His Mission and His Moment
Give Shrub his due: Last night’s presidential address to the Congress was as masterful a bit of speechifying as we have seen in a very long time. It struck all the obligatory notes of national unity and purpose, produced numerous memorable soundbites, and safeguarded a divided administration’s prerogatives as to future military, diplomatic, economic, and intelligence moves. It was heartening, initially at least, in its apparent tilt toward the moderate Powell faction of the Bush brain trust. As the New York Times revealed yesterday, the Bushies are bitterly divided between a Powell camp that wants to limit the scope of initial strikes and take care to build sound ties with the fragile pro-U.S. governments in Islamic countries of the region and a coterie of hawks led by deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz that favors an all-out assault design to “end nations” (Wolfowitz’s formulation) that can be linked to radical guerrilla elements.
But as the speech progressed it became evident that Bush meant to assuage both camps, a sign that this internal debate is far from resolved. For the Powellites there was the careful differentiation of terrorist groups from the mainstream of Islam, and the insistence that U.S. policy is not at odds with an entire culture, a dubious premise in the end but a necessary sop to the State Department’s efforts at coalition building and maintenance. The Wolfowitz cadre got its nod later on by way of Bush’s recapitulation of the Rumsfeld declaration that up to 60 nations may find themselves on the business end of the U.S. arsenal for supporting terrorists, and this: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
Thursday’s Times of London reported that the U.S. and Britain are immersed in efforts at developing a secret 10-year plan to combat the forces of radical Islam. It would be in essence the blueprint for a new Cold War to be fought principally by means of espionage, subversion, and economic sanctions, backed by periodic and, theoretically, limited military incursions. This appears to be the gist of Operation Noble Eagle as presently conceived, and it will no doubt be greeted with open arms by the champions of military build-up in government and the press who have found themselves at a loss since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As regards the Middle East it’s really an escalated version of current policy. But Cold War II is a scenario that presumes the U.S. can avoid protracted military engagement in Afghanistan for the meantime, and thereby preserve a measure of stability and support from friendly regimes in the Arab world. That’s a dicey proposition; Bush repeated again last night that Americans should not expect a war free of casualties this time, and that suggests a capitulation to those elements who want to make ground war in Afghanistan, at least on a limited, special ops scale.
This way is fraught with danger. To hold its coalition together for purposes of any future Cold War, the U.S. has to get in and get out of Afghanistan quickly and avoid military action in Iraq, a state closely tied to many of the Middle East governments the U.S. hopes to keep on its side in actions against bin Laden and the Taliban. At the same time, it’s got to hold Israel in check; continued open conflict between the U.S.-backed Israel and Palestinian factions is only going to foment more anti-U.S. sentiment in the very countries the Bush administration needs now more than ever to keep in pocket. If the American government cannot manage this juggling act, plans for waging a long-range cold war may quickly come to ground in the face of hot wars with other states and factions besides Afghanistan or Iraq.
The most substantive revelation was Bush’s announcement that he would create a new Cabinet-level post, the Office of Homeland Security, to be headed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. Tightened airport security will be the least burdensome of the many measures instituted at home in the name of combating terror; more on this domestic theater of war in days to come.
Operation Gratuitous Provocation
The United States had barely unveiled the brand name of its new war when word came late yesterday afternoon that the whole thing was rescinded. According to a report in the UK newspaper The Guardian, “A White House official said it was likely the name [Operation Infinite Justice] would be withdrawn after complaints from ‘Muslim clerics’ that infinite justice could only be provided by God, not the US government.”
Press accounts have emphasized that any offense given by the U.S. government was a terrible mistake. But the phrase “infinite justice” is a little too obscure and a little too specifically rooted in theological tradition, Christian and Muslim alike, to give credence to that view. While it apparently is not contained in the text of either the Bible or the Koran, the notion has popped up in Christian apologetics at least since St. Irenaeus’s third-century polemic against the heretics. The phrase appears countless times in Christian exegetical texts, alternately as an attribute of God or a synonym for godhead itself, as in the seventh-century Catholic prayer of Isidore: “May you, who are infinite justice, never permit that we be disturbers of justice.” It’s impossible to believe that whoever coined Operation Infinite Justice was not aware of its religious connotations, and its suggestion that the one true god was coming to wreak vengeance. One can only hope it was a cynical provocation and not a heartfelt one, but you can’t be too sure.
Meanwhile in Pakistan
Friday brought broad-scale demonstrations against the United States and the Musharraf government with which it has forged an uneasy alliance. By European press accounts, three were killed and hundreds injured in mass protests in the cities of Peshawar, Islamabad, Quetta and Lahore. “In Karachi, the country’s biggest city and commercial hub,” notes the London Independent, “police fired tear gas and beat people with iron-tipped sticks to disperse several small demonstrations by people who pelted vehicles with stones and blocked roads. At least 70 demonstrators were arrested, police said.
“In Islamabad, the capital, the Muslim service at the Lal Masjid mosque warned Gen. Musharraf not to cooperate with the United States. ‘Musharraf, listen: The nation will not accept your decision, and any collaboration with the United States is treason,’ the preacher told the worshippers.”
The Bush government has tried to ameliorate the tensions in Pakistan by promising to restructure debt and to lift sanctions imposed after the country’s 1998 nuclear tests, but the clock is already ticking, while the first U.S. strikes from forces relying on the use of Pakistani airspace and military bases may yet be days or weeks away. Nor is it just domestic unrest that Musharraf has to fear; as noted here yesterday, significant portions of the military and the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, are on the side of the pro-Taliban, anti-U.S. masses. The first domino teeters ominously.
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Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.