Is the U.S. losing focus?

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

The Bush administration's preoccupation with the Iraq problem seems to have dissipated its energy to go back to its original agenda of rooting out international terrorism.

AS I began this column came news of an explosion in Gaza Strip in which three U.S. nationals were killed. This is described as the first attack on U.S. targets in Israel or Palestinian territory since 1948, when a U.S. Consul was murdered. Significantly, it took place within hours of the U.S. vetoing a resolution in the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israel for its aggression on Syrian territory. There are fears that this incident could herald the beginning of a fresh wave of violence directed at Americans in the area.

The development has to be read in conjunction with the worsening scene in Iraq where not a day passes without a U.S. soldier dying in sniper attacks. More U.S. soldiers are said to have died after the war than during its course. According to USA Today, 332 U.S. servicemen have died (212 from hostile fire and 120 from accidents) since the war began on March 19. There are also no signs that the administration propped up by the occupational forces has been able to push up civilian infrastructure facilities to levels that would fairly satisfy all sections of the population. Despite the brave front put up by the White House, the Iraqi situation seems far from happy and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. According to a recent poll, the tide of popular opinion is turning against the Bush administration for the mess that the country has got into in Iraq.

Till a little while ago, blaming President Bush and his aides for Iraq was considered sacrilegious and unpatriotic. As a result, many opinion makers in the U.S. who would normally have spoken frankly in public had preferred to lie low. This was unusual for a country that was widely known for its utter transparency and incredibly fierce public debates on the real or imaginary commissions and omissions of the government. Slowly, perceptions are changing, and realisation is dawning that it is time the issues involved here were openly discussed so that the administration gains fresh ideas on how to retrieve a nearly hopeless situation. The belief is that since Iraq has become closely intertwined - possibly unjustifiably - with the overall battle against terrorism, an uninhibited debate would benefit the terrorism issue as well.

Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire (Public Affairs, New York, 2003) is a forthright analysis of the situation by General Wesley K. Clark, an aspirant for the White House in 2004. It hit the stands in the U.S. just a few days ago. It has not yet caused a sensation but is beginning to receive some attention. It is too early in the day to predict whether this Democrat from Arkansas will ever realise his ambitions. But he is talking a lot of sense in a setting starved of imaginative analysis because of the wrong belief that conformity was the need of the hour and any public dissent could prejudice U.S. operations in West Asia.

General Clark is slated to give a series of four public lectures in the next few weeks to explain his stand. His motives are being questioned, and he seems undaunted by the consequences of his bold views, deriving courage from what one of his friends is supposed to have told him: "Who says freedom of speech is free?" We in India know only too well how merciless the organs of a vibrant democracy are toward anyone who dared to take on the Establishment. Reputations are so easily tarnished that few find it worth their while to combat anyone in authority for fear of losing their standing in public life.

Without using intemperate and vitriolic language, General Clark debunks the U.S. rationale for going to war in Iraq. He cites the country's failure to unearth weapons of mass destruction and to prove any Saddam connection with Bin Laden, despite a lot of hype, as two factors that have considerably eroded U.S. credibility. Taking stock of the situation, General Clark believes that the U.S. has committed several mistakes, the chief of which was the disbandment of the 400,000-strong Iraqi Army, adding so many to the already large pool of disgruntled unemployed youth. He hints at the alternative strategy that was available, namely, retaining large chunks of the Army and gradually weeding out Baath loyalists and other hostile elements. The offshoot of this error in judgment has been the creation underground of a massive section of anti-American and pro-Saddam elements that is ceaselessly inflicting American military casualties at will. Clark's logic is convincing. Another failure has been on the communication front. The U.S. exercise in maintaining a dialogue with the civilian population to tell them of what its plans are and what its difficulties are in executing them has been just modest. "Information dominance" is what Clark would have liked to see to discredit Saddam and his followers. This is why Baathists have been able to get away with their misinformation campaign.

The one thread that runs through Clark's excellently written account of the Iraqi war and its aftermath is that the whole campaign, apart from its significant impact on U.S. military morale, has undeniably distracted the country from the issue of international terrorism. The euphoria generated by images of "falling statues" (of Saddam) had clearly pushed vital issues to the background for a length of time, spreading all round a false sense of triumph.

