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.
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.
A second and related concern centers on who might be targeted next in the war against terrorism. The concept of “just war” makes clear that the cause must be just, as well as the means used in the fight. The resounding 15-to-0 vote in the Security Council labeling the terrorist acts “threats to international peace and security” that must be “combated by all necessary means” left little doubt that military force was justifiable given the circumstances of the horrific attack as well as the previous history: In December 1999 the Security Council imposed economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Afghanistan in a bid to have Osama bin Laden and his associates turned over to face charges in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa. This determined consensus is certain to erode, however, if the military campaign seeks to stretch this mandate beyond the Al Qaeda network and the Taliban theocracy in Afghanistan to states that are alleged sponsors of terrorism, as the Administration has threatened. Cold war stalwarts within and outside the Administration are pressing for a war that, in the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “must span the globe and last for years.” While Powell has beaten back the Defense crowd for now, it is unclear whether this is a tactical decision or a principled stand. Only time will tell.In the meantime, the future of multilateralism hangs in the balance.
Iraq is widely considered a prime candidate of choice for a second-phase expansion. The blue-ribbon Defense Policy Board, a haven of cold warriors and policy makers from the Gulf War, has made no secret of the fact that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is at the top of its to-do list. But without proof of terrorist succor beyond what is now available, an attack on Iraq would be almost universally condemned among otherwise fractious Arabs and Muslims. After all, as everyone knows, Saudi Arabia has not only exported terrorists (fifteen of the nineteen hijackers) but subsidized them as well with the tacit understanding that they would not carry out their evil deeds on Saudi soil. Yet the oil-rich sheikdom has come under little duress from the United States, even though it lavishly funds the extremist form of Islam known as Wahhabism, and stonewalls in sharing financial information pertaining to terrorist transactions.
By contrast Iraq is attacked at every pretense of wrongdoing, or so it seems to the 35 million viewers who watch the Al Jazeera satellite news network, the so-called CNN of the Arab world. Unlike their American counterparts, they have become sensitized to this double standard through nightly images of sick and hungry Iraqi children, victims of the devastating campaign of economic sanctions against that country. Moreover, they are well aware that the United States planted a CIA operative among the team of UN inspectors monitoring Iraq’s weapons facilities. This egregious breach of international law handed Saddam Hussein the pretext for expelling the inspectors, which triggered the current round of sanctions. They also know that the United States and Britain stand opposed to a European proposal that would end sanctions in return for the resumption of inspections. Iraq, therefore, is already a symbol of American duplicity in the region. Extending the war to Iraq without evidence (and the sharing of that evidence) of linkage to the Al Qaeda network and the September 11 attacks is sure to be read as just one more example of an American hegemonic agenda.
If policy toward Iraq breeds resentment and mistrust of America’s multilateral motives, the perception that the United States cares not one whit about Palestinian aspirations for independence, or for the lives lost in that struggle, is an even greater obstacle to regional cooperation against terrorism. While it preaches freedom and human rights as the touchstone of American foreign policy, the United States, through its unquestioned military support of Israel, implicitly condones that country’s aggressive occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and silently acquiesces in the expansion of settlements and the takeover of Palestinian lands. Thus, even as Bush reminded delegates in his UN address that each member state is obliged to take concrete action against terrorist funding and organizations within their borders, as Security Council Resolution 1373 instructs,the efforts of Syria, Iran, Lebanon and others will likely be half-hearted at best in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s continuing provocations. Moreover, the stature of extremist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah was only further enhanced by the brusque dismissal byIsrael and the United States of an earlier Palestinian request for a UN peacekeeping force to assist in maintaining a cease-fire. Despite new overtures that feint in the general direction of Palestinian statehood, only the boldest of departures could convince Israel’s neighbors that the United States is now prepared to adopt the role of even-handed broker in the conflict, and therefore that they can no longer justify the terrorists in their midst.
Most grating of all on the regional psyche is the hectoring tone in which Arabs and Muslims are routinely lectured about how their troubles are rooted in a lack of political reform and backwardness, as if US military support of oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan had no bearing on the question. Those of a reformist bent, caught between the Scylla of state authoritanism and the Charybdis of Islamic extremism, could not have been encouraged by the spectacle of Powell leaning on the Emir of Qatar to “tone down” the anti-American rhetoric of Al Jazeera’s news coverage.Powell’s unintended irony can be of little comfort to those who must now worry that the US will have even more reason to excuse dictatorships in its attempt to hold together the international coalition. It must have been particularly unsettling when, after gaining Russia’s cooperation, the Administration dropped human rights from its vocabulary and shifted effortlessly from “freedom fighter” to “terrorist” in referring to the rebels in Chechnya. The fate of Muslim dissidents in Uzbekistan, already precarious, would appear to have been sealed as well in the deal that allows the United States to use the territory of that notoriously repressive regime as a staging area for military operations in Afghanistan. These events only reinforce the suspicion that when it comes down to a contest between US interests and the freedoms of Muslims, the latter will be sacrificed every time.To add insult to injury, Washington pundits then blame the peoples themselves for their own oppression.
A final test of US commitment to multilateralism involves the endgame in Afghanistan. Will the United States again cut and run when its interests are no longer at stake, as occurred last time around when the United States beat a quick exit on the heels of the Soviet withdrawal, leaving that country a shambles? This time there is talk of UN involvement. But if there are any lessons to be learned from past failures, the UN role must be more than what can be entertained in a presidential afterthought. A postwar political arrangement will have to be carefully crafted to avert the kind of power vacuum that led earlier to the bloody struggle for succession and the eventual victory of the Taliban theocracy. It is unrealistic to expect such an outcome to be quick, easy or cheap. Difficult tasks of institution-building and reconstruction cannot be dumped into the UN’s lap without the necessary mandate and resources. The question, therefore, is not whether the Administration will give its blessing to a cleanup action by the world body once the carnage has reached its end, but if it is willing to back up its new multilateral rhetoric with deeds to match–beginning with the full payment of delinquent membership dues owed to the organization.
When the Bush Administration shows itself ready to expend political and financial capital in this manner, the skeptics will know that its commitment to multilateralism is for real. Until then, it will look like just so much smoke and mirrors from the old order of duplicity and double standards.