Distributed September 20, 2001
Copyright ©2001 by William O. Beeman
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 560 Words


William O. Beeman

Bush’s plan is excellent in principle, but falters on the details

In the Middle East, South and Central Asia, where the administration hopes to achieve the greatest cooperation, most governments sit very uneasily. If they don’t cooperate, they risk military retribution by the U.S. If they do cooperate, they risk being overthrown, removed from office, or even assassinated by extreme elements in their own societies.


President Bush made a fine, rousing speech on Sept. 20, espousing superb ideals. But as with all politics, the devil is in the details.

"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." With these words, President George W. Bush threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the world in his joint address to the Senate and House of Representatives. The fatal problem with this challenge is that the United States may secure the cooperation of world governments, but still retain the enmity of the people of the world. It is this hate that fuels terrorism, and will assure its continuance. Moreover, those that hate the United States often hate their own governments as much or more.

The President’s plan for combating terrorism is based first and foremost on an incorrect premise: that the world consists of nation states. This mainstay of U.S. foreign policy is a long-standing, but incorrect model of the world. Most European nations and Japan are nation states, where leaders can confidently speak for their citizenry and commit them to action. However, in the rest of the world, matters are far more complicated.

In the Middle East, South and Central Asia, where the Bush administration hopes to achieve the greatest cooperation, most governments sit very uneasily. Extreme pressure by the United States on the political leaders of these nations places them in a difficult situation. If they don’t cooperate, they risk military retribution by the United States. If they do cooperate, they risk being overthrown or removed from office, or even assassinated by extreme elements in their own societies. For example:

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has had the most nervous of administrations. Cognizant of the fact that militant forces in his own nation assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, Mubarak has conducted his life as if he lived in a bunker. A crackdown on terrorist groups in Egypt would destabilize his government and perhaps cost him his life.

President Mohammad Khatami in Iran is a reformer dealing with recalcitrant conservative forces in his own nation — including supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Kahmene’i. The conservatives in Iran control both the military and the judiciary forces. Khatami must walk a fine line in his dealings with his own government, or the conservatives will paralyze him, and perhaps foment his removal from office.

President Rakhmanov of Tajikistan refused to allow the United States to use his nation, which borders on Afghanistan, as a staging area to attack the Taliban. Tajikistan has just secured a truce in a debilitating civil war where Islamic forces have confronted the Russian-backed secular government. Any U.S. attack on terrorists involving the Tajikistan government will be perceived as an attack on Islamic forces. It will destabilize the peace, and touch off another round of civil war.

These situations are even more acute for Pakistan, Algeria, the Palestinians, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Each of these governments risks destabilization and destruction if they cooperate openly with the United States.

All of this illustrates perhaps the most important practical principle in international politics: One cannot ask one’s allies to shoot themselves in the foot. It is a guaranteed formula for failure. If President Bush truly hopes to gain the cooperation of these nations, it will require skilled diplomacy on a scale that the United States has never been able to marshal in the past.


William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University. He has more than 30 years experience in research throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

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