Bush Claims the Mantle of World Leader

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Afghanistan is literally the world's largest minefield — there are some 10 million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines hidden there, which maim or kill more than 20 Afghans a day. And President Bush's stirring speech on Thursday suggests that the administration's campaign to eliminate the Bin Laden terror scourge involves navigating a figurative minefield every bit as dangerous.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The centrality of intelligence in combating terrorism makes Washington especially reliant on the assistance of the widest possible range of Arab allies — even Syria, currently on the State Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism, has reportedly been asked to supply information to help the U.S. investigation of the September 11 attacks. Not surprising, then, that the President devoted a considerable proportion of his speech to reassurances that the U.S. has no quarrel with Islam, but only with individuals and organizations who defile a peaceful religion by committing terrorism in its name.

Adressing allied concerns

If President Bush's inclusive words established a positive climate for U.S. coalition-building, his sober, nuanced explanation on the nature of the battle ahead signaled an awareness of the concerns of many European, Arab and Muslim allies. U.S. media outlets had previously reported on a debate inside the Bush administration over the scale and scope of "Operation Infinite Justice," in which more hawkish advisers had counseled including Iraq in an initial list of targets for retaliation, while Secretary of State Colin Powell had reportedly cautioned that this would alienate Arab allies and potentially destroy the coalition. President Bush's speech made no mention of Iraq, and emphasized that the first phase of a global war on terror would be focused on Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaida organization, and its Taliban hosts.

President Bush also addressed the fears of some European and Muslim allies over being drawn into a wider military confrontation without clearly achievable goals. The President stressed that military action would form only one part of a comprehensive package of economic, financial, diplomatic and intelligence initiatives — and he cautioned Americans to be patient, and not to expect the sort of televised large-scale military assault seen during the Gulf War.

Taking down the Taliban?

President Bush's forceful distinction between the people of Afghanistan and their Taliban overlords will also have underscored the fact that Washington shares the concern of most allies to avoid inflicting casualties on an already traumatized civilian population that has little control over the gunmen in its midst. Indeed, the President's eloquent denunciation of the Taliban's domestic reign of terror is a strong hint of the desirability for Washington of destroying the regime that has hosted Osama Bin Laden. Britain's Guardian newspaper on Friday reported that the U.S. is canvassing European NATO allies on ways in which the international community could contribute to the administration of an Afghanistan liberated from the Taliban. While the U.S. is unlikely to tempt the miserable fate that traditionally befalls invaders of Afghanistan, it has other means of influencing the fate of the Taliban, from pinpoint military strikes at its power centers to cutting it off from its only sources of foreign support — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which have signed up with Washington's campaign — and improving the weaponry and training of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which still controls 5 percent of Afghanistan.

The President's speech laid down principles for a broad-based coalition against terrorism. Building and maintaining that coalition clearly involves certain policy changes for the U.S. Moves are currently underway in Congress to lift many of the sanctions that had been imposed on Pakistan in response to its nuclear testing, the objective being to shore up the military government of General Pervez Musharraf in the face of a domestic backlash against his support for Washington's drive to get Bin Laden. Also, the Bush administration has plainly assumed a more activist role in knocking together Israeli and Palestinian heads to achieve a cease-fire, fearing that ongoing violence may hinder Arab support for the campaign against Bin Laden.

Maintaining the alliance will, no doubt, involve ongoing political dialogue with many of its members on these and many other issues. But President Bush on Thursday raised the poles of a very big tent. European allies may have grumbled about unilateralism during the first six months of the Bush administration and Arab allies may have fretted over Washington's absence from the Iraeli-Palestinian crisis. But Thursday's speech will be remembered as the moment when President Bush became, in every sense, a world leader.