Cold, hard facts

The new Cold War will be dirty and covert -- and the Vietnam-era left better get used to it.

Published January 14, 2002 9:49PM (EST)

Three Americans were taken hostage last spring in the Philippines by the notorious Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf, and they have yet to be given the attention, much less the rescue efforts, they deserve -- even after one of them, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded. That brutal slaying occurred back in June, yet the news coverage here has remained peripheral at best, the outcry weak. But now that we're trotting the globe in search of rogue terror cells and their harboring nations, why is this murder and kidnapping racket not cause for armed intervention? Shouldn't we put these bloodthirsty terrorists on our list of targets?

The answer is, of course -- but where exactly should we place them on our priorities list? The case for war is stronger against Iraq. But recent remarks made by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to the New York Times indicate that the U.S. might be considering moving the war on terrorism first to Indonesia and the Philippines, among other places. Those two governments, which are friendly toward the United States, would likely welcome American help in eradicating terrorist groups operating in their countries.

As the expeditious rout in Afghanistan winds down, larger and much harder questions about the war on terror have been emerging. We are realizing that sacking a virtually friendless and weak government was far easier than eradicating the terrorists they were harboring. Many of al-Qaida's foot soldiers seem either to have disappeared into the hills, melted back into the population or slithered into sympathetic enclaves in Pakistan. They are as invisible as their Philippine counterparts. What to do? We certainly can't take on Pakistan, our ally, even though it has harbored Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers all along, and has nurtured Islamist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhmammad, which are widely suspected to have carried out recent terrorist attacks in Kashmir and the Indian parliament. Inserting ourselves in that mess, if not properly done, could tip Pakistan into a civil war, or even worse, exacerbate the tensions between India and Pakistan and spark a nuclear conflict.

The dilemma is similar in other parts of the world rife with dangerous Islamist sects. Take China, for example, where ethnic Uighurs, who are mostly Turkic-speaking Muslims, are clashing with fearful communist authorities who are bent on crushing the group's violent, separatist tendencies. Or consider Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, each of which has had its own bloody brushes with Islamist insurgencies in recent years. What is to be done there?

Indonesia is one of the worst potential hot spots. A newly vocal group of Islamic extremists, calling itself the Defenders of Islam, has taken to the streets of late, wielding wooden sticks and shouting harsh denunciations of gambling, alcohol and most other forms of Western-style entertainment. Frighteningly reminiscent of the Taliban, such groups may gain ground in the power vacuum left by the 1998 ouster of the country's former dictator Suharto. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and has had a long history of religious tolerance, but is facing increasingly turbulent times, with its fair share of ethnic conflict between Christians and Muslims. A recently formed group called Laskar Jihad bears a more than passing resemblance to al-Qaida; they are large, well organized and ideologically committed to violence. The Bush administration suspects they may have direct ties with Osama bin Laden. Terrorist refugees from Afghanistan may well find safe harbor among such groups. If they do, will we go to Southeast Asia to get them?

One way or another, we'll have to. And perhaps the irony of going back to Southeast Asia to fight this war is most appropriate: The war on terror appears to be developing into a battle far more similar to the Cold War, which last brought American forces to Vietnam. Though we might not have envisioned it that way three months ago, it now appears that this will be a war on Islamism, and from the look of things, it's going to be a dirty, protracted, global and mostly covert operation -- not a conventionally fought third world war.

As we did in Central and South America in the '70s and '80s, we are probably going to have to take sides in secret, either by arming, funding and training sympathetic guerrilla forces hostile to Islamist regimes, or supporting secular states, even rogue states like Syria, that are suppressing or have already suppressed Islamist threats.

Wolfowitz's recent remarks suggest that a Cold War approach may be already underway. It's going to be ugly at times, no doubt, as ugly as the Cold War ever got, especially when foreign governments don't welcome American intervention. But this time the threat has come home, and we understand better that defeating infiltrators will mean fighting by proxy abroad and on the enemy's crude terms. We are going to need all the support -- at home and abroad -- that we can get.

For the foreseeable future, Sept. 11 may guarantee that we'll get it. After all, we didn't have the same incentive 35 years ago. Public support for the Vietnam War would have been infinitely greater and longer lasting if North Vietnamese communists had bombed New York and Washington, D.C., in 1965. Likewise, support for the Cold War would have been far more widespread and enthusiastic had the average American had access to Soviet intelligence intercepts (the Venona Papers) and the hard evidence they provided for the presence of active communist spies in our midst. But because neither happened, a lot of people thought conservative anti-communists were paranoid. What's more, they thought the domino theory was a load of humbug, and in no way justified American foreign policy in the postwar period.

Back then, few people appreciated the extent of the communist threat nearly as much as people now appreciate the Islamist threat, and that could be the only good thing to have come out of Sept. 11. While "quagmire"-obsessed journalists fretted about another Vietnam disaster, we dismantled the enemy in Afghanistan in no time, and with only a handful of American casualties. Though superior technology and perfected air-power strategies are undoubtedly responsible for our swift victory, we should not underestimate the power of home-front resolve. We understood why we were there. We knew what we had to do, and we did it. Vietnam was never so decisive either in morale or in mission.

There will always be sectors of the punditocracy and the anti-patriot professorate that will see some twisted form of imperialist noblesse oblige in America's war on terror, just as they saw it in every move we made in the Cold War. Writing in this issue of the Nation, Benjamin R. Barber debunks a Cold War strategy in the war on terror, offering the predictable leftist foreign policy prescription. "The war on terrorism must be fought, but not as the war of McWorld against jihad," he writes. In typical blame-America-first fashion, Barber goes on to say that jihad has been an (almost) understandable response to the evils of brand-name capitalism and globalization, naively assuming that selling fewer cheeseburgers abroad will stem the tide of Islamism. Instead, he refers vaguely to "real options for democratic realists in search of civic strategies that address the ills of globalization and the insecurities of the millions of fundamentalist believers who are neither willing consumers of Western commercial culture nor willing advocates of jihadic terror."

Our various interventions in Latin American politics during the Cold War were not acts of hubris. Nor were they the fruit of our overweening presumption that sheer might entitled us to extend our own "evil empire" -- Amerika. They were attempts, albeit, at times, shamefully enacted, to prevent the communist threat from reaching critical mass in our hemisphere -- a strategy the dire necessity of which we are learning only now, after letting a similar threat -- Islamism -- gather its disparate forces and orchestrate a devastating attack on American soil. Now the wisdom of prevention is starting to make sense to the public.

It will always be the dissident's privilege to deny that nearly everything seemingly aggressive we do around the globe in the next decade or two will, in fact, be part of an ongoing program of self-defense. But for our own safety, we must unite behind a global war on terror. Some will call this hopelessly hawkish, but it's unavoidable: Wherever we can help it, we cannot afford to let anti-American, Islamist dictatorships come to power abroad. We cannot be strategically indifferent to even our remotest neighbors, or we will pay the consequences at home.

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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