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.”
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.