Commentary: Geopolitically tone deaf


WASHINGTON, March 18 (UPI) -- Asking John Kerry to cough up his sources on foreign leaders who told him they looked forward to regime change in Washington next November challenges credulity. Anyone who knows how to keep off the record conversations off the record and is trusted by foreign leaders has heard the same refrain not once, but time and again.

The Pew Foundation's latest survey of global attitudes should dispel any doubt about the Bush administration's ratings in widely scattered parts of the world. The remaining Bush loyalists among Europe's leaders are disowned by their own public opinion polls. And those foreign leaders who speak their own minds confidentially are not about to tell Bush to his face how they feel. That's not the way geopolitics works.


The overwhelming majority of European leaders believe Iraq was a distraction from the war on terror and accept the intelligence community's consensus, on both sides of the Atlantic, that there were no operational links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. With the exception of Britain's Tony Blair and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, the European Union's 13 other leaders -- some with troops in Iraq -- say Iraq was both a tactical and a strategic blunder.


Large majorities in seven of eight foreign countries polled by Pew said the war in Iraq had jeopardized, or had no effect on, the war on terrorism. Anyone surprised by these results has to be geopolitically tone deaf.

The whole world has a stake in what happens in Washington in November. The decision, with no exaggeration, affects planet Earth's 6.3 billion inhabitants. Telling foreigners America's quadrennial presidential balloting is none of their business will not prevent them from voicing a preference, albeit in private, not for attribution, about the foreign policy pronouncements of one candidate vs. another. That was also the case throughout the decades-long titanic struggle between the two superpowers of the Cold War. And it would be an attack of terminal naiveté to expect foreign leaders not to share their views, fears, hunches, with aides and close friends, just as Bush doubtless told his national security team he was rooting for Jose Maria Aznar in last Sunday's Spanish elections.

Europeans with long experience dealing with terrorism -- Italy's Red Brigades, Germany's Red Army Faction, France's Action Directe, Belgium's Fighting Communist Cells -- also express the opinion (in private) that the Bush administration is yet to understand the dimensions of the al-Qaida phenomenon.


Al-Qaida is shorthand for a global politico-religious ideological movement. It draws much of its clientele from the same pool of poverty-stricken, forgotten men at the bottom of the economic pyramid that were attracted to communism during the Cold War. Destitute Muslims thrill to the exploits of suicide bombers. Thirty-one percent of Turks, in the same Pew survey, approve of suicide missions. The al-Qaida culture loves death as much as Westerners love life. Like KFC, al-Qaida is a franchise network, not for chicken, but for sympathetic extreme Islamist groups around the world.

The downtrodden, largely illiterate masses in Arab and other Muslim countries listen to their imams, mullahs and marabous. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims, from Morocco to Mindanao, who are ill served by their Muslim clergy, as the clerics are themselves poorly educated. Slogans about the Judeo-Christian crusade against Islam are eagerly embraced. They are told they are poor because of what the heathen Christians and Jews have stolen in their war to destroy Islam.

For them, Osama Bin Laden is a mythical hero much the way Che Guevara was to a previous generation of Third World revolutionaries.

The organization also enjoys the support of thousands of fundamentalist Muslims who work in major cities as lawyers, bankers, accountants, computer scientists and engineers. They have espoused the cause of militant Islam, much the way professionals joined communist parties in another era. They identify with the millions of jobless North African Muslims who live in slums on the outskirts of French cities and their South Asian counterparts in Britain.


Al-Qaida is not controlled or even directed by Osama bin Laden, as he flits from cave to hut to village mosque in the Hindu Kush mountain range that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now that he knows satellite phone calls are GPS pinpointed by the National Security Agency, he has even less to say to his fanatical followers.

Since the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, when bin Laden escaped into Pakistan with a security detail of some 50 Afghan Arabs, the Saudi terror master has gone to ground. Some 70,000 Pakistani soldiers and several thousand U.S. Special Forces have been chasing him up and down a 1,000-mile border of jagged mountains and deep, narrow ravines. Bin Laden captured dead or alive will have no visible impact on terrorist actions around the world. He will simply step out of mythology into martyrdom.

The Moroccan jihadis did not wait for word from bin Laden to detonate 10 bombs on commuter trains that killed 202 Spaniards and wounded 1,450 in Madrid train stations a week ago. Nor were they waiting for instructions on which safe house to use. There are scores of such al-Qaida terrorist cells all over Europe, the United States, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and sub-Sahara Africa.


The Saudis killed Khaled Ali Haj, a former bin Laden bodyguard, one of the 26 on their most wanted list. The kill was hailed in Saudi Arabia as a big breakthrough in the kingdom's anti-terrorist campaign. But Riyadh has to worry about several thousand men trained in the arts of terrorist mayhem. During the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, some 30,000 Afghan Arabs, many of them Saudis, were trained by the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency before joining the Mujahideen in a hit-and-run guerrilla war. Another 30,000 jihadis from some 56 countries were trained in bin Laden's Afghan camps during the 1990s.

Spain has changed al-Qaida's calculus. Islamists around the world can see major and lasting political and strategic results for their cause. What the Soviet Union failed to achieve during 45 years of Cold War, al-Qaida did in three days -- a key European ally was detached from an alliance built by an American president.

The Bush administration rejects any correlation between the grinding, sub-human poverty of large parts of the developing world and transnational terrorism. Its answer to Islamist extremism is a geostrategic vision of a democratized Middle East. But this does not begin to address the global crisis.


Contrary to the administration's prediction that victory in Iraq would spawn a peaceful settlement in the Middle East, the occupation of Iraq has given al-Qaida a new lease on life following its defeat in Afghanistan. A new global vision, inspired by the architecture of the post-World War II European recovery program, is long overdue. The alternative is al-Qaida's love of death machinations as far as anyone can peer over the parapet into the future.

Latest Headlines