To those of us watching numbly from abroad as the full scale of this week’s horror sinks in, the American response to the acts of war committed against the United States has been everything its friends and allies could have wished: gritty, focused and emphasizing the need for cooperative rather than unilateral international action.
If U.S. anger and shock can continue to be so channeled, the terrorists’ triumph will be short-lived indeed. Their attempt to expose American vulnerabilities will have served only to prove beyond doubt the country’s extraordinary strengths, both as a democratic society and a global power for good.
How the United States exercises its military and diplomatic strengths in the weeks and months ahead will have a crucial bearing on its own and future global security.
If the emerging facts identify deserving military targets – including one or more foreign governments – there can be no argument with a tough and decisive reaction, in as broad a coalition as it is possible to build. But, as the Pentagon and North Atlantic Treaty Organization will surely acknowledge, it is absolutely critical that the targets be thoroughly justified. This is not just for moral or humanitarian reasons, but also for hard-headed security ones.
The masterminds may well prove to be those terrorists still being harbored by the Taleban leadership in Afghanistan. But heaping further misery on those Afghans who had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks will only convince the next generation of refugees and orphans that the West is an implacable and irrational enemy bent only on the endless destruction of a weak and helpless people.
There is a larger message about the U.S. diplomatic role. As Washington moves with its allies to search out and destroy the perpetrators of these horrific attacks, it must begin again with a sustained effort to resolve the agonizing conflicts around the world from which the desperation and hatred that lead to those attacks grow. There has to be a focus on the conditions creating individuals able to believe that killing thousands of civilians is not only acceptable, but also heroic.
The job of fighting terrorism cannot be separated from the task of preventing, containing and ending conflict. All too often the places that generate terrorism – as well as drug trafficking, health pandemics, refugee outflows and environmental disasters – are shattered societies where grievance, greed, repression and poverty have fed violence, despair and extremism. Think not only of the Middle East and Central Asia, but also of Northern Ireland, Sudan, Colombia, the Caucasus. In none of these conflicts, or a dozen others, has the impact stayed local.
It will not be easy to win domestic consensus on all of this. Many Americans can already be heard saying, understandably enough, that “this is what we get for sticking our noses into so many problems around the world that are not our business.” The answer they must hear from their leaders is that, like it or not, what seem so often to be dirty little wars in faraway places are the business of America and of the whole international community, simply because their impact so often is global.
Of all the countries in the world, the United States is the most able – because of its diplomatic, military and economic resources – to play a role for good in ending deadly conflict. It is also the least able to insulate itself from the world’s trouble spots: America’s role in the global economy, and its perceived political and cultural influence everywhere, mean that trouble is bound to follow it, through whatever wall its citizens may be tempted to build around themselves.
Far better under these circumstances to mobilize U.S. ingenuity, will and power – in cooperation with the legion of countries that keenly want to work with Washington – to tackle constructively the issues festering in crisis breeding grounds. If this doesn’t happen, Sept. 11 may be just a foretaste of horrors yet to come.
Published in the International Herald Tribune (Thursday, September 15, 2001)
Mr. Evans, Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, is president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
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