THE MORE the initial shock caused by the attacks on New York and Washington wears off, the more cracks appear in the international coalition that George Bush’s administration is trying to construct.
At one end of the spectrum is Israel. At least initially it seemed as if Israel would be the main beneficiary of the attacks. Two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared on news programmes with lengthy wishlists of the ‘terrorist’ organisations and states that the US should attack. These lists coincided with Israel’s main enemies.
Meanwhile Ariel Sharon’s government has been exploiting the crisis to launch a series of attacks on the Palestinians. Israeli tanks have bombarded the Palestinian capital of Ramallah. This gung-ho policy finds echoes in significant sections of the US ruling class. I heard various commentators, for example a retired general who teaches at the West Point Military Academy, argue for attacks on a number of Middle Eastern states, including Iran.
This is an incredible idea. Iran is no longer isolated in the Middle East and is deeply divided between democratic reformers and Islamist conservatives. Nothing could be more calculated to revive radical Islam both within Iran and the region than an attack on Iran.
Amazingly, Bush himself talked last Sunday about launching a ‘crusade’-a turn of phrase that will confirm the fears widespread in the Muslim world that the US is reviving the medieval Crusades waged by Western Christendom against Islam. Other figures within the US establishment-for example Secretary of State Colin Powell-haven’t forgotten the realities of traditional statecraft.
They know that Sharon’s offensive is putting pressure on key US allies in the Middle East, notably the Saudi and Egyptian regimes. But similar divisions are to be found throughout the international state system. Bush and Powell were able to get NATO’s support for the activation of the clause that requires member states to come to the aid of an ally who is attacked. But second thoughts set in rapidly. The French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, said on Friday last week, ‘We are not at war against Islam or the Arab Muslim world.’
Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel said the EU was ‘not at war’. Russia is a key player in the crisis. Not simply is it still the world’s second nuclear power, but it exerts a major influence in the Central Asian region bordering on Afghanistan. There are 10,000 Russian troops in Tajikistan, to Pakistan’s immediate north.
The immediate response of Vladimir Putin’s government was to take advantage of the crisis to argue that its bloody war in Chechnya was part of an international struggle against Islamic ‘terrorism’. But on Friday last week defence minister Sergei Ivanov said there was ‘no basis for even the hypothetical possibility’ of using Tajikistan or any other Central Asian country as a base for a Western attack on Afghanistan. According to the Financial Times, ‘Nikolai Kovalev, a former head of Russia’s domestic security services, said a US intervention in Central Asia would be a ‘mistake’ with ‘serious consequences’ for Russia, including destabilisation and refugees.’
Russia fears that US military intervention in Central Asia would shatter the stability of a region where it remains the dominant power, and where the US and Russia are already competitors because of the huge oil and gas reserves thought to be in the area.
True to form, Tony Blair has been the Western leader to most firmly identify himself with Bush’s policy of imperialist revenge. This doesn’t simply reflect his own political instincts. British foreign policy since 1945 has been consistently based on acting as the US’s main European partner.
But there are doubts even within the Blair government. Clare Short has managed to rediscover some socialist instincts and express public reservations about Bush’s threats of revenge. More surprisingly, foreign secretary Jack Straw took a cautious line in the House of Commons on Friday last week, stressing the importance of including Muslim countries in the US-led coalition.
None of these divisions alters the fact that the US is going to use its military power to mount barbarous attacks on whoever it deems responsible for the catastrophe in New York and Washington. But these attacks will widen the faultlines within the international system and make the world a more dangerous and unstable place.
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