Published: August 6 2004 04:00
Three recent news items provide telling evidence of how devastating to American national security has been George W. Bush's misadventure in the Middle East. Taken together, they signal a growing danger not only to American global leadership but also to the country's domestic security. They also reflect sadly on Britain's role as America's trusted ally and counsellor.
The first item pertains to the highly publicised report of the commission into the attacks of September 11 2001. In its historical review, the commission states that the US enjoyed almost universal sympathy immediately after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. That sympathy came even from Arab countries. But the report goes on to note quite explicitly that in the subsequent two years not only the Arabs but, increasingly, Muslims generally have turned intensely hostile toward the US. Indeed, the public opinion statistics cited by the report are staggering and ominous.
The second item that recently appeared in the press involves a highly professional poll of the political attitudes of Arabs living in the various states of the Middle East, taken with the assistance of Shibley Telhami, a disting uished American expert on the Middle East. It shows a significant shift in the self-identification of the peoples of the region, from a focus on nationalism to a primary emphasis on Islamic religious identity, couched often in militant terms.
The third item is the most specific, but similarly disturbing. For years, even under Saddam Hussein, Christians living in Iraq benefited from the religious tolerance of their overwhelmingly more numerous Muslim brothers. Recently, in a co-ordinated attack, several churches were bombed and a number of Christians killed (and presumably many more profoundly alarmed).
What has happened since the 9/11 attacks to precipitate the increasingly intense hatred for the US, not only in the Middle East but in the Islamic world at large?
What is precipitating the shift towards the intensifying religious passions that are turning almost 25 per cent of the world's population against America?
Two dates stand out, and both are mentioned throughout the Middle East a s catalytic events, galvanising a hostile view of the US: March 2003 and March 2002. On both occasions, the Bush administration adopted a stance that was not only unilateral and lacking international support but was perceived by the Muslims of the region as violently repressive, lacking in fairness and justified mainly by stretching or distorting the truth.
The decision that led to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 has been discredited not only by the falseness of the arguments made by Mr Bush and Tony Blair to the effect that Mr Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, but also by the subsequent social mess produced by a badly planned operation. The continuing occupation of the country by the US military, with British participation, revives Arab memories of the relatively recent British and French colonial presence in the region. It offends their political dignity as it inflames their religious passions. It fosters extremism.
The unqualified support provided in March 2002 by Mr Bush for th e violent dismantling of the Palestinian Authority and for the sustained humiliation of Yassir Arafat - launched by Ariel Sharon and followed by Mr Bush's endorsement of Mr Sharon as "a man of peace" - convinced most Arabs that the US was no longer seeking a just solution to the tragic and mutually lethal conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The quest for peace has been replaced by isolated support for Israeli unilateralism: consider, for example, how in a recent United Nations vote the US joined Israel, Palau, Micronesia and two others in supporting Israel's wall-building project. Indeed, the US has come to be seen as allied with Israel in using almost identically violent methods in oppressing the Muslims of the Middle East.
Making matters worse has been the theological definition given to "the war on terrorism" as a struggle against a vague but generalised evil (a criticism that I make in my recent book and that was echoed by the 9/11 commission's report).
The Christian fundamenta lists who back Mr Bush prefer a generalised definition of terrorism as evil rooted in Islamic fundamentalism, while the neo-conservatives behind the Bush strategy have their special reasons for deliberately obscuring any specific linkage between terrorism and the problems of the Middle East.
The universal use of the term "war on terrorism" is not only demagogically expedient in domestic politics, but it inhibits any serious analysis of the critical threats facing America. It also liberates the Bush administration from any obligation to deal with the political background to terrorist activity, which in the case of American targets clearly originates specifically from the Middle East. The result is a policy based on a state of self-denial that is dangerous to America's well-being. It is isolating the US in the world, setting the Middle East ablaze and galvanising anti-western Islamic passions.
That the US, led by a president who likes simplistic Manichean slogans, might err in a region unfamiliar to it - and that it might do so especially because of the shock effects of the 9/11 attacks - is perhaps understandable, even if still deplorable. It is up to us, Americans, to correct our own missteps.
It is more difficult to understand why an ally with an intimate knowledge of the Arab world and a deep grasp of Islamic culture would have been so feckless as not to urge a wiser course of action.
Had the UK, America's most trusted ally, spoken firmly as the stalwart voice of Europe instead of acting as the supine follower in an exclusive Anglo-American partnership it could have made its voice heard. The US would have had no choice but to listen.
The UK can still do more to avoid a disaster in the Middle East. A serious American-European strategic initiative regarding the area's troubles - notably the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, the impasse with Iran, the need to address the political sources of the region's terrorism and to respond to its people's quest for political dignity - would truly h elp. Superior personal eloquence in making the case for a historically reckless course is no badge of merit but a disservice not only to America but ultimately to the democratic west as a whole.
The writer is former US national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and author of the recently published The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership