The six-month anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on Oct. 8 was one of the worst days yet for the occupation forces in Iraq. An attack on a U.S. road convoy killed at least one American soldier, which is the sort of thing that happens most days, but a Spanish diplomat was also assassinated in Baghdad (the Spanish government backed the invasion of Iraq), and a suicide bomber killed eight Iraqi policemen who are collaborating with the occupiers in the courtyard of their own police station. Not Vietnam yet, but getting warm.
Add the failure of thousands of inspectors to find Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and the Bush administration's request for another $87 billion to cover the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's hardly surprising that President Bush's approval ratings with the American public are falling steeply. It begins to look possible that the entire neo-conservative project for imposing a unilateral "pax Americana" on the world may be rejected by American voters in the November 2004 election. Iraq will remain a mess for a long time to come, but maybe we will soon get back to the old world of multilateralism and the United Nations.
That is the hope many people are starting to nourish, but it may not be that simple. There is now a symbiotic relationship between the Islamist terrorists and the neo-conservative directors of the "war on terror" that promises a long political life to the players on both sides. They are, as our Marxist friends used to put it, "objective allies": both seek to undermine the existing global order in order to expand their own freedom of action, and each group's actions justify the existence of the other group, at least in the eyes of its own supporters.
Al-Qaida, for example, sees the overseas adventures of American neo-conservatives as the best possible recruiting tool for its own cause among Muslims worldwide. If Osama bin Laden could decide the outcome of the next U.S. presidential election, he would instantly choose Bush. A rival candidate might pull American troops out of the Middle East or take a more even-handed approach in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and Bin Laden has no interest in stability in the region.
Given that bin Laden does not have a magic wand, what is Bush's best hope of winning a second term despite an ailing economy and the deepening quagmire of Iraq? It is that Americans close ranks patriotically behind him as they did in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. In practice, that means that he needs either another major terrorist attack on American soil or another victorious war against an alleged "terrorist state" or a suspected proliferator of "weapons of mass destruction."
Do the people around bin Laden understand this? Of course they do, and they will help Bush, if they can. Just one major terrorist attack in the United States -- not necessarily another 9-11, which would be very hard to manage, but just a big car-bomb in a U.S. city that kills a hundred or so Americans -- and the domestic political balance would be transformed at a stroke.
Nobody in the Bush entourage would actively wish for a new terrorist outrage in the United States, but they must be aware that it might happen anyway, and that it would be likely to stampede American voters back into the arms of their man. They will also be aware that it might not happen, however, so they must be considering what action they could take themselves to improve the administration's re-election prospects.
Put so baldly, this sounds desperately cynical. Would patriotic Americans in senior positions in the Bush administration really engineer a war in which young Americans would be killed (not to mention numerous foreigners) just to improve their man's chances of re-election?
No, probably not. But senior members of the Bush administration have a short list of "rogue" countries that they would like to attack anyway, for reasons that seem to them as sound as the ones that moved them to invade Iraq. Their assessment of the threat level from these places, and of the urgency with which America should act against them, will be taking place in one compartment of minds where another compartment is simultaneously contemplating the awful tragedy of a defeat in November 2004 that would, in their view, leave the United States horribly exposed and vulnerable.
What all this means is that we are not out of the woods yet. There may well be another terrorist attack in the United States before the next election, or there may be another war. If either happens, then the confrontation between the Islamists and the neo-cons will probably continue almost to the end of the decade, with each reinforcing the other's challenge to the global order that has been painfully built up since 1945. It is not a happy prospect.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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