While this has now been replaced by certain despondency caused by the inability to get at Saddam and the mounting U.S. casualties, the fact of the matter is that the Bush administration remains so preoccupied with tackling the Iraq situation that it seems to have lost its energy, if not zest, to go back to the main task of rooting out international terrorism. This criticism may be hard on the Bush administration that has many pressing domestic problems, such as high unemployment and a sagging economy. But having consciously taken up the role of the world's policeman, it cannot shy away from the unenviable combat with terrorists who are regrouping at places of their choice, thanks to some sympathetic and many inept governments in West Asia and South-East Asia.

What stands out starkly at this difficult hour is the U.S. inability to forge a credible and viable front against terrorism on a global scale. Noises of support do emanate from many corners. The glue of unity of purpose and action is somehow yet to be generated. This is Clark's major lament. He would like to see a strong transatlantic front that will sharpen the offensive against terrorism. Perhaps the inability to rope in Germany and France in a big way has been a grave failure.

Another distortion has been the U.S.' excessive attention to sponsors of terrorism rather than on terrorists themselves. It is Clark's belief that states such as Iran and Syria that openly encourage terrorist groups no doubt deserve the utmost condemnation. What the U.S. should be more concerned with is how to identify individuals associated with these groups and keep them on the run if they cannot be captured. Clark may not be wholly correct here if one recounts many notable arrests that have been made with the assistance of some governments. The one that comes to my mind readily is the arrest in August of Hambali, whom the Thai police regards as a prominent Al Qaeda operative. The point that Clark probably makes is that there is too much of hype on the role of rogue states rather than on the need for coordinated work on the ground that will ensure swift and productive operations.

There is universal belief - India is no exception - that governments have done precious little to tackle the causes of terrorism. The focus has instead been on mundane needs of policing for dealing blows on the scourge. While this cannot be given up, what is required is a strategy that will rob terrorism of its glamour and cut at the roots of recruitment to its ranks. (Alongside the extreme Wahhabist ideology and funding by Saudi Arabia to foster it, the "class-ridden corrupt society of Pakistan and its madrassas" are also cited as contributing to the sharp edge that terrorism has acquired in this part of the globe.)

Clark identifies the deep sense of injustice and powerlessness that prevails among the Muslim masses in most parts of West Asia. He pleads for sweeping reforms in what he terms as "critical societies". These will encompass "more pragmatic education, broader economic development and wider political participation". Clark does not say anything that has not been said before in the context of the malaise that affects West Asia.

The meaningful context in which he puts forward his proposition, however, is most appealing. Saudi Arabia is one example of how a ruling coterie can keep a majority of undereducated and poverty-stricken population in subjugation for centuries. Not surprisingly did it contribute 15 of the 19 wicked men who struck on September 11, 2001. There are signs that the Saudi ruling class is apprehensive of the growing restiveness among its citizens. It has offered a few token reforms, including an election for public offices.

Reports of large rallies in Riyadh demanding more far-reaching changes leading to hundreds of arrests should be disquieting to the ruling class. What should cause concern to the Americans is the admitted disappearance of hordes of Saudis from their homeland. The conjecture is that they have crossed over to Iraq to join elements that are causing problems to the occupation troops. The gravity of this development cannot be exaggerated.

Clark shows a good understanding of the challenges that face the U.S. administration. Relevant to the anti-terrorist cause is the need to contain and halt the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes and ambitions. This is a gargantuan task with several implications. Specifically it calls for more U.S. military commitments if the two countries have to be disciplined.

Clark has no doubt a specific audience, the U.S. electorate, in sight. That does not detract from the merits of a concrete proposal that he puts forward to correct, at least slightly, the economic imbalances across the world. He suggests the creation of a Cabinet or sub-Cabinet level agency - a department of international development - that will take care of the aid needs of many developing countries that may have even unwittingly provided the base for terrorist movements. It is not as if the U.S. has not been providing funds for countries in distress. Unfortunately such assistance has very often been based more on the extent of their loyalty than their need. This could change if there is an assessment by a government agency of the kind envisaged by Clark that is more professional than political.

I enjoyed reading General Clark because he brings in a breath of fresh air in an ambience that, for a while, had been forced into some stuffiness, uncharacteristic of a land that has always boasted of permitting free debate even if it sometimes degenerated into libel and calumny. Clark may have, therefore, initiated a full-fledged exercise that brings in new ideas on how to handle terrorism across countries divided by different political and economic perceptions.

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