UNITED NATIONS - Israel and India have long suffered horrific terror attacks. But when they were struck again in recent weeks, they had a new precedent to follow, set by no less than the world's most powerful nation, as they considered how to respond. Following America's lead, and anticipating American support, each issued an ultimatum to the leaders of the land from which the Islamic militants came: crush the terrorists, or else.
It is unlikely that President Bush anticipated anything like this when he went before Congress on Sept. 20 and issued his ultimatum to the rulers of the land from which Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had directed the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "The Taliban must act and act immediately," he declared then. "They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate."
It was a classic ultimatum, allowing the adversary to decide whether there would be war. If the Taliban handed over the evil-doers — admittedly a remote possibility by then — Washington would accomplish its goals without a fight. If the Taliban refused, the onus for the subsequent bloodletting would lie on its shoulders.
In this form, the ultimatum has long been a central ritual in the foreplay to war. The Islamic warrior Qutaibah, it is written, was required by an Islamic judge to withdraw from Samarkand in 717 A.D. because he had not served an ultimatum to the city before entering it. Both great wars of the last century were preceded by ultimatums — Austria-Hungary to Serbia in 1914 and the French and British to Hitler in September 1939. So was the gulf war and the bombing of Serbia over Kosovo. On the opposite side of the ledger, what might have been the biggest blowout of them all, an American-Soviet nuclear exchange over the Soviet missiles in Cuba, was averted when Nikita Khrushchev backed down in the face of an American ultimatum in 1962.
Throughout history, there has been only one prerequisite for a good ultimatum — carry a stick big enough to be convincing, and be prepared to use it.
But now President Bush has taken the ultimatum to another level. "From this day forward," he said before the Congress, "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." The message of the moment was clear. The American-led campaign against global terrorism would not stop with Afghanistan; it would continue against any country that knowingly harbored evil- doers.
The trouble with that approach is that in the absence of a universally accepted definition of terrorism, this second ultimatum implied a new, broad and potentially risky principle. A lot of countries brand their enemies "terrorists," including a host of dictatorships badgered by expatriate opponents or independence movements. But until now they did not necessarily regard the existence of these foes as grounds for action against the leaders of the countries where they lived.
"I think we would have been wiser if we had defined more precisely the enemy we're waging war against," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser under Jimmy Carter. "By declaring war against an undifferentiated, undefined and fundamentally vague phenomenon like global terrorism, or terrorism with global reach, we in a sense opened the gates to a lot of countries to leap into this exercise on our backs. They are all declaring whoever their enemy is to be a terrorist, and then claiming moral justification for doing whatever they decide to do."
ONE indication that the American ultimatum might invite unwelcome interpretations was the alacrity with which dubious regimes flocked to endorse it. Among early respondents to a United Nations Security Council resolution requiring all U.N. members to report on measures against terrorism were Syria and Myanmar (Burma), both ranked among the 10 least democratic countries by the human rights group Freedom House. The Burmese junta declare that it, too, "has been subject to terrorism in the past," but reassured the United Nations that it has taken "strong measures" to prevent more.
From Syria, which has long been prominent on the State Department's list of sponsors of terror, came the assurance that "Syria has always condemned terrorism in all its forms." That, however, was preceded by the reminder that Syria, like most other Arab countries, distinguishes between terrorism and "legitimate struggle against foreign occupation" — in other words, anything the Palestinians do against Israel. Along the same lines, Russia's clownish xenophobe, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has switched of late from lambasting America to treating it as an ally, probably because Washington now supplies justification for action against Chechnya and other Islamic thorns to Russia's south.
"We are essentially playing with a world of very different cases, and to reduce it all to a model we've created is very dangerous," said Stanley Hoffman, professor of international relations at Harvard. "For every country that sees itself as a victim of terrorism, it is now natural to use this extravagant ultimatum."
That is not to say that Israel or India, both of them mature democracies that have been battered badly by terrorism, acted with overt cynicism, or without justification. Yet in both situations, Washington's declaration of zero tolerance for terrorism offered encouragement to the governments to react with less restraint than in the past, at least in part on the calculation that the United States would now supply whatever clout they lacked to back up their threat.
In Israel, where the United States has always in the past urged restraint in the wake of suicide attacks, Washington now found no choice but to tell Israel it was free to take whatever measures it saw fit. That, in turn, freed the right-wing government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to do what he had long wanted to do, declaring Mr. Arafat unfit to negotiate with unless he eliminated Hamas. The form of the ultimatum was certain to make Mr. Arafat even more reluctant to take the requisite steps, and further shriveled any leverage the Americans had as a mediator in the conflict. The new American envoy to the Middle East, Anthony C. Zinni, was withdrawn, with no indication that officials in Washington had any more ideas up their sleeve.
In India, the government's response to a suicide attack on the Parliament on Dec. 13, in which seven Indians died, was to demand that Pakistan crack down on two Islamic organizations that act openly in Pakistan and Kashmir. That, in the context of Pakistan's current cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan, was effectively a demand that the United States put pressure on its partner. The ultimatum was accompanied by a steady military buildup on the Pakistani-Indian border.
Seeking to defuse the crisis, Washington added the two groups in question to the State Department's swelling list of terrorist organizations, and the Pakistani government strongly condemned them. But in the new climate, that was not enough for India. As Stephen Philip Cohen, an expert on the armies of the region, put it late last week: "The Indians are playing chicken. They're counting on the United States to jerk the steering wheel so the Pakistanis do swerve out of the path of an onrushing Indian vehicle."
The ultimatum left the Americans again stuck between a principle and an imperative. The United States needed Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, if it stood any chance of catching Al Qaeda's chieftains. But supporting the American operation was already a political risk for him, and taking action against domestic Islamic organizations under Indian or American pressure would be downright dangerous.
"The ultimatum against the Taliban was a good ultimatum," said Morton H. Halperin, director of policy planning in the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. "The problem is that it's now being copied by other countries, which are making ultimatums which cannot be yielded to without losing power, and therefore runs the risk of unending conflict. What the Indians are trying to do, what Israel is doing, is to persuade Bush that their situation is no different from ours. How can we ask the Israelis or the Indians now to exercise restraint?
"That is the real danger here, that we feel obliged to give them a green light."
There is also a danger, some argue, in Americans preventing others from doing what Americans claim a right to do. "Our response has to be heavily influenced by steps we were right to take," said Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Israel and India are right to do something about terrorism. We have said we're waging a war against terrorism, and both countries are responding to terrorism."
Yet the critical attribute of a successful ultimatum is that all its consequences be anticipated. If it goes wrong, history will judge it only a foolish gamble. Or, as in the case of the ultimatum delivered in 1914, something much worse.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company