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Bush's Endless War

By Sam Parry
March 8, 2002

George W. Bush’s depiction of the war on terrorism as an absolutist struggle of good versus evil is failing to win much popular support in the Islamic world, a warning sign that Bush’s dispatch of more U.S. forces around the globe to fight "evil-doers" could lead to a dangerous backlash.

A recent Gallup poll of 9,924 residents from nine Islamic nations shows a two-to-one unfavorable opinion of the United States, five-to-one opposition to Bush and a 77 percent disapproval of the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. The poll’s findings match extensive anecdotal evidence that Washington is losing the battle for the "hearts and minds" of one billion Muslims, one-sixth of the world’s population.

Yet, encouraged by strong support in U.S. domestic polls, Bush is expanding the war on terrorism beyond the initial goal of punishing the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. He's now sending U.S. troops to slog into new countries, which have their own murky political and ethnic conflicts.

Bush’s criteria for taking on "every terrorist group of global reach" – the justification for the expanded conflict – seems to cover any irregular fighting force whose members might be able to pool their resources to buy an airplane ticket to the U.S., whether they are now holed up on an island in the Philippines, in the mountains of Central Asia, in a desert in the Middle East or in the jungles of Colombia.

Beyond intervening in these guerrilla conflicts, Bush publicly has threatened the national governments of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the nations he calls the "axis of evil."

The Bush administration acknowledges, however, that these countries were not involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Iran initially joined the coalition against the Taliban and provided assistance in the military campaign in Afghanistan.

Bush's inexperience in world affairs may have made him especially susceptible to the temptation to read the initial U.S. military success in Afghanistan as a blueprint for future anti-terror campaigns.

A danger now is that Bush could lead the world into a wider exchange of tit-for-tat violence as the U.S. goes farther and farther afield to retaliate for Sept. 11. By relying almost exclusively on force, Bush could touch off a kind of global version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Chasm of Distrust

The Gallup poll found strong anti-American sentiment in U.S. allies and adversaries alike. The countries surveyed included Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The lowest scores came from Pakistan, a principal U.S. ally in the Afghan war. In Pakistan, where Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered, only five percent of the respondents had a favorable opinion of the United States.

Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport said Muslims who were polled described the United States as "ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked, biased." Newport added that "the people of Islamic countries have significant grievances with the West in general and with the United States in particular."

Some Arab experts said the Gallup poll revealed a chasm of distrust between the U.S. and the Islamic world. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, told, "The numbers overall as a whole are no doubt disturbing, but raise a clarion call: We have a problem; we don't understand each other."

Zogby said the lack of understanding was not only among Muslims. "The polling that we've done here in the United States makes it clear Americans view unfavorably those countries and the concerns they have, as well," Zogby said.

The Gallup results suggest a more treacherous path may lie ahead for the war on terror, with the possibility that even immediate U.S. military success might not solve the long-term problem. Force could swell the ranks of extremists willing to die for their cause.

"Military operations abroad and new security measures at home do nothing to address the virulent anti-Americanism of government-supported media, mullahs, and madrassas (Islamic schools)," wrote David Hoffman in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. "As the Israelis have discovered, terrorism thrives on a cruel paradox: The more force is used to retaliate, the more fuel is added to the terrorists’ cause."

`Why Do They Hate Us?'

Responding to the Gallup poll, Bush said the U.S. must do a better job explaining itself to the world. While in North Carolina to help raise money for Republican senatorial candidate Elizabeth Dole, Bush said, "There is no question that we must do a better job of telling the compassionate side of the American story." [Agence France-Presse, Feb. 27, 2002]

Earlier, Bush tried to answer the question of "why do they hate us?" by asserting that the terrorists despise the United States because of its freedoms. Bush postulated that the motive for the Sept. 11 attacks was that Osama bin Laden and other Islamic extremists were trying to destroy the American Way.

"They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government," Bush said in his Sept. 20 address to Congress. "Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Though playing well domestically, this explanation fell flat with many Middle East experts who recognized that bin Laden's goals were focused much more on Middle East politics and had little to do with American freedoms.

Bin Laden's principal grievance is with the government of his native land, Saudi Arabia, which he views as corrupt and hypocritical. Toward this end, he seeks to drive U.S. military forces from the Persian Gulf and especially from Saudi Arabia, home of the holiest sites in Islam. The terrorist leader has criticized U.S. policy on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too.

On many of these issues, bin Laden is far from alone. Muslims around the world have long protested U.S.-Middle East policies, including Washington's protection of undemocratic governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other oil-rich countries.

The U.S. State Department's 2001 Human Rights Report acknowledged that the Saudi government’s human rights record was "poor," adding that: "Citizens have neither the right nor the legal means to change their government. Security forces continued to abuse detainees and prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold them in incommunicado detention. In addition there were allegations that security forces committed torture."

The human rights record of another critical geopolitical ally in the region, Turkey, also rated poorly. According to the State Department, "Extrajudicial killings continued, including deaths due to excessive use of force and torture…Torture, beatings, and other abuses by security forces remained widespread… In the southeast, nation-wide problems such as torture were exacerbated by substantially abridged freedoms of expression and association."

