It is now more than a month since the “war on terror” began. At the time of writing the Northern Alliance has captured Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul: the Bush administration can claim a significant victory and real progress in its effort to destroy the Taliban. On the US home front there have been no more anthrax-laden letters for a while and the edgy public mood has calmed. No one is quite sure what “normal” should now be, but there is a widespread public desire to return to it, even—perhaps especially—in New York City. The President continues to enjoy record levels of public support.
How justified is the American public’s continuing confidence in its government? Washington’s handling of the anthrax scare, and of domestic security as a whole, has not been very reassuring. This is not so surprising. In Republican administrations especially, the departments of health and transportation, the postal service, and even the office of attorney general are typically filled with second-string political friends and time-servers, men and women elevated beyond their competence to posts in which their party has little interest. They never expected to find themselves in the front line of a major national crisis and their performance has been inept. Like the FBI and the CIA, they appear overwhelmed and underprepared.
The secretaries of state and defense of the Bush administration have performed much better, as might have been expected from their background and experience. They have even begun to mount a propaganda offensive in which an Arabic-speaking professional US diplomat at last went on the al-Jazeera television station and presented the US case. The military has been less convincing. On the evidence to date, and notwithstanding the retreat of the Taliban forces to their strongholds in the south, the United States has been fighting not so much the war it needs to fight as the one for which its forces are best prepared. That, of course, is what peacetime armies always do at the start of wars—the learning curve is protracted and usually bloody. In this war, given America’s overwhelming strength, we shall probably win all the battles in any case. Whether we shall win our war remains an open question.
Up to now, Washington’s main concern has not been winning the war so much as securing the “coalition.” Our priorities since September 11 have been clear: Washington, and especially the Pentagon, has taken extra special care to make friends, purchase allies, neutralize opponents, assuage local sensibilities, appease Pakistani fears of a Northern Alliance victory, ensure the safety of its soldiers and airmen, fine-tune its bombing campaign, and in general behave like a good international citizen. These are all worthy objectives in peacetime, and one can only hope that the US will continue to be so solicitous of international sentiment once the war is over.
In the meantime, however, the war on the Taliban has taken longer than anticipated—just a week before the fall of Kabul the Pentagon was expressing its surprise that the Afghans had held out so long. As a consequence, and despite the best efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the fault lines within the international coalition have begun to show. The Pakistanis, who are far from happy at the presence in Kabul of the Northern Alliance, have publicly spoken of submitting the bill for their support. The Russians have warned Washington not to forget India, and no one should forget Kashmir. The administration has not acted effectively to address the conflict in Israel’s occupied territories, and is paying the price for this caution in the Middle East.
Even in Europe, support for what is now increasingly referred to as “America’s War” has dropped very rapidly. Newspapers and television news reports in Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere have routinely reminded their readers and viewers of how much havoc has been wrought in Afghanistan. Americans seem quite unaware of this shift. When it is brought to their attention they react with incomprehension and dismay—understandably, since US mass media rarely report on overseas reaction. The Bush administration has successfully limited information about the war to a minimum, and Osama bin Laden’s interviews and pronouncements are still kept out of the US media.
All of this, it seems to me, points to a paradox in America’s current international position. Before September 11 the US was widely seen as arrogant and unhelpful in international affairs, and on the verge of retreat into a smug unilateralism, washing its hands of foreign crises and shared concerns. In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington the country was awash in genuine international sympathy. The Bush administration set out to mobilize these good feelings behind its war against terrorists, and it mostly succeeded. But the “coalition” was an inch deep, in large measure a figment of American imagination, energy, and money. Worse, most of its members were not being asked to do anything much beyond lining up behind American military action. In short, the world was expected to place its faith in what amounts to American unilateralism, albeit in a very different key.
Understandably, that faith has proven shaky. There is some resentment at being made to share responsibility for American actions while having no say in them. Indeed, the US might have been better off had it paid less attention to the need for Saudi, Syrian, Iranian, Pakistani, and other allies and considered instead a lightning campaign to remove the Taliban and capture bin Laden. Washington would certainly have taken flak, but that would have been the price of being a great power, and anyway success would have silenced most critics. As it is, we have spent a month dropping very heavy ordnance on a country whose people were not the ostensible object of our wrath, and have put our allies to the trouble of justifying this to their domestic constituencies. Blair, Schröder, Chirac, and Berlusconi are now fighting on two fronts—side by side with the Americans against terror, and at home against critics of their unquestioning alignment with the United States. And this even before the political difficulties begin in Kabul, and with Osama bin Laden still at large.
So what happens next? We are about to engage in nation-building in Afghanistan, with the help of some rather unappetizing local forces whose ambitions we shall now have to rein in, and neighboring countries whose interests we do not share. It will be crucial for the US to provide heavy and sustained humanitarian aid to a country where many are threatened with starvation. But that is only the beginning. For a brief moment following September 11 there really was something resembling an international consensus on the nature of terrorism and the need to extirpate it. But already local prejudices and agendas have resurfaced. In Yugoslavia, for example, President Kostunica has exploited the international campaign against “terrorism” as a cover for inflammatory rhetoric about Albanian “terrorists” and their misguided American backers.*
In Macedonia the Slav-dominated government has capitalized on anti-terrorist rhetoric to retreat from its undertaking to work with the Albanian minority. Muslims there and elsewhere have good grounds for fearing the implications for them of America’s new focus, despite President Bush’s best efforts to convince them otherwise. What is more, American attention—vital for their well-being—is once again far away. America’s reengagement with the world in one region is thus offset by its departure from the scene somewhere else. This is a pity, because even after September 11 there will be more to foreign policy than the hunt for international criminals.
Short of another atrocity, the US is going to find it hard to mobilize the rest of the world for a sustained struggle against shadowy enemies. The bombing campaign, whatever its tactical benefits in the anti-Taliban cause, has directed attention away from the main issue of criminal prosecution of terrorist networks and reminded Amer- ica’s critics everywhere of all their longstanding complaints about American power. If the US decides to identify, for example, Baghdad or Damascus as fomenters of terrorism and acts accordingly, then it will be on its own. Even the British will slip away, as Tony Blair has already made clear.
As I write, President Bush has just delivered a series of speeches demanding that our coalition partners and others give more than mere verbal support to our battle with terrorism. That is fair enough (and the Western Europeans have indeed done so). But when the call first went out from Washington after September 11 for countries to stand up and be counted, it sounded the trumpet for mobilization in a common fight. Now it sounds a bit like the FBI’s pathetic admission that it has no idea what to do about the anthrax attacks and would “welcome” public input. And it is even less convincing: seen from abroad, the war in Afghanistan is Sheriff Bush’s affair, and everyone else is in the posse, following orders.
Our priority now should therefore be to complete our business in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, do our best to ensure that something stable is put in place of the Taliban, and then pay serious attention not just to the threat of terrorism but to the state of America’s relations with the rest of the world. The longer the war drags on, the more the US will be perceived as unable to accomplish its goals and the greater will be the difficulty of even our closest allies in holding the line in the face of public opposition at home.
—November 15, 2001
December 20, 2001