Bellicose Bush

Published : Feb 16, 2002 00:00 IST

The Bush administration moves into a phase of active military engagement, naming more countries in the 'axis of evil', and the international community is resentful of the U.S. plans.

FOR former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is not particularly known to be a stickler for logical coherence, some of the locutions employed by President W. George Bush in his most recent State of the Union address seemed to suggest that the U.S. had "lost its mind". For many observers in Europe, Bush's extraordinary suggestion of an "axis of evil" linking Iraq, Iran and North Korea, seemed unconnected to contemporary geopolitical realities. It was, they said, perhaps no more than a thin pretext for gaining budget allocations and international approval for a technologically infeasible and strategically destabilising missile defence programme.

A few days after Bush delivered perhaps the most bellicose speech heard anywhere for decades, dissent was beginning to crystallise across a broad spectrum of nations. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine spoke of the major threats inherent in the "simplistic approach" of the U.S., which reduced everything to the war against "terrorism". Resentment against U.S. "unilateralism", he said, was widespread, and it was only a matter of time before other nations joined in giving expression to these.

The United Kingdom, as the U.S.' most loyal ally, was keen to temper the rising concerns in other parts of the world. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw seemed to suggest that the phraseology employed by Bush tended to be rather more extreme than the actions that would follow. The State of the Union address, he implied, was a partisan political exercise delivered to a domestic audience. Inevitably, Bush's tone had been influenced by the upcoming U.S. congressional elections, which would determine how far and how fast he is able to proceed with his conservative agenda in domestic politics. There was no need, Straw suggested in remarks that did not play very well with Washington, for the rest of the world to be excessively worried.

Somewhat hopefully, certain strategic thinkers within India sought to impart their own gloss. The key point of Bush's speech was left unsaid, they argued, seemingly oblivious to the casualness with which Bush had named prospective targets for military action. Being constrained from naming Pakistan, which is a vital adjunct in the current "war on terrorism", Bush allegedly chose to identify obliquely the criteria - sponsorship of terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction - that could soon transform Pakistan from ally to target.

A week after Bush's extraordinary performance, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon headed out to Washington for consultations on the situation in West Asia. He was expected to push strongly for the public ostracism of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as an irrelevance in the current context. And the mood in the Bush administration was far more sympathetic than at any time since Sharon was elected Prime Minister in an extraordinary landslide in 2001.

The Palestinian Intifada completed a year just a fortnight after the September 11 attacks in the U.S. There was at that juncture an apparent willingness on the part of the U.S. to counsel Israel's Prime Minister to moderate his enthusiasm for maximum force and the politics of assassinations. But the brief display of scruple on the part of Washington is now clearly over. Sharon is closer than ever before to obtaining the mandate that he has always sought to stamp his will on the occupied Palestinian territories. The sweeping triumphs registered by U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have persuaded the Bush administration that it need not expend any more effort to keep the Arab nations onside. More than ever before, Israel's interests are now going to be the decisive influence in the U.S.' war plans.

Iraq and North Korea have featured as constant elements in recent theological pronouncements from the U.S. on the nature of evil. But the inclusion of Iran in this supposed axis between three nations whose mutual ties have been tenuous at the best of times, is incomprehensible except as an overt concession to Israel's security interests.

Seemingly setting the stage for his meeting with Sharon, Bush followed up his speech with the accusation that Iran had been engaged in the massive trafficking of Islamic militants to Syria, from where they were crossing into Lebanon to harass Israeli security forces patrolling their uneasy northern borders. U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised the stakes still further by alleging Iran's complicity in the escape of erstwhile Taliban and Al Qaeda elements facing the wrath of the military action in Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld's charges seem intuitively false simply because the Shia clergy in Iran have never shown the slightest sympathy for the Sunni Wahabbi variant of the religion that the Taliban claimed to represent. Relations between Iran and the Taliban regime have always been embittered and almost broke out into open hostilities in 1998. There have been concerns in the U.S. over Iran's alleged cross-border manoeuvres in the Afghan town of Herat. But even if true, these have been in the sustenance of the local tribal leader Ismail Khan, whose anti-Taliban credentials and relatively progressive social philosophy are widely acknowledged. In itself, shoring up Ismail Khan does not amount to a casus belli.

Iran has been accused of shipping arms to Palestinian militants after a murky maritime drama in which the Israeli defence forces interdicted a vessel carrying 50 tonnes of lethal weaponry in the Red Sea. The U.S. responded coolly at first, but under relentless Israeli pressure, seemed to accept Sharon's account of sinister collusion between Arafat and the Iranian regime. The sustenance that Iran renders the Hezbollah Party - an element of the ruling coalition in Lebanon but considered a terrorist organisation by both Israel and the U.S.- is also of direct concern.