Given our long-standing close alliance with governments that oppress their own people, the U.S. appears to be willing to trade our democratic ideals for international political expediency. With a war to be fought, the Bush administration is so far unwilling even to raise these issues.

Spinning the War

Overall, Bush's anti-terror strategy has given short shrift to an important precept of counter-insurgency warfare – that military action must blend with activities to address legitimate concerns of a population. Otherwise, military action can simply drive more recruits into the arms of the enemy and lead to an endless cycle of violence.

But this "hearts and minds" component requires more than just "public diplomacy," especially when the propaganda flies in the face of widespread popular perceptions. It is not enough, for instance, to tell the Islamic world that Bush does not consider the conflict a war against Islam.

This rhetoric rings hollow to many Muslims for whom recent events look a lot like a war against Islam – from the roundup of Arab men in the United States for what Attorney General John Ashcroft compared to arresting Mafia gangsters for "spitting on the sidewalk" to locking Afghan war captives in cages at Guantanamo Bay, from U.S. bombing in Afghanistan that killed thousands of civilians to Bush’s support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bloody crackdown on the Palestinians.

Still, Bush's inability to win the hearts and minds of many Muslims hasn't slowed his expansion of the war. Amid his favorable domestic poll ratings – still in the 70 and 80 percentiles – Bush has acted like a man on a roll, deciding that now is the time to take on both terrorists and a number of troublesome regimes.

About 600 U.S. troops are already in the Philippines to help prosecute a war against Muslim rebels whom some see as little more than bandits. The administration also has plans to place several hundred more U.S. troops in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Yemen and possibly Indonesia.

The administration seems poised, too, to intervene more directly against leftist rebels in Colombia, though not against right-wing paramilitary forces that have been blamed for most of the political terrorism in Colombia. The Bush administration also is seriously considering military action to topple the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

Never Ending?

Bush has left unclear exactly where his "crusade" to "rid the world of evil" will end, or whether it will ever end. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated," Bush pledged in his Sept. 20 speech.

Then his "axis of evil" warning in the State of the Union address upped the ante to include possible action against Iraq, Iran and North Korea – though the selection of the countries may have been more a rhetorical device than a serious enunciation of U.S. policy.

Newsweek's correspondent Howard Fineman reported on CNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews that the Bush team arbitrarily chose the "axis of evil" targets.

Fineman said Bush didn’t want to single out Iraq for fear that the world would expect "daisy cutters" to start falling right away. North Korea was added because it was not a Muslim country and Iran was selected because at the time it was resisting U.S. efforts to establish the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, Fineman said. "Then it became alliteratively the axis," he said. [Hardball, Feb. 11, 2002]

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called Bush’s warning "little short of declaring a war." In Iran, massive anti-American demonstration seemed to turn the clock back to the 1970s when Iranians overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and denounced America as "the Great Satan." Iranian moderates who have been seeking an accommodation with the Washington were thrown onto the defensive.

Bush's provocative comment also drew criticism from Great Britain and other European allies, already concerned about Bush's refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to hundreds of captives from the war in Afghanistan.

Even Republican leaders in the U.S. worried about the effects of Bush's remarks. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that the "axis of evil" line may have undermined reformers in Iran. "I'd just as soon not have seen that in the speech," Hagel said. [Washington Post, Feb. 4, 2002]

Democratic leaders in Congress, who had staunchly backed the war in Afghanistan, began to ask questions, too.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., praised the Bush administration's initial success, but added, "I think there is expansion without at least a clear direction." Daschle also has raised questions about unfinished business in Afghanistan, including the inability to capture or kill bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told Pentagon officials that they should not expect "blank checks" from Congress without a fuller explanation of the goals for the expanded war. "We seem to be good at developing entrance strategies, not so good at developing exit strategies," Byrd said.

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., Commerce Committee chairman, said the administration's course seemed set on an endless sea of budgetary red ink. "Since we've got a war, we've got to have deficits, and the war is never going to end," Hollings said. [NYT, March 1, 2002]

Many Americans also were surprised by the resurgence of bloodshed in Afghanistan. Despite early proclamations of victory, U.S. forces found themselves launching a new offensive last Friday against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces regrouping in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. That fighting has brought the heaviest U.S. casualties of the war.

Carte Blanche

In the almost six months since the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the American people have given Bush their overwhelming support, in part, to show the world that the nation is united and determined to punish the perpetrators. That determination also sent a message to U.S. enemies that no new attacks would be tolerated.

The U.S. military assault on Afghanistan has met some important goals: driving bin Laden's Taliban hosts from power and disrupting al-Qaeda's freedom of operation. But Bush now seems to be reading that initial success and his domestic polls as carte blanche to spread the war wherever he chooses, without significant debate in the United States or consultation with U.S. allies.

The difficult truth might be that the plague of terrorism is like a chronic illness that can be managed but not eradicated, that the best hope is to contain political violence through an intelligent mix of security and attention to the root causes that feed the despair and anger that turn young men and women into suicide bombers.

The poll results of the Muslim population reinforce that warning: by relying too heavily on military force and by going too far without international support, the administration could start new cycles of killing – and end up making the world an even more dangerous place.

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