Compassionate dealings with allies could limit future anti-Americanism

September 20, 2001|By Michael Barnett

MADISON, Wis. - As the United States campaigns to root out Osama bin Laden and terrorism around the world, it must do so in a way that reduces not only the threat of terrorism but the conditions that breed extremism and anti-American sentiment.

This will not be easy. But the path taken will have significant implications for the future of the region and the long-term success of the U.S. campaign.

As the United States lines up allies in the Middle East, it is delivering a stark proposition: Help the U.S. campaign and you are part of the solution and an ally of the West. Don't and you are part of the problem and an accomplice of terrorism.

This places these governments - which are short on legitimacy and confront on-going challenges to their rule - in a difficult bind. They might pay a high cost if they cooperate with the United States.

To root out terror networks in their own societies might lead them to tighten their authoritarian grip. Such repression will create a backlash against the government and a United States that is viewed as caring more for authoritarian governments than for people.

But these governments also will suffer if they don't cooperate with Washington. Although standing up to the West might give them an immediate bump up in domestic and regional prestige, in the long term they and their societies are likely to pay a heavy price as they become the likely target of international sanctions and Western military action.

There is a grave possibility that U.S. strategy for lining up regional allies against terrorism might very well unleash domestic instability and regional resentment against the United States.

This scenario has historical precedents. The popular perception in the Middle East is that the United States has made alliances with corrupt and authoritarian leaders in order to further its regional interests.

Washington touts democracy and human rights.

But when faced with a choice between maintaining the support of authoritarian leaders that back U.S. interests and championing political liberalization that might compromise that support, the United States has chosen the first option.

During the cold war, the United States made compacts with these leaders and provided financial and military support if they helped in the war against communism.

The United States struck a similar deal during the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, willing to ignore these governments' repression so long as they backed it.

The popular perception in the region is that American values have consistently taken a back seat to American interests; the result is accumulating resentment against the United States.

What might be a smarter strategy?

As the United States fights terrorism, it must also fight for a moral purpose. As it develops and executes its strategy, it must demonstrate to Arab and Muslim societies that the U.S.-led war is not against them. This will not be easy, but there are general principles it might pursue.

When and if military attacks occur, the United States must:

Follow traditional laws of war and try to reduce civilian casualties.

Be prepared to increase humanitarian aid to the region.

Communicate in clear and effective language to regional governments that while it expects them to root out terrorism it will not tolerate violations of human rights (or allow them to use this opportunity to bludgeon their domestic opposition).

Press political liberalization and popular sovereignty.

Out of this tragedy, the United States has an incredible opportunity to foster regional and global security. This requires not only a military but also a political strategy, one that wins the hearts and minds of the people of the region.

Doing so requires that the United States develop a strategy that eliminates terrorism, maintains international and regional support for its war against terrorism and, crucially, reduces as much as possible the forces of extremism.

If the United States fails to accomplish these three tasks, then it might find itself waging a global campaign that loses converts and gains enemies.

Michael Barnett is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin.

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