KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Listening to the anti-American rhetoric that has emerged from the summit of the 114-nation Non-Aligned Movement is a sobering experience. The summit host, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has been one of the most outspoken with his allegation of "a war against Muslims" and his attacks on America's global predominance.
But there is a gap between what Malaysia's leaders say and what they do. It is a gap that helps explain why U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials seem relatively unconcerned by the apparent unraveling of America's alliances around the globe.
At first sight, the situation looks grim. France and Germany, veteran NATO allies, are firmly opposed to U.S. policies in Iraq and seem prepared for a showdown at the United Nations. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said this week that there would be no second U.N. Resolution, whatever the British and Americans proposed.
At the other end of the earth, the 50-year alliance with South Korea seems to be crumbling fast, with the new President Roh Moo-hyun promising a peace treaty with the north despite its confessed nuclear weapons program.
"Koreans should stand together, although things will get difficult when the U.S. bosses us around," Seoul's new leader told his Trade Union Federation on Monday, adding that he would personally "guarantee" North Korea's security.
Here at the NAM summit in Malaysia, French diplomats and commentators nod their heads sagely and say they are witnessing the beginning of the end of the American empire as the old alliances crumble and the dollar falls on world markets. Only the British and Australians stand firmly by America as the Bush administration confronts the cumulative crises in Iraq and Korea and Europe, the kind of overstretch that sapped the might of so many empires past. And even in Britain, Tony Blair's voters tell pollsters they think the United States is a greater threat to world peace than Iraq.
Appearances can be deceiving. Five miles away from the NAM summit site, at Malaysia's Defense Ministry headquarters on Jalan Padang Tembak (it translates as Rifle Range Road), the reality of the country's strategic choices are very clear.
"We oppose the idea of a war against Iraq, but if it happens, we would continue to support the war against terrorism. It would be very much more difficult, but we'd do it," Malaysia's Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak told United Press International.
Malaysia does not exactly boast about it, but its cooperation with the United States is rated as "exemplary" in Washington, not least because of the blanket overflight rights given to U.S. warplanes heading to Afghanistan and Diego Garcia. And if the Malaysians wanted to fly escort duties, the U.S. Air Force would feel right at home because the Malaysians fly U.S.-built F-18D fighters and are looking to upgrade to the F-18F Super-Hornets.
At the Butterworth Air Force Base outside Penang, the integrated air defense commander is an Australian, under the five-power agreement among Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. U.S. Special Forces troops train at the Malaysian Army's Jungle Warfare school (founded by the British).
"Our military-to-military links with the U.S. are excellent, the pillar of our bilateral relations," says the defense minister, whose status as deputy leader of the ruling UMNO party and a son of a former prime minister gives him unusual political influence.
The relationship that all these military links are helping to defend is based on a total of $22 billion in U.S. investment, in the electronics and energy industries that sustain Malaysia's prosperity. Ninety percent of Dell laptop computers are made here. General Electric says its jet engine servicing center here is its most profitable, and GE's praise is luring Boeing to join it. The HSBC and Standard Chartered banking groups are setting up their data-processing and back office centers here.
Malaysia understands -- in a way that South Korea might be forgetting -- that its prosperity rests on a global economy that is sustained and guaranteed and was virtually invented by the United States. The threat of war against Iraq is hugely unpopular, partly because the government fears it could incite more Muslim fundamentalism and complicate its own anti-terrorist efforts. But when a boycott of Coca-Cola was called, Malaysians realized that 20,000 Malaysian jobs would be at risk and the boycott ended the day it started.
There is rhetoric and there is reality, and there are few better places to understand the difference that the modern, prosperous and predominantly Muslim state of Malaysia.