Sat, 23 Aug 2003

United States slow to grasp growing crisis

Martin Woollacott, Guardian News Service, London

The crisis of American power that has been building since the Twin Towers attacks is close to a point of no return. The bombs which brought havoc to Baghdad and Jerusalem this week and the likely collapse of the ceasefire in the Holy Land illustrate how unsteady is the American hand in the Middle East.

Great enterprises demand great qualities. While the U.S. has certainly not yet failed in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Holy Land, and has some achievements, ultimate success depends on it showing a new determination and clarity.

The Americans have been slow -- slow to act and slow witted; slow to discard the assumption that Iraq and Afghanistan could easily be restored to normality after their regimes were destroyed; slow to set aside ideological preconceptions; and slow to grasp, if they have grasped at all, the deviousness of their Israeli ally.

That slowness has allowed Islamic extremists to move into Iraq, in what force it is not yet known, but it would be prudent to assume it is substantial. That slowness has allowed Afghanistan to slip into a political limbo, half a real state and half a collection of dubious chieftaincies, in which, again, extremists can not only survive but pose a real threat to the country's future.

That slowness has given the Sharon government in Israel room to manipulate the "road map", a plan for peace which took an unconscionably long time to emerge. The fact that the bombs came on the same day, and shortly after serious Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, was fortuitous. But it is a reminder of how closely events in these three places are linked, much more closely than when the U.S. used to make play with "arcs of crisis" running from the Horn of Africa to Pakistan.

This time the crisis is as American as it is regional. It would not have unfolded in this way had the U.S. not intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and resumed its attempts to manage the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and if its interventions had not then faltered.

There is a natural tendency to assume that everything would be better if the U.S. would give the UN, its allies and the international community generally more say in all three situations. Should not the Baghdad tragedy, especially, shock the U.S. and the UN into a more equal partnership in Iraq? But America and the UN, as well as other actors like the European Union, cannot shed their differences so easily.

Already the interpretations of this week's attacks are showing a familiar divergence. For Bush, the bombs show that allies who have so far been unwilling to offer much help must now stand up and be counted in a war against those who would destroy civilization.

For most leaders elsewhere, the bombs demonstrate that America is in trouble, in part because of mistakes it insisted on making in spite of much advice, and that it is still not ready to change its attitude or policy. That does not mean that they think that America will not ultimately prevail. But their impulse may be, as nations, and insofar as they influence the UN, to limit their own exposure to the difficulties of Iraq.

The real danger is that such an impulse will be paralleled by a similar American readiness to contemplate retreat. Certainly the political pressures on the Bush administration are growing. That would be the worst of both worlds, an America striving to cut its losses by "internationalizing" and an international community unwilling to assume fully the burden.

Important as Iraq is, the most urgent aspect of this American crisis is in Israel and Palestine. Unless the U.S. faces up to the fact that Ariel Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, have been working to undermine the remarkable accord between Palestinian factions which has recently brought a period of relative peace to the Holy Land, a complete breakdown is entirely possible. The Sharon government sees the road map as an instrument for the disarmament and political extinction of all radical groups and parties among the Palestinians.

The peace process as it worked out on the Palestinian side instead brought a deal likely to preserve those groups on the basis that they suspended armed action. The Americans seemed to half recognize that, although no such deal had been envisaged by the road map, it was, in fact, a realistic basis on which to proceed.

The Israeli government, on the other hand, was enraged that its plan to bring about the political and military demise of the radicals was being derailed. It clearly determined to provoke Hamas and Islamic Jihad by assassinating their leaders, even though the two had called off their attacks.

As surely as the suicide bomber himself, Sharon and Mofaz were responsible for the deaths and injuries in the Jerusalem bus attack this week, and now by their incursions and yet another assassination, they may well have destroyed the Palestinian ceasefire.

Bush and Powell should act with speed and vigor. Deploring the loss of life, blaming both sides and endorsing the Israeli right to respond to attacks will not do. They need to pin the responsibility where it belongs, on the Sharon government, and prevent a new round of attacks. Unpalatable though such pressure on Israel may be to this administration, it is vital to exert it if America's larger purposes are to be served. Progress toward a settlement in the Holy Land is not a panacea which will end terrorism.

But lack of progress, or, worse, the abandonment of the effort to achieve it, would undoubtedly feed the growth of terrorism, and that now includes a threat to America, and anybody associated with America, in Iraq. Even if those who bombed the UN were Saddamists rather than Islamists, the two may have a common cause. Sharon, in other words, endangers American troops and American purposes, in the largest and boldest of its undertakings abroad.

Pity the poor Iraqis. They did not deserve to be delivered from Saddam only to find themselves on the frontline of a war between America and Arab extremists, especially the Islamist terrorists who were the one malign force from which seclusion under dictatorship had preserved them. One bomb does not yet indicate that fate, but the possibility undoubtedly looms.

The Americans now need Iraqi help as much as Iraqis ever needed American help, because the most effective policing has always been self policing. Indeed, the Americans need help from all quarters but, above all, they need to help themselves.

The Bush administration embarked on these interventions with the expectation that their own political interests, preferences and prejudices could be paramount in all the choices they would have to make. That is an illusion which they must shed, above all in dealing with the conflict in the Holy Land.