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New World, Old Order | The Nation

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New World, Old Order

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We are all multilateralists now, or so President George W. Bush would have us believe. In his November 10 address at the United Nations, referring to Osama bin Laden's incendiary remarks the week before, he reminded those assembled that "they [Al Qaeda] called our Secretary General a criminal and condemned all Arab nations here as traitors to Islam."

About the Author

Jerry W. Sanders
Jerry W. Sanders, chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at UC, Berkeley, is the author of Peddlers of Crisis: The...

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This was the latest round in the campaign to convince the world that the United States has sworn off the anti-UN unilateralism that had marked the Bush foreign policy team before September 11. While one certainly might hope this is the case, there remains much cause for doubt. On the very day the President sought to shore up support for the international campaign against terrorism, the United States--alone among industrial nations--was boycotting the Kyoto climate change proceedings in Marrakesh in order to escape a binding agreement to curb the emission of carbon dioxide and the other heat-trapping gases responsible for global warming.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Bush took the opportunity of the UN forum to warn that the United States would not abide any nation's refusal to aid the United States in the war against terrorism. Indeed, in what was touted by aides as the Bush Doctrine, the President warned that "nations that sympathize with terrorists" would be considered "as guilty of crimes" as the terrorists themselves.

Despite its Churchillian call to common purpose, the Bush speech was delivered uninterrupted by applause. Suspicions abound that the international coalition and the UN imprimatur represent little more than the "à la carte multilateralism" trumpeted by the Republican brain trust before September 11. According to this doctrine, the United States will pick and choose the circumstances in which it seeks the blessing of world authority and adheres to international law; where it does not feel so compelled, it will reserve the right to do as it pleases. It is precisely this double standard, and the unapologetic reveling with which it is proclaimed, that angers Middle Eastern intellectuals and inflames the Arab street and Islamic masses. The lack of confidence in America's commitment to multilateralism is perhaps greatest at the very point where it is most critical, namely the Arab and Islamic worlds.Unless and until this hypocrisy is rectified, the coalition against terrorism will remain suspect, and any thought that its members faithfully represent public sentiment or political culture in the region is merely wishful thinking.

Few American Presidents and policy-makers have been forced to shift ground faster than George W. Bush and the crew he assembled from his father's cold war-to-Gulf War administration. This was a group who believed that Bill Clinton's wild foreign policy mood swings had conceded too much to multilateralism, squandering resources in ill-defined humanitarian interventions and nation-building projects that had little to do with US interests. Its goal was to return American policy to the core worries of the cold war years--namely, the strategic competition with Russia and China, the former a threat because its power was declining and the latter because it was on the upswing, as explained by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Moreover, national security would rely on America's technological strength, embodied in the near-messianic commitment to an unproven missile shield that would cost untold billions of dollars. To top this off, in his first eight months Bush shredded international treaties with abandon and pretended that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the Middle East generally, were not even on the map of US interests.

Suddenly, in one terrible morning, the Administration was catapulted into a new world, armed with an arsenal of whims and weapons left over from the old order. Enter multilateralism, or at least the appearance thereof. After the initial volley of menacing rhetoric promising swift reprisal for the shocking attacks of September 11, to the great relief of some and the consternation of others, the US response was far more deliberate than expected. In Powell's words, it would be "legal, political, diplomatic, law enforcement, intelligence collection and military--as appropriate." As the Administration prepared for "a new kind of war" without quick exits or clear victories, Powell set out on his mission to build an international coalition for precisely the long and uncertain haul that the doctrine bearing his name warned against.Meanwhile, the President had come around to the inevitability of what he could only bring himself to label "so-called nation building" in Afghanistan, adding that perhaps this was even something in which the UN might make itself useful. By the time of the Shanghai economic summit in mid-October, where China was now courted as friend and not foe, the Secretary of State chortled, "Nobody's calling us unilateral anymore. We're so multilateral it keeps me up twenty-four hours a day checking on everybody."

But the world community, particularly its Arab and Islamic members, will be looking to deeds and not words as proof of America's conversion to sustained and consistent multilateralism--and not simply its warmed-over à la carte version. Does the current diplomatic offensive really mark a new chapter in US policy? Or is it just the latest incarnation of bogus multilateralism in which the United States "checks on" everybody else, but goes unchecked itself? Are principles now to be applied equally to all, or only in those cases where it does not interfere with geopolitical definitions of national interest? These are critical questions indeed. If the new multilateralism turns out to be nothing more than double-dealing diplomacy fronting for realpolitik, then the Osama bin Ladens of the world will be handed a lifeline--not for the fanciful holy war between Islam and the West that they so covet but for just enough angry young men motivated by an inchoate sense of betrayal and humiliation, who can be forged and shaped to keep alive the twisted terrorist cause.

Even more important, à la carte multilateralism will undermine the confidence of moderate Islamic clerics, Arab intellectuals and political leaders to challenge violent extremists in their midst for fear that they will be condemned as apologists for American duplicity and double standards.

The first test that will be closely monitored for signs of intention is the way in which the war against terrorism is waged. While the Administration deserves plaudits for taking its case to the UN Security Council, pro forma approval does not multilateralism make. Such a mandate also carries the obligation to conduct the military aspect of the campaign according to the "just war" standards codified in international law.A just use of force is one that is measured and proportional and does everything possible to minimize civilian casualties. While there is virtue in such restraint under any circumstances of war, in the current case it must be scrupulously followed, given the pervasive distrust of the United States and its motives in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Similiarly, anything other than determined effort in addressing the looming Afghan humanitarian crisis will only reinforce the perception of double standards when it comes to the suffering of Muslims--either as victims of errant bombs or as refugees trapped in the brutal Afghan winter.

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