to a small town, Bush loses another piece of the heart of America. They believe that Bush has run out of ideas. But then, Bush had only one to begin with.

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M.J. Akbar is the Editor of The Asian Age.

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