The best way to think about Al-Qaida and its radical Islamic associates is as a loose, worldwide confederation of jihadists aching for a fight with the West, and particularly with the United States. That's why the Bush administration's unilateral invasion of Iraq was so dangerous: It gives the jihadists a confrontation they believe they can win, just as they won against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
It also inflames the Muslim world and helps the jihadists recruit additional young radicals to their ranks. In that world, the combination of President Bush's words and actions this week will surely be taken to mean that he may actually seek to encourage just such a clash of civilizations.
In his press conference this week, both in the opening remarks and in responses to questions, Bush refused to yield a whit to critics of the U.S. action in Iraq. He refused to admit to any error and responded over and over with a handful of generalizations: "America's objective in Iraq is limited, and it is firm. We seek an independent, free and secure Iraq. . . . A free Iraq is vital because 25 million Iraqis have as much right to live in freedom as we do. A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers across the Middle East." It all amounted to a mantra: We are right; we will persevere, we will prevail.
The very next day, Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He announced he was reversing several decades of American policy and accepting Israeli annexation of chunks of the West Bank. He also explicitly rejected the right of return for Palestinians who fled or were forced out of Israel at its creation. The Associated Press, quoting an Israeli official, reported that Sharon "thought that no American president had ever made concessions so important to Israel as Bush did on Wednesday" in blessing Sharon's unilateral plan.
But what did the Muslim world think? Predictably, it was outraged. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American support for Israel have always been at the heart of radical Islam's beef with the United States. Granted, that seething anger in the Islamic "street" has been manipulated generously by unscrupulous Arab governments that would rather their citizens hate the United States and Israel than them.
The hatred, however, is very real, and very dangerous -- as 9/11, Bali, Madrid and other terrorist attacks demonstrate. Yet Bush, by embracing Sharon's own unilateralism, was in effect throwing sand in Muslim faces worldwide. Other than the invasion of Iraq, there's hardly anything Bush could have done to muster even greater support for the worldwide jihad.
What is Bush thinking? There are clues in statements from his press conference. "Now is the time, and Iraq is the place, in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world. We must not waver," the president said. Later, he added, "I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."
Bush came pretty close to proclaiming the fight against radical Islam the divine mission of the United States. He may not have meant that, but you can rest assured that is just how much of the Islamic world will view his comments, especially in light of his actions the next day on behalf of Israel. You can also bet it will be read that way by the American religious right, which sees in defending Israel a way to bring about Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.
We can't know Bush's motives, but it's not difficult to read the effects, and they risk being catastrophic. There are pragmatic reasons why some of what Bush gave Israel Tuesday will be part of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But it should have come about through negotiations. The way Bush has chosen to do it is essentially saying, again, to radical Islam, "Bring it on."
© Copyright 2004 Star Tribune.