LONDON — Directly after the horror of 9/11 there was a moment when America held the good will of almost the entire world in the palm of its hand.
And it was more than just a matter of routine words of regret. Promises of positive cooperation flowed from numerous capitals in rounding up the organizers of 9/11, eliminating Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, crushing the terrorism-friendly Taliban in Afghanistan and bringing peace, democracy and freedom to an autocratic and unsettled Middle East, the apparent hothouse of alienation and violence, as well as the repository of two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves.
Five years later not one of these objectives has been achieved. Blood-soaked Iraq is more infested with terrorists than ever. Iranian influence and power to make trouble has been enlarged. Peace between Israel and Palestine is as remote as ever. Extremist groups have multiplied and grown more violent. Support for Hezbollah and Hamas is stronger than ever. Meanwhile, rogue regimes elsewhere have grown more, not less, defiant.
Worst of all, the reputation, image and influence of the United States has declined almost everywhere in the world, leaving a dangerous vacuum in the global system.
In Britain some argued that when it came to both the Bush declaration of “war on terror,” and to the subsequent Iraq invasion, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had little choice but to follow U.S. President George W. Bush along his chosen route, riddled as it was, and is, with misunderstanding about the subtleties of Middle East politics and cultures. The only choice facing him, so the contention went, was between all-out support for America or siding with the overtly anti-American continental powers.
But, of course, there was a third way for Britain, as there was for other countries that admired the U.S. generally but were uneasy about Bush and his dogmatic impulses: to become as little involved as possible — being supportive (maybe even providing noncombat personnel like Japan), but meanwhile developing an independent and robust diplomatic strategy for dealing with the new situation.
In Britain, in particular, drawing on its own unrivaled experience in dealing both with Middle Eastern and Asian power and societies, this could have been a tough and effective way forward in addressing the terrorist issue, but quite distinct from the American approach.
But that was not Blair’s way. Instead he signed up promptly to the flawed Bush strategy for “A New Middle East,” where “democracy and freedom” would be applied like sticking plasters and soldered on as necessary by “overwhelming force.”
The Conservative opposition offered no alternative way forward. Led at the time by a newcomer, Ian Duncan Smith, it found itself committed to the Bush world view almost from day one. Later, when it emerged that the Iraq invasion prospectus had been dodgy, and there were no weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s hands, and no discernible links with the 9/11 terror network either, a new leader, Michael Howard, tried to distance himself from Washington’s approach, and got slapped down by the Bush White House for his pains. The yet newer Conservative leader, David Cameron, will presumably inch that way as well when he expands his ideas on the international scene.
Hints have also drifted into the press from the camp of Gordon Brown, Blair’s would-be replacement, that when his time comes he also will re-assess the unqualified commitment to the Bush strategy.
But amend it to what? Can Britain just pull British troops out of Iraq in short order and leave the Americans struggling on trying to stem the unending flow of killings? Or can it even follow the Japanese example and announce a clear withdrawal plan in due course?
Any one of these courses is fraught with tricky implications for relations with the U.S. But at least a change of tone in dealing with Washington might now be possible.
It may now be time to start pulling together a new partnership of like-minded nations to whom an America that has patently lost its way might at last listen. Nations such as India, Japan, Australia, Canada, and some from “New Europe,” such as Poland, the Czech Republic and the lively Baltic three, come to mind.
There are undoubtedly plenty of countries that are by no means anti-American but are prepared to speak with candor and force to the present administration in Washington, to urge a change of strategy and direction — not to appease terror and extremism but to encourage skilled and firm diplomatic engagement with every state, including Syria and Iran, which in the end are just as much threatened by nonstate terror and anarchy as anybody else.
This would be a big step out of the present morass. But will it be taken? Both Blair and Bush are irredeemably committed to the existing path, with its immensely damaging consequences for the interests of both the U.S. and its chief allies. A fresh start of this kind is probably not on the cards until both these figures leave the stage.
Only then will there be a chance to bring to an end this dismal period of folly since that dreadful morning that changed the world five years ago.
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