It is possible to be optimistic, if cautiously so, about the damaging consequences that the Talibans' humiliating defeat will have for the reputation and influence of the Islamic fundamentalist movement elsewhere in the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden's followers succeeded in bringing down the World Trade towers in New York and attacking the Pentagon, but in Afghanistan, where it counts, the rout of the Taliban was greeted with popular rejoicing. Not even the Talibans' Pashtun constituency would fight for bin Laden.
Looking to the future, the important question is what this victory will do to the United States, which, unlike Islamic fundamentalists of any stripe, has global power and conceives itself as possessing a global destiny.
It is an important question because even before Sept. 11 an important American debate was under way between those who believe that the United States, at the peak of its power, should impose what they expect to become a Pax Americana, and other Americans who believe that such an undertaking would prove a rash and dangerous overreaching.
The critics are often attacked as liberals, afraid to use power, but actually are deeply conservative. There is a crucial difference between the American so-called neoconservatives, ascendant in this administration, and dictionary conservatives, disposed "to preserve what is established; opposed to change ... adhering to sound principles."
The latter by definition are skeptical about foreign policies intended to engineer vast changes in international society. They regard a radical program for overthrowing named regimes in the Islamic world, and installing American client-governments, as an invitation to very large troubles. Neoconservatives have a program for what they describe as phase two of the war against terrorism. Their national candidates for overthrow are the current governments of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Libya and Sudan.
The Bush administration actually has been remarkably restrained, given the pressure it is under from such individuals within its own ranks, as well as from what must be called the war party in the press and Congress. In part this follows from the lack of realism in such recommendations. Secondary administration figures, such as Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, recommend that the United States fight terrorism "at the wholesale level," "compelling" those who don't voluntarily comply with American demands concerning terrorist complicities. More sensible figures ask what actually would come from politico-military interventions in various Muslim countries.
The problems of succession for such regimes are insoluble by foreigners, as Afghanistan at the present moment vividly demonstrates - and as George W. Bush's father grasped at the time of the Gulf War.
The warlords who before the Taliban took power had given Afghanistan 20 years of death and chaos are now telling the United Nations, foreign troops, foreign journalists and the international aid agencies to get out of their country. They are unwanted.
If the warlords have their way, it is quite possible that the Taliban will soon be back. The last condition of that country could yet prove worse than its first. And all we need is Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Sudan in similar condition.
America's success in Afghanistan feeds the ambition to escalate, nourishing the illusion that there is a final defeat to be inflicted on evil, with a happy ever-after. De-escalation is what rather is needed.
It is needed for another realistic reason: to preserve the domestic health of American society.
The war against evil has, since Sept. 11, given the United States an effective elimination of habeas corpus for foreigners illegally in the country. It seems about to give it military courts of exception, by which the United States unilaterally assumes a right to seize any non-U.S. person anywhere, try him or her before U.S. military judges and, after conviction, execute the prisoner.
The war against terrorism has produced all but unprecedented governmental censorship - with equally unprecedented, and virtually unquestioning, acquiescence on the part of journalists and news organizations ordinarily jealous of their constitutionally guaranteed position as the nation's Fourth Estate. Notwithstanding this, there is not going to be a Pax Americana. The reason is that the American people are not imperialists, do not imagine themselves imperialists and lack the ruthlessness to impose and maintain an empire. If they don't themselves realize that now, or if their representatives in Washington fail to do so, they will all, as in Vietnam, discover the truth the hard way.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune