OPINION

Invisible armor

The events of September 11 and the past year have made two things clear. One is that terrorists can strike wherever they wish, if they employ enough imagination, discipline and patience. The other is that the United States is by far the greatest military and economic power on the planet, with such technological superiority that it needs no one’s help to fight a war. These facts raise two questions whose answers are less clear: Can any amount of military action and security measures prevent further terrorist attacks anywhere near the scale of last year’s, either within the United States or abroad? And can the United States achieve its aims by working unilaterally, choosing alliances and adhering to international, collective agreements only when and where it sees fit? The world is a messy place and, as we have not seen the hypotheses tested against reality, the answers to these questions can only be based on guesswork or on one’s vantage point. From this corner – where Greece straddles East and West geographically, historically, intellectually and emotionally – President George Bush’s insistence on the need for a «regime change» in Iraq seems certain to force a clarification of the situation, for good or bad. It is impossible to know what the people who make policy in the United States might know about Saddam Hussein and his plans that have prompted them to take this course of action. But here it looks as if Saddam has been pretty well caged in since the last time America went to war against him, under the last George Bush. Last time, however, all the Arab governments (if not all their citizens) were in favor of US intervention to roll back the Iraqi army that had invaded a fellow Arab state. Even then, a massive army, with the whole world allied with it, chose not to enter the quicksands of a war in Iraq’s cities, or try to impose a new regime. Now the Americans seem to want to achieve those daunting tasks with fewer arrows in their quiver. Not a single Arab country is in favor of a new war. Arab League chief Amr Musa declared dramatically on Thursday that such a war would «open the gates of hell» in the Middle East. Perhaps this will not mean much for an administration and a president used to having their own way and getting away with it, but there seems to be a very real danger that an attack on Iraq may just unite all Arabs against the United States and, by extension, the rest of the West. Today, the staunchly secular Iraqi regime has very little in common with the fundamentalists and their followers who form the backbone of Islamic terrorism. A war on Iraq that would be seen as unjust by other Middle East countries could unite every disenchanted Muslim in a single cause. That would galvanize support for bin Laden’s troops (now lying low) and could be devastating not only for the Arab governments that are allied with the United States, but also for America’s European and other friends. This would do nothing to curb terrorism, which is ostensibly America’s greatest enemy. Furthermore, if Saddam is developing weapons of mass destruction, as Washington says he is, the first objective would be to get the UN inspectors back into the country rather than saying that this would be irrelevant, as Vice President Dick Cheney did on August 26. If Saddam already has such weapons, he will not use them unless he is attacked – in which case he will have nothing to lose in firing them against Israel and countries hosting US forces. This will set off a chain of destruction whose effects no one can predict. A policy of vigilant containment, on the other hand, would mean that any effort by Saddam to use any unconventional weapons, or even conventional ones, could be met by devastating force. The United States would then also find far greater enthusiasm among Arab and other states for a campaign against Saddam. So, given also the various levels of dissent and concern in European capitals, why is America so keen to take the war to Iraq? Why does it want to get into the cage with the tiger? From here it looks suspiciously like the only tie between Iraq and the war against terrorism is that keeping up the rhetoric against Saddam and formulating a policy against him makes up for the frustrations of the task of defending America against terrorism. Instead of issuing vague but terrifying «terror alerts,» the administration can be seen to be working feverishly against a more visible threat, against a specific man (who, unlike bin Laden, has not vanished), a specific army, and a specific country. This is perhaps the only explanation, as other arguments, such as the Americans’ ostensible desire to lay their hands on Iraqi crude, seem bizarre and simplistic in the face of what is at risk with a war in the Middle East. The conclusion can only be that a war in Iraq is very risky, at best, and does nothing to end the problem of terrorism. This is unlike the campaign in Afghanistan which, for all the problems that the Americans and other peacekeepers now face in that troubled country, kicked the Taliban out of power. Sooner or later, bin Laden’s time will be up, too. But that will not be the result of any campaign against Saddam. This does not imply that for all its military might, America is unarmed in the war against terrorism. It is just that its greatest weapons are those that are far from the fields of battle. These are no more nor less than the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary and the host of other principles and institutions that constitute a vibrant democracy. These have been strongly evident in a sector of the press and in the protection of civil rights that courts and rights groups have sought to ensure, despite some decisions by officials that sometimes seem to come awfully close to undermining civil rights in America and for those termed its enemies abroad. It is noteworthy that the greatest opposition to such risky measures has come from within the United States – from newspapers to the Democratic Party to former officials in Republican administrations. The Americans are united in the face of a shadowy and merciless enemy, but they have kept alive the lively debate, the freedom to disagree that marks healthy democracies from those in which dissent can lead to violence and division. This is the force that will break down both the visible and the invisible enemy, insinuating its way into places where no arms can reach. The most plausible and effective way to achieve «regime change,» and to roll back the tide of misery and suspicion that feed the roots of terrorism everywhere in the world, is to encourage enough members of every nation to have an interest in wanting their country to have the best of what you can find in America or Europe. This cannot be imposed and it cannot be bought. The only way that the United States and Europe can win is to lead, not by the power by which they protect (or project) their interests, but by the example that they can set for a world in which every individual can expect enough security and enough opportunity to pursue his or her happiness. This is the force that will bring down dictators if their people know that their aspirations will find support somewhere among like-minded individuals. This will not happen overnight, but it will not happen at all unless the example exists, bright and unsullied by expediency. This means that, despite the fears of the moment, the democracies of the world have to keep faith in the freedoms that at once make them more vulnerable to attack but also more resistant to every threat. Using their military and other security forces to maintain a high level of vigilance that will protect them, while also offering a beacon of hope for those who are oppressed elsewhere, will lead to eventual victory. This patience and persistence (and not uncontrolled clashes) determined the result of the Cold War. Today, the United States and other wealthy countries have a greater duty to be involved in the world than they did when they could happily leave those of the «other» bloc to fend for themselves. The world is smaller and the risks are greater for all when things go awry. So the West, united, has to stay engaged, rather than distant and defensive. Sometimes this may mean changing the behavior of our allies and not only of our enemies, in order to prevent crises from getting out of hand. It means that not only should we protect our own freedoms, but we should make the effort to ensure those of others. The ever-more wired world demands fairness. The call to invisible arms should not be seen as a sign of weakness. In the aftermath of the September 11 atrocities, it is clear that the freedoms that allowed the terrorists to invade the body of America were also the target of those attacks: the separation of Church and State; the freedom of religion and of scientific research; the emancipation of women; and the freedom to express a different culture. Keeping those freedoms alive, letting their flame shine into dark corners of the world, must not take second place to the need for dramatic gestures and military action. Protecting those freedoms will mean the terrorists achieved nothing when they destroyed the Twin Towers and those in them. Democratic liberties backed by military power and technology won the battle over the last year. The delicate flame of freedom nurtured by democracies and the human heart will win where guns cannot.