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Commentary and Analysis | FOREIGN POLICY

Bush's Unlikely Friends

November 04, 2001|WALTER RUSSELL MEAD | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

NEW YORK — Can this really be the Bush administration?

Since Sept. 11, we have sent troops abroad without a clear exit strategy and started nation-building in Afghanistan. Mainland China is our friend now; we are cozying up to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. We are up to our elbows in what we used to call the Middle East peace process, which looks more like a war process now, but the U.S. is putting more and more weight on Israel to get some kind of settlement there.

Many Democrats and liberal internationalists are rubbing their hands with glee at these changes. See, they say, the Lone Ranger approach to foreign policy doesn't work. To get what it wants in the real world, the United States must cooperate with other countries, pay its U.N. dues and seek multilateral solutions to complex international problems.

So has the Bush team gone soft and cuddly?

Not exactly.

The new internationalism in U.S. foreign policy is conservative, not the liberal version of the Clinton era. It isn't about universal courts for human rights, the Kyoto Protocol or international treaties on land mines. Nor is it about human rights. If China will help us stamp out international terrorism, we won't say too much about China's human rights violations. If Russia cooperates on intelligence and helps us crack down on money laundering, Washington won't make a big fuss about "collateral damage" to civilian targets in Russia's war against the Chechens.

This is the internationalism of America at war. During the Cold War, the U.S. notoriously cozied up to dictatorships and kleptocracies around the world if they would help us with our core objective of containing the Soviet Union. Fascists like Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco and Communists like Mao Tse-tung were both welcome under America's big tent in the coalition against Moscow.

Now that we have another war on our hands, it's coalition-time again. If your house is on fire and the neighbors form a bucket brigade, you don't make them pay their overdue library fines before joining in. You take their help and you thank them. Later, when the fire is out, you can go back to nagging them to mow their lawns or fix the noisy car mufflers.

So far, even people who don't like the Bush administration very much, which as of Sept. 11 was most of the world, signed up for the bucket brigade. Russia and China don't like our plans for national missile defense, and they worry that the U.S. is getting too strong and too pushy, but they like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban even less. If worse comes to worst, Russia and China know that the United States government will not attack them with nuclear or biological weapons, because, among governments, deterrence works. That kind of deterrence doesn't work as well when you are dealing with religious fanatics who can hide out in caves. Russia and China also have problems with their own Muslim minorities, and neither country wants the disease of fanaticism to spread through Central Asia.

Given all this, Russia and China honestly want us to win the war against terrorism, although they can probably stand it if we burn our fingers a little while we fight. They also won't shed many tears if the war makes us unpopular in the Arab world.

Our NATO allies are also glad to see us fighting this war. More than one European government was unhappy with our policy of supporting Muslim ethnic groups against the Serbs in the Balkans precisely because they were afraid to see Islamic governments spring up in Europe. While Muslims from the Middle East constitute only a small percentage of U.S. immigrants, they are the largest single group of immigrants across much of Western Europe. Again, while most European governments will try to win a few points in the Arab world by trying to look a little less hawkish than President Bush, at least for now their fears of fundamentalist terror far outweigh their concerns about American unilateralism.

Meanwhile, most Arab governments are going along, however nervously, because they know that the fundamentalists hate them even more than they hate us. Some countries, like Pakistan, are uneasy enough about their own past ties to terrorists and the Taliban that they are cooperating with us partly because they fear we might decide that they are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, and act accordingly.

Like most war coalitions, the current one is a mixed bag: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It isn't a grand Wilsonian coalition for democracy and human rights, but that doesn't mean that the cause isn't moral.

Bush is rarely silver-tongued, but when he called this a war for civilization, he was right on the money. The coalition against terrorism is one that believes in order against those of whatever religion who follow voices in their heads telling them to put anthrax in the mail. The logic is so clear that even dictators can see it. The danger is so great that if dictators are willing to help us, we will accept their help--gladly.

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