Circling the wagons

In the endlessly flowing ambiguity of events there sometimes comes a point where the mist clears, the motion settles and doubt ends, when we can suddenly see the road that must be followed. It is a time when the threats that face us take on such a specific form that, at last, they force us to unite and take action so that we can survive. It is the moment when the enemy is at the gate, or, when we are the intruders, it is time to circle the wagons. It is no longer a time for debate. We got a sense of this over the past few weeks in Greece, when the winds of August combined with our congenital sloppiness to give us a fright over whether we will be ready for the Olympics in less than a year’s time. Although much carping continues, consensus is beginning to emerge over how much more seriously we have to take the preparations and how the success or failure of the Games will reflect on Greece itself and not on the organizers alone. The choppy waters at the Schinias Rowing Center and the food poisoning that the German team appears to have picked up from a hotel kitchen, in other words, have sounded like the bell at the start of the final lap for preparations – and we have realized that we’re all running the same race and can’t afford the luxury of making snide comments from the sidelines. But aside from this valuable lesson for the Greeks, the Games themselves, the greatest collective event on the planet, have been overshadowed by recent international developments. September 11 had made shockingly clear that the Athens 2004 Olympics would be held in a world entirely different from that of Sydney 2000. But even in 2001 it seemed possible that the civilized world could take on bin Laden, the Taleban and other Medieval, messianic misfits and defeat them in time for a great celebration of humanity and civilized rivalry in Athens in August 2004. The United States’ swift victory in Afghanistan provided cause for optimism, even though bin Laden, Mullah Omar and others managed to get away. But the way in which the main protagonists managed to escape, despite the much-vaunted technological wizardry of the Americans, should have set off alarm bells. The United States might have the greatest military machine the planet has known – dwarfing all others together – but they do not seem to have invested enough in terms of intelligence, procedures and knowledge of the people in whose countries they were fighting in order to achieve their aims. The subsequent loss of focus on Afghanistan has placed that unfortunate country in peril of remaining ungoverned and unsafe, but this only served to emphasize that Washington was too clever to be caught committing itself to an occupation the way in which Moscow had and which had led to the Soviet empire’s collapse. All the dire predictions of an American quagmire in Afghanistan were proved wrong, because the Americans floated above the country like butterflies and stung like bees. They had gained international consensus and were able to rely on the assistance of many allies in trying to secure peace, albeit mainly in Kabul and its environment. The Americans also supported a government of national unity under Hamid Karzai while pursuing remnants of al Qaeda and the Taleban in remote corners of the country. Overall, Afghanistan might be in danger of remaining in a state of chaos, but the Americans had proven they were too clever to be caught in the vortex. But then, as the Greek saying goes, the clever bird got caught by its own beak. Thanks to their success in Afghanistan, US policymakers appear to have got cocky, swayed by the belief that success breeds its own success. So they set out, like innumerable invaders through the ages, to conquer Babylon. And here they did exactly the opposite of what they did in Afghanistan. Without gaining broad international support, and on the basis of an unproven pretext (the fear that Saddam Hussein might have – or might one day have – weapons of mass destruction), the Americans, supported only by the British, Australians and Poles, invaded Iraq. They became occupiers in the same way that the Russians had in Afghanistan, making themselves responsible for everything that happens in Iraq. They appear to have had no plan as to what to do after their easy military victory, allowing the country to slide into chaos, with antiquities, infrastructure, ministries, facilities and private property being lost in an orgy of looting. Not only did the United States invade Iraq without the backing of the United Nations, it also found that it could not simply hand power over to a new Iraqi government. So, aside from a handful of coalition partners, America finds itself occupying and running an increasingly hostile country. The resistance to the occupation grows stronger each day as the Americans fail to provide security, power and water to fulfill the Iraqis’ expectations. And the greater the resistance, the greater the problems and therefore the greater the gains of the resistance. This is the quagmire that the Americans had so wisely avoided in Afghanistan, prompting grim satisfaction among many who had argued against a unilateral attack on Iraq. But Tuesday’s terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad made horribly clear that those who are trying to make Iraq ungovernable have absolutely no qualms about killing even those who may have opposed the US-led invasion. It is not clear which group was behind the attack (whether Saddam bitter-enders or Islamist extremists trying to stoke up a new jihad like the one against the Soviets in Afghanistan), but it is worth remembering the threat by bin Laden’s top aide, Ayman al-Zawahri, in May, when he declared, «Don’t allow Americans, Britons, Australians, Norwegians or any other crusaders, who are the killers of your brothers in Iraq, to live in your countries, enjoy your resources and corrupt the earth.» It was irrelevant that the Norwegians had done nothing to warrant this ire. Similarly, it is meaningless that the United Nations had never sanctioned the American invasion of Iraq and the UN’s chief representative in Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was pushing for the Iraqis to be given control of their country. What mattered only was to make the Americans seem unable to control security and usher in better days for the Iraqis. The message is clear, just as it was on September 11, after the Bali bombing last October and other more recent attacks in Morocco and Indonesia: the world faces a tide of madness that knows no bounds. It is time for all civilized people to stop arguing and to work together to provide a united front against terrorism, on the one hand, and to try ease the tensions which give rise to terrorism on the other. So it is disheartening to see, in the last two days, the same pattern of behavior that preceded the US-led invasion of Iraq. On the one hand, the United States will not give up any of its control of the country, while the French, leading the opposition, are declaring loudly, «I told you so.» At the Security Council meeting yesterday, France stressed that if the United States wants countries to share the military burden of restoring peace in Iraq it must also share «information and authority.» France’s deputy UN ambassador, Michel Duclos, asked whether «we would be in this state» if a genuine international partnership had been established from the start, under the UN’s guidance. What appears to be missing in the arguments is that, whether the United States acted correctly or not in invading Iraq, we all have an interest in the occupation resulting in a better Iraq; otherwise, the violence that the country will export will threaten us all. With at least 23 people dead and more than a hundred injured in what is the worst attack the UN has ever suffered, the arguments are irrelevant. Both sides have to reach an agreement immediately, to prove to the perpetrators of the attack that their war cannot be won. Despite the shock that the UN suffered before the Iraq war, when extremists in the American establishment treated it as an obstacle to their machinations, the UN remains the world’s best hope for peace, stability and development. Nothing can replace it. America’s unilateralism of a few months ago cannot be undone, but a show of international unity and force now will be better than an effort to show a united front later, after the next terrorist atrocity. It is tragically ironic that on the same day of the attack on the UN in Baghdad, the truce between Palestinian extremists and Israel should be destroyed by a suicide attack in Jerusalem which killed at least 20 people. The last time a special envoy of the United Nations was killed was in 1948, in Palestine, when Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swede, was murdered by Zionist extremists. The attack in Jerusalem on Tuesday, and Israel’s reprisal killing of a leading member of the Hamas organization the following day, is a grim reminder of what happens when problems are allowed to fester and when good men and women on both sides do not have the strength or the numbers to reach out to each other and achieve peace by keeping their more radical brothers in line. That is, if we have neighbors with whom we can achieve peace. But when the enemy is bent on the indiscriminate destruction of one side, then the only way out is to crush him or bloody him to the extent that he sues for peace. The civilized world cannot be on the losing side. And Greece, too, custodian of the coming Olympics, is in the thick of this battle which will determine what world we will live in this century.