American policy seems to be in a quandary, and not just because US troops are bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two Muslim countries that the US invaded and occupied after September 11, 2001.
President Bush, in his speech on November 6 at the National Endowment on Democracy in Washington, has talked of a 'new policy' which actually is 'old wine in a new bottle'. While on the ground, the US pushes its 'war on terror' largely through military might propped by a troika of military occupation and access to bases in the Middle East and Central Asia, uncritical support for Israel and protecting oil interests, the wrapping around this US strategy is 'democracy' in the hope that it might sell this time. But people in the Middle East can differentiate between posturing, which is what Mr Bush did yesterday, and policy, which is what Washington has done on the ground since 9/11.
There is a yawning chasm between pronouncements and practices, with Washington still groping for a policy on how to deal with an increasingly agitated Muslim World or cope with a more assertive international community, including once docile Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
During his October 28 press conference in the White House, President Bush categorically stated that 'our war is not against the Muslim faith'. But the man tasked by the Pentagon to 'combat terrorism' in the Muslim World – Lt General William Boykin – is someone who has publicly ridiculed Islam and aired sentiments that border on anti-Muslim bigotry.
And he remains in place, despite the furore over his racist comments. No wonder then that Bush seemed perplexed and puzzled after his meeting with Indonesian Muslim leaders in Bali last month when he asked his aides: 'Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?'
Or the October 30 speech of Pentagon's number two - and super-hawk - Paul Wolfowitz at Georgetown University in Washington. Wolfowitz urged Muslims to 'undermine extremists and boost the influence of moderates in the global war on terrorism' admitting that the 'Israeli-Palestinian conflict was clearly one huge factor in our relations with the Muslim World.'
Clearly, there is an absence of a cohesive US policy on the broader Muslim World, with ad hoc often knee-jerk reactions passing for policy.
Although this focus on Muslim 'moderation' is politically biased since it assumes that extremism is something that is the sole repository among Muslims, exempting the extremists among Christians (some influential in the Bush administration like Boykin or Attorney General Ashcroft), Jews (Israeli Prime Minister Sharon himself) and Hindus (the likes of deputy Prime Minister Advani).
But even on this count of strengthening Muslim 'moderates', what is the US track record? Yasser Arafat is an elected and credible leader of Palestine, and presumably a 'moderate' by the standards of Hamas and Islamic Jehad. But the Bush administration has been mindlessly toeing the Sharon line of sidelining and replacing Arafat with somebody more pliable, a policy that has failed.
Iran's elected President Muhammed Khatami is another 'moderate' and an educated and enlightened one at that, whose government covertly cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. The American response to these Iranian gestures has been to slot it as part of a mythical 'axis of evil'.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the most reliable partners of the US during and after the Cold War, with a long list of supportive roles in such situations as the Palestinian issue, oil politics, Lebanese civil war, Afghanistan's jehad, defusing Arab radicalism, even containing anti Americanism in Nicaragua, but now it is pilloried and treated more as a foe than a friend.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the only Muslim leader to publicly condemn suicide bombings and who is a consistent critic of the Muslim condition, is reviled by the US just because he said the unthinkable about Jewish political power.
Interestingly, Mahathir's critique was corroborated during a November 1 CNN's 'International Correspondent' programme, when The Washington Post's Bureau Chief in Jerusalem, Molly Moore, cited the 'powerful Jewish lobby in the United States' among the hazards of objectivereporting on the Palestine-Israel conflict.
No wonder then that Bush seemed perplexed and puzzled after his meeting with Indonesian Muslim leaders in Bali last month when he asked his aides: 'Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?'
And Pakistan too remains under pressure although without Islamabad, the US strategy post 9/11 would have gone haywire in the region. Instead of defusing regional tensions, by okaying the billion dollar Israeli sale of its Phalcon radars to India, the US has only managed to raise tensions in an already volatile region.
The same deal with China was scuttled by Washington in 2000 on the plea that it would raise regional tensions and upset the military balance with Taiwan, but a similar rationale, more relevant for South Asia's nuclear neighbours, was conveniently discarded three years later.
Clearly, there is an absence of a cohesive US policy on the broader Muslim World, with ad hoc often knee-jerk reactions passing for policy. And that is coupled by lack of consistency or clarity.
Take two examples. During the June 2003 Camp David Summit, Pakistan was told by none other than President Bush that no F-16s were on offer. But three months later, after deteriorating ground conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq where Pakistani help was needed, the US did a U-turn and offered a squadron of F-16s to 'replenish the lost planes' from the 1981 deal. And on October 28, deputy Secretary of State Armitage publicly attacked the Pentagon for signing the April 16 ceasefire with a 'foreign terrorist organization', i.e., the Iranian dissident Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MKO), because the US now needs Iran's help in stabilizing Iraq.
It is really a matter of shame that on Palestine which Wolfowitz admitted is a 'huge factor' in US-Muslim World ties, it required no less a person than the Israeli Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Moshe Yaalon, to publicly attack his government's policy while the 'sole superpower' dare not dissent with Sharon's hawkish line.
He told Israeli newspapers last week that the policies of Sharon, to which Washington has mostly meekly acquiesced, such as crackdowns, curfews and roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza were 'now threatening Israeli interests' adding that Israeli policies undermined the former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Why can't the United States muster the moral courage to criticise Sharon, while his own general did and got away with it?
For a poll-driven President, Bush should look at his popularity ratings not just in the Muslim World, but in the rest of the world as well. He got an over 90% negative rating in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico while two-thirds of Europeans find his Iraq War 'not justified'.
Instead of talking of democracy, while pursuing policies through diktat, President Bush can exercise either of two options: perpetuate policies in Afghanistan and Iraq and on the 'war on terror' which are a recipe for disaster. Or, act sensibly, by reversing wrongs starting by acting with more spine on Palestine, and accepting that his so-called 'war on terror' is already turning out to be a an unwinnable, war without end. That choice will determine Bush's political future and America's standing in the world.
Mr. Mushahid Hussain, a well known journalist is the media advisor to Citizens International. He was formerly the Minister of Information in
Citizens International is a global initiative from
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