Dimitri Devyatkin on Sat, 27 Oct 2001 14:37:05 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> HOW TO LOSE A WAR

By Walden Bello

After over two weeks of Anglo-American bombardment of Afghanistan, once one
gets beyond the sound and fury of American bombs and the smokescreen of CNN
propaganda, it appears that in the war between the United States and Osama
bin Laden, the latter is coming out ahead.


It is doubtful if Washington has achieved anything of tactical or strategic
value except to make the "rubble bounce"--as the consequences of multiple
nuclear explosions in one area were cynically described during the cold
war. Indeed, the bombing, which has taken the lives of many civilians, has
worsened the U.S.'s strategic position in Southwest and South Asia by
eroding the stability of the pro-U.S. regimes in the Muslim world. A
radical fundamentalist regime is now a real possibility in Islamabad, while
Washington faces the unpleasant prospect of having to serve ultimately as a
police force between an increasingly isolated Saudi elite and a restive
youthful population that regards bin Laden as a hero.

Meanwhile in the rest of the developing world, the shock over the September
11 assault is giving way to disapproval of the U.S. bombing and, even more
worrisome to Washington, to bin Laden's emergence in the public
consciousness as a feisty underdog skillfully running circles around a big
bully who only knows one response: massive retaliation. A telling sign of
the times in Bangkok and many other cities in Southeast Asia is the way
young people are snapping up bin Laden T-shirts, and not only for reasons
of novelty.


CNN images of U.S. President George Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell ticking off the latest statement of
support for the U.S. mask the reality that Washington and London are losing
the propaganda war. Their effort to paint the military campaign as a
conflict between civilization and terrorists has instead come across as a
crusade of the Anglo-Saxon brotherhood against the Islamic world. So
jarring has British Prime Minister Tony Blair's public relations drive to
make Britain an equal partner in the war effort that the foreign minister
of Belgium, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, has
felt compelled to criticize Blair for compromising the interests of the EU.

In the aftermath of the September 11 assault, a number of writers wrote
about the possibility that that move could have been a bait to get the U.S.
bogged down in a war of intervention in the Middle East that would inflame
the Muslim world against it. Whether or not that was indeed bin Laden's
strategic objective, the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan has created precisely
such a situation. Moderate leaders of Thailand's normally sedate Muslim
community now openly express support for bin Laden. In Indonesia, once
regarded as a model of tolerant Islam, a recent survey revealed that half
of the respondents regard bin Laden as a fighter for justice and less than
35% regard him as a terrorist.

The global support that U.S. President George Bush has flaunted is
deceptive. Of course, a lot of governments would express their support for
the UN Security Council's call for a global campaign against terrorism. Far
fewer countries, however, are actually actively cooperating in intelligence
and police surveillance activities. Even fewer have endorsed the military
campaign and opened up their territory to transit by U.S. planes on the way
to Southwest Asia. And when one gets down to the decisive test of offering
troops and weapons to fight alongside the British and the Americans in the
harsh plains and icy mountains of Afghanistan, one is down to the hardcore
of the Western cold war alliance.


Bin Laden's terrorist methods are despicable, but one must grant the devil
his due. Whether through study or practice, he has absorbed the lessons of
guerrilla warfare in a national, Afghan setting and translated it to a
global setting. Serving as the international correlate of the national
popular base is the youth of the global Muslim community, among whom
feelings of resentment against Western domination were a volatile mix that
was simply waiting to be ignited.

The September 11 attacks were horrific and heinous, but from one angle,
what were they except a variant of Che Guevara's "foco" theory? According
to Guevara, the aim of a bold guerrilla action is twofold: to demoralize
the enemy and to empower your popular base by getting them to participate
in an action that shows that the all-powerful government is indeed
vulnerable. The enemy is then provoked into a military response that
further saps his credibility in what is basically a political and
ideological battle. For bin Laden, terrorism is not the end, but a means to
an end. And that end is something that none of Bush's rhetoric about
defending civilization through revenge bombing can compete with: a vision
of Muslim Asia rid of American economic and military power, Israel, and
corrupt surrogate elites, and returned to justice and Islamic sanctity.


Yet Washington was not exactly without weapons in this ideological war. In
the aftermath of September 11, it could have responded in a way that could
have blunted bin Laden's political and ideological appeal and opened up a
new era in U.S.-Arab relations.

First, it could have foresworn unilateral military action and announced to
the world that it would go the legal route in pursuing justice, no matter
how long this took. It could have announced its pursuit of a process
combining patient multinational investigation, diplomacy, and the
employment of accepted international mechanisms--like the International
Court of Justice.

These methods may take time but they work, and they ensure that justice and
fairness are served. For instance, patient diplomacy secured the
extradition from Libya of suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo
jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, and their successful prosecution under an
especially constituted court in the Hague. Likewise, the International
Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, set up under the auspices of the
ICJ, has successfully prosecuted some wartime Croat and Serbian terrorists
and is currently prosecuting former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic,
though of course much remains to be done.

The second prong of a progressive U.S. response could have been
Washington's announcing a fundamental change in its policies in the Middle
East, the main points of which would be the withdrawal of troops from Saudi
Arabia, the ending of sanctions and military action against Iraq, decisive
support for the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state, and
ordering Israel to immediately refrain from attacks on Palestinian

Foreign policy realists will say that this strategy is impossible to sell
to the American people, but they have been wrong before. Had the U.S. taken
this route, instead of taking the law--as usual--in its own hands, it could
have emerged as an example of a great power showing restraint and paved the
way to a new era of relations among people and nations. The instincts of a
unilateral, imperial past, however, have prevailed, and they have now run
rampage to such an extent that, even on the home front, the rights of
dissent and democratic diversity that have been one of the powerful
ideological attractions of U.S. society are fundamentally threatened by the
draconian legislation being pushed by law-and-order types like Secretary of
Justice John Ashcroft, who are taking advantage of the current crisis to
push through their pre-September 11 authoritarian agendas.


As things now stand, Washington has painted itself into a no-win situation.
If it kills bin Laden, he becomes a martyr, a source of never-ending
inspiration, especially to young Muslims. If it captures him alive, freeing
him will become a massive focus of resistance that will prevent the
imposition of capital punishment without triggering massive revolts
throughout the Islamic world. If it fails to kill or capture him, he will
secure an aura of invincibility, as somebody favored by God, and whose
cause is therefore just.

As Tom Spencer, a policy analyst of Britain's Conservative Party, has
observed, bin Laden has been turned into a "Robin Hood."

September 11 was an unspeakable crime against humanity, but the U.S.
response has converted the equation in many people's minds into a war
between vision and power, righteousness and might, and, perverse as this
may sound, spirit versus matter. You won't get this from CNN and the New
York Times, but Washington has stumbled into bin Laden's preferred terrain
of battle.

(Walden Bello <W.Bello@focusweb.org> is a Professor of sociology and public
administration at the University of the Philippines and executive director
of Focus on the Global South. This originally appeared in Focus on Trade
Number 68, October 2001)


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