FROM Iran, the reactions to Bush's verbal excesses were quick to come. He said Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was "thirsty for human blood". "The Islamic Republic of Iran", he said, "is proud to be the target of the rage and hatred of the world's greatest Satan."

President Mohammad Khatami condemned the arrogant and aggressive tone of Bush's speech, which he characterised as "an insult to the Iranian nation". And Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi cancelled plans to attend the World Economic Forum in New York, accusing the U.S. of betraying the international community in its struggle against terrorism: "After September 11, we felt there was a great opportunity to mobilise the international will to fight terrorism. But unfortunately, this opportunity was misused and this abuse is a treason to humanity."

These sentiments were later formally set down in a letter that Iran sent to the United Nations, protesting the tone and contents of Bush's address. The U.S., Iran complained, was embarking on a campaign on terrorism unmindful of the canons of justice and the root causes of political violence. This undermined the will of the international community "to embark on a real and comprehensive war on terrorism".

True to its record of waging war more gladly than it chooses to pursue peace, the U.S. administration is believed to have drawn up military plans for an offensive thrust into Iraq from both the northern and southern frontiers, to effect the unfinished agenda of the 1991 Gulf War - the toppling of the Ba'athist regime of President Saddam Hussein and his replacement by a more docile administration that will not be a rallying centre for Arab grievances. If the bellicosity index of Bush's speech is any guide to immediate military intentions, then Iraq would be the first target. Indeed, many right-wing commentators in the U.S. have remarked that military action against Iran may not be immediately feasible. Rather, the approach to Iran should be guided by the "demonstration principle" - a massive assault on neighbouring Iraq aimed at the quick overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, they argue, would convey the intended message. Iran would then be under compulsion to mend its ways and this would strengthen the domestic anti-Islamic constituency to mobilise forces for a determined bid for power.

Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary and the principal hawk in the Bush administration, has been pushing for a quick resolution of the Iraq issue over the last year. The best defence could well be a good offence, he said at an international security conference in Munich early in February. Perhaps unwittingly, he was using the precise lines that critics of missile defence have deployed in the recent past - that no defence can work against a good offence.

Joining the chorus of bellicosity, Senator John McCain, a recent contender for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, identified Iraq as the next target of the war. "The next front is apparent and we should not shirk from acknowledging it," he said. "A terrorist resides in Baghdad with the resources of an entire state at his disposal." To almost universal irritation and bewilderment, he continued: "A day of reckoning is approaching. Not simply for Saddam Hussein but for all members of the Atlantic community whose governments face the choice of ending the threat we face every day from this rogue regime or carrying on as if such behaviour... were somehow still tolerable."

The U.S. Congress of course is constitutionally empowered to take the country to war, but this was an unprecedented case of a lone Senator declaring war. And the U.S. has done its case no good by loose talk of Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks and a consistent record of producing duds in the garb of evidence. The Chinese delegate at the Munich conference seemed to speak for the entire conclave when he warned the U.S. against "arbitrarily enlarging" the scope of operations. The international community, he insisted, was entitled to ask for "convincing evidence and clearly defined targets" before it consented to the extension of the war on terrorism. In like vein, a Russian official asserted that Moscow saw no evidence to suggest that the countries named in Bush's "axis of evil" were indeed supporting terrorist activity.

The inclusion of North Korea in the putative axis of evil provides transparent proof that the U.S. intends, under the guise of the next phase of the war against terrorism, to push relentlessly its geostrategic interests in sensitive quarters of the world. The process of reconciliation with the North that South Korean President Kim Dae Jung initiated won him a Nobel Peace Prize, but little credit with Washington. Having wrecked Kim's "sunshine policy" because it could potentially prove adverse to the U.S. strategy of containment of China, the Bush administration now intends seemingly to move into a phase of active military engagement. The long overdue stirrings of reform in Japan, now entering the deepest throes yet of a seemingly unending recession, which could also impel it in the direction of greater autonomy in foreign and domestic policy, are also of obvious concern to the U.S.

MEANWHILE, the first theatre of the ongoing moral crusade remains unpacified. In the Afghan town of Gardez, rival Pushtun militias battled bitterly for much of the latter half of January, before the town was secured under the control of forces that disavow any loyalty to the central authority of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. And in the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif, Deputy Defence Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum has launched his formidable Uzbek forces into open hostilities against the overwhelming Tajik groups that owe allegiance to Defence Minister Mohammad Fahim. The growing evidence of lawlessness was a serious embarrassment for Karzai as he completed a triumphal tour of the U.S. and the U.K., receiving state honours that are normally given with greater discrimination. And when the U.N. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, requested the world body to enhance its deployments in the country, it was a formal acknowledgment that post-Taliban Afghanistan still stood precariously on the verge of chaos and anarchy.

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