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Losing touch

The Bush Administration is losing its equilibrium, in pursuit of a war against terror, writes Michael Moran. A strident tone and unrealistic expectations are alienating its allies.
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They’re losing it. I don’t mean the war: what the Bush administration has misplaced is its sense of equilibrium, its broad, bipartisan approach to the war and its ability to act against America’s enemies without squandering the enormous well of international sympathy that the Sept. 11 attacks produced for the United States.

Over the past few weeks, battlefield errors, policy misjudgments and downright ignorant statements have placed at risk five months of carefully executed combat against al-Qaida and its allies. Since the war began, malicious critics knew they could depend on the chaos of war to give them something to complain about. Civilians are killed, alliances unravel, ethics are sidelined for the sake of the war effort. This has always been so with warfare, and it is no different in Afghanistan.

Until mid-January, however, the American mistakes were tactical errors and did not necessarily damage either the war’s larger aim of defeating al-Qaida or the United States’ reputation as a country fighting to make the world a better place.

The great disasters that were predicted as the bombing started last October - a Vietnam-like quagmire, widespread famine, uprisings in the Arab “street,” global economic depression, nuclear war between India and Pakistan - none of them have as yet materialized.

That is an enormous credit to this administration, and it would not have been possible without the “yin” of its moderates and “yang” of its hard-liners. For every fiery diatribe from Washington or errant bomb in Afghanistan, there has been a quiet, clever behind-the-scenes effort to ensure that the practical need to win allies in this global war would not be destroyed by a careless remark.


Now, suddenly, the “yin” has vanished from the Bush Administration, drowned out by a new tone so outlandishly hawkish that even some Republican loyalists are squirming. This goes well beyond the dispute over treatment of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. (Anyone who has watched French anti-terrorist police in Corsica, or the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast, knows to take all the hand-wringing from Europe about the treatment of “terrorists” with a grain of salt.)

As if emboldened by the quick collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the administration appears to have decided that Sept. 11 did not warrant a change in America’s approach to the world. A series of moves in the past two weeks has made it clear that a deeper reassessment of the world simply will not take place.

Unqualified U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt — regimes that have produced most of the ranks of the Sept. 11 hijackers and al-Qaida’s forces — will not change. The United Nations will not get American endorsement to fill the dangerous vacuums that occur when nations like Somalia or Afghanistan fail. Allies can either support American actions or keep quiet, even on issues of enormous importance to their national security, such as South Korea’s peace initiatives with North Korea.

The mistakes of the past month are not irreversible, but they do have consequences that may come back to haunt America. Among the most egregious:

Bush’s State of the Union speech. Amazingly, at a time when the country is trying to convince the nations of the world to help it pursue a global war against a terrorist network with global reach, the president delivered a speech so parochial that it is a wonder the National Security Agency didn’t prevent it from being broadcast outside the United States. Even before the speech was broadcast, senior administration officials, including Condoleezza Rice, the president’s own National Security Advisor, were calling reporters to backpedal on the outlandish “axis of evil” accusation.

These regimes may well be evil, but they certainly do not constitute an “axis.” Iran and Iraq hate each other as do no other nations on the planet - except, perhaps, North and South Korea. Overseas, Bush’s statement fed right into the arguments of America’s enemies that Bush is determined to use the Sept. 11 attacks to settle old grudges.

Equating drugs with terror: In advertisements paid for by the Drug Enforcement Administration that debuted during the Super Bowl - and also broadcast to a huge audience around the planet - a voice asks, “Where do terrorists get their money?” The answer came back: “Drugs.” On the face of it, this isn’t a controversial statement. For decades, insurgencies have armed themselves with drug proceeds - from the Irish Republican Army to Colombia’s FARC to the Kurdish PKK guerrillas. The problem with this argument is that the United States and its allies frequently use exactly the same tactics to fund their own wars by proxy, including the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Balkans. The Northern Alliance, in the year before the Taliban fell, was described by the U.S. State Department as among the largest traffickers of heroin in the world. What did the Northern Alliance do with that money? Did anyone notice the AK-47s and T-62s its soldiers were driving? Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians and their cousins in Albania have a lock on the European trade in heroin, and the rebels America supported in 1999 take their cut. The list goes on: the Reagan Administration turned a blind eye to drug proceeds that funded Nicaragua’s Contras in the 1980s; illegal drug and diamond smuggling fueled U.S.-backed UNITA guerrillas in Angola in the 1970s.

A new war in Colombia: As if to drive home how far the war on terrorism has mutated, the administration confirmed this week it is seeking an additional $98 million next year, on top of $1.3 billion spent since 2000, expanding its armament and training program in Colombia. Fleshing out the new “drugs equals terror” corollary of the Bush doctrine, the administration is in effect adding a new group to its “axis of evil:” the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group that has been in cahoots with Colombia’s drug cartels for a decade now.

Previously, American aid to Colombia’s military, at least officially, was directed at the anti-drug effort. American special forces are stationed in the country and work closely with a special brigade of the Colombian military that specializes in raiding remote drug airstrips and production facilities. The new money, however, is earmarked not for the war against drugs, but for the war against the FARC — a 38-year-old monstrosity of a civil war that the American military has been slipping more deeply into for a decade now. As Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy noted in The New York Times Wednesday: “For the first time, the administration is proposing to cross the line from counter-narcotics to counterinsurgency.”

The Israelis and Palestinians: The sincere efforts of many presidents failed to bring about peace in the Middle East, and no one expects that the Bush Administration can suddenly reverse that. What they have reversed, perhaps forever, is the notion that the United States is an “honest broker” in the peace process - a power able to help the two parties come to a settlement.

After an initial effort to force both sides to calm their respective hotheads after Sept. 11, American pressure in the Middle East now focuses solely on Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. What Arabs feared and American officials denied for so long has come to pass: Israel has been given a blank check. This may not seem important with murder and assassination a daily event right now, but it severely damages America’s ability to claim that the “war on terrorism” is not a war against Islam. And if it has shown nothing else, the Arab world has demonstrated that it can and will produce people willing to kill themselves and thousands of innocent civilians to fight such a war.


The final tragedy here is the return to business as usual in Washington. The actions listed above have given Democrats the grounds they have been waiting for in this election year to begin second-guessing the administration. This hasn’t extended to the actual conduct of the war just yet. How long will it be before Bush says to Osama bin Laden, “Make my day”? Such bravado is unnecessary, and don’t kid yourself into thinking that bin Laden is actually the target of the message. But politicians seem genetically incapable of resisting this kind of nonsense, despite the damage it does to their own cause in the long-run.

The pursuit of a bloodthirsty, stateless enemy across an entire planet was never going to be easy, but for close to five months the Bush Administration made it look that way. With the important exception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American foreign policy and war planning was conducted with a subtlety that made it possible for traditional allies to stare down anti-Americanism on their own territory without imposing unrealistic constraints on the conduct of the war.

This is far more important that most Americans appear to know. From Singapore to Canada, Spain to Pakistan, France to Kenya, the key arrests in the war against terrorism have been made abroad, by foreign governments acting on information developed jointly with American law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Without their assistance, these thousand or more arrests simply would not have happened. The accomplishments of special operations forces in Afghanistan or the jungles of the Philippines will be completely useless if we lose the support of friendly nations where the more sophisticated terrorists are practicing the art of living inconspicuously in the great democratic cities of the world.

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