Don't lose diplomatic momentum

January 18, 2002|By Louise Branson

WASHINGTON -- If the world were a board game right now, there is no question who would be the big, dominating presence: the United States. It has Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban on the run. It has formed a whole range of new alliances. What could be better?

A lot, actually.

America stands at what could be a crucial historical moment. As the New Year kicks in, a different reality is settling over much of the world. The shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is fading.

A question is being asked in many different ways and places: What next? The answer to that could be decisive in turning different parts of the world for or against the United States in the coming months. President Bush has tremendous power to decide which way much of the world does indeed turn -- and with that, the likelihood and extent of future terrorist attacks. But he needs to recognize and grasp the unique moment and opportunity.

A year ago, a lot of sneering was going on around the world about Mr. Bush. In Europe and elsewhere, he was lampooned and caricatured as a cowboy prone to malapropisms and ignorance.

That changed fast after the terrorist attacks and as Mr. Bush forged an alliance against terrorism. Not only was it a steep foreign policy and leadership learning curve for him, it jolted most of the rest of the world to abandon the caricature and take him seriously.

The military action against al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan did, however, take a very different shape from that against Serb forces in Kosovo in 1999. Rather than a NATO alliance, in consultation with 19 other nations, this was very much an American operation with large and sustained military support only from Washington's most steadfast ally, Britain.

Certainly, a range of countries provided different kinds of help -- from Russia's providing intelligence from its war in Afghanistan to neighboring Pakistan's assistance. But it is America's war: American-led, American-executed, American-defined.

And that is where the potential problems lie.

One does not need to look too far to see and hear the growing signs of dissent from around the world. For now, they are isolated. A voice here, a protest there. But what if they become a unified chorus?

Even behind the official scenes in Britain there are some mutterings about the Americans "pushing us around." The British press has become far bolder, with plenty of New Year commentaries taking pot shots at British Prime Minister Tony Blair for seeming to believe he is America's secretary of state. In a typical comment, one British paper termed Mr. Blair's rousing speech pledging all-out support for America just after Sept. 11 "a bit cheesy" in retrospect.

And that's just what America's best friends are saying.

The French, never real America-lovers, have been far harsher. And in places like Russia, voices have been raised about whether the help Russia gave is going to be met with a slap in the face now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down and Moscow would like more economic aid. Many Arab countries have a complex range of qualms.

It would be a sign of truly great leadership if Mr. Bush, now that the immediate crisis has passed, were to show the same diplomatic skills as in the weeks after the attacks. It would not take much. It would require paying similar if less sustained attention to diplomacy and the concerns of other countries. This would be especially crucial if Washington decided to attack Iraq, which would upset several Arab and European countries.

Of course, as the sole superpower in the world, it is not so easy to see the wisdom of keeping up alliances. At a time of intense domestic political activity in the run-up to the midterm elections, it is tempting to let the foreign policy momentum dissipate.

That would be a shame. A little care and good diplomacy would shore up the still-high reservoir of good will and could prevent some nasty terrorist surprises. New terrorists, after all, are grown far more readily in a world that perceives America as arrogant and unilateralist.

Mr. Bush came into office saying that he wanted to take a hands-off approach to much of the world, not getting so involved -- as was his predecessor, Bill Clinton -- in detailed mediating in such hot spots as the Middle East and Northern Ireland. But he soon learned that isolation may not be his to choose.

Louise Branson, a former correspondent for London's Sunday Times in Russia, China and the Balkans, is a free-lance writer who lives in Washington.

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