Bush, Bali & the Beirut Connection

Published on Wednesday, October 23, 2002 by

There has been much talk of the fact that the Bali bombing marked the second anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole.

But the deadly blast also coincides with another milestone -- one with even more significance to the current direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Nineteen years ago this week, a group calling itself Islamic Jihad rammed a truck filled with explosives into the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen. Not since Iwo Jima had so many Marines died on a single day.

Three months later, U.S. forces beat a hasty retreat from Lebanon. The conclusion was unavoidable: Terrorism works.

The era of the anti-American suicide bomber had been born.

The seeds of the hate that drove those terrorists -- and continues to fuel their spiritual progeny today -- were sown by a flawed U.S. policy that transformed American forces from impartial peacekeepers to enemies of Islam.

That march of folly was characterized by an arrogance of power shaped by prejudice and preconceived notions. Diplomats, intelligence officials and key allies were ignored as the White House etched a policy in black and white for a region awash in a sea of gray. In the process, many moderate Muslims were radicalized.

History has a painful tendency to repeat itself.

"And he, whose whole course of proceeding seemed like a deliberate crusade against Mohammedan susceptibilities, never appeared to reflect for one moment that he was thereby supplying the springs to an under-current of fierce and deadly fanaticism," Col. Charles Churchill, a 19th Century British officer, wrote of an earlier ill-fated Western intervention in the region.

Update the language, and the words could as easily apply today.

Just days after the Marine barracks bombing, Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada. It was hard to ignore the impression that a frustrated superpower was blindly lashing out to divert attention from its impotence in the face of suicide bombers.

As the latest phase in America's war on terror bogs down and al-Qaeda's network regroups, the Bush administration seems to be marching down the same path. Once more, diplomatic and intelligence experts wave warning flags. Once more, allies balk. Once more, arrogance and personal prejudice substitute for thoughtful analysis.

"This is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al-Qaeda as a forward army," President Bush said of Saddam Hussein, substituting animosity for evidence as he pointed to the Bali carnage as another argument for attacking the guy who tried to kill his dad. The reality is, Iraq is not a second front. It is an entirely separate war. If the Administration doesn't soon recognize that, it runs the risk of losing both.

The nightclub bombing was a vivid example of al-Qaeda's two-pronged strategy: Terrorize the West and destabilize weak regimes. The approach is synergistic. Terror breeds instability. Unstable countries are breeding grounds for terror.

"Bali is no longer the last paradise," a friend who lives on that tropical island emailed me after the bombing. The terrorists' message is clear: If they can create Hell in Paradise, then nowhere is safe. The bonus: A body-blow to Indonesia's feeble economy, undercutting the already-weak position of the moderate leader of the world's largest Muslim country, even as al-Qaeda's political allies increase their pressure on President Musharraf in nuclear-tipped Pakistan. Look for other key U.S. allies in the Muslim world to be targeted next.

Yet some of the advisors around the President respond to such portends with nonchalance. "Mubarak is no great shakes. Surely we can do better," Pentagon advisor Richard Perle recently told an interviewer.

Instead of facing the terrorist threat to global stability with the laser-like focus President Bush once promised, the U.S. now pursues three separate and clashing policies: The war on terror, which requires the support of allies and Muslim moderates around the world to succeed; the invasion of Iraq, which has split the coalition and threatens to unleash instability in the Arab world; and a cozy new relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which has left moderate Muslims around the world shaking their heads in dismay.

To Muslims from Jerusalem to Jakarta, there is no more polarizing figure than Sharon. Yet precisely at the time when Washington needs to show an even hand in the Palestinian conflict, Sharon has been given a spare key to the White House gate. What the Administration seems to forget is that, again and again, Sharon has demonstrated that he follows no agenda but his own.

In the 1980s, Sharon's cynical actions as Israel's commander in Lebanon helped fan Muslim anger at the U.S. In the months after 9/11, Bush allowed himself to be manipulated by Sharon into equating Yassir Arafat with Osama bin Laden, undermining initial sympathy for America in broad sections of the Muslim world. Sharon has already said Washington cannot depend on his restraint if Iraq targets Israel in response to a U.S. attack. That's tempting bait for Saddam and threatens to take control of the war out of American hands and put it in those of the Middle East's two most militant national leaders.

"Before committing to an engagement, consider the implications of the decision for the U.S. in other parts of the world," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted in a breezy "war guidelines" memo released last week by the Pentagon.

Rumsfeld knows firsthand the fallout of ignoring such a dictum. He was Ronald Reagan's Middle East envoy when the seeds of hate were sown two decades ago. We can only hope he heeds his own advice this time around.

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