Looking at the eclectic coalition the United States has assembled in the war on terrorism, you have to wonder whether we will not at some point be running into the dilemma that faced Groucho Marx, who did not want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member. While having allies who share our national interests and our democratic values is indispensable even for the world’s remaining superpower, gathering a following of opportunistic hangers-on is not. This is particularly so in cases where there is no compelling reason to subordinate American principles for the sake of some strategic advantage, something that unfortunately has to be allowed for in a world of real dangers.
This is the focus of the just-released 2002 World Report released by Human Rights Watch, and it poses questions worth asking, some of which have no easy answers.
“As many of the world’s governments join the fight against al Qaeda, they face a fundamental choice. They must decide whether this battle provides an opportunity to reaffirm human rights principles or a new reason to ignore them. They must determine whether this is a moment to embrace values governing means as well as ends or an excuse to subordinate means to ends,” so the authors write. “Unfortunately, the coalition’s conduct so far has not been auspicious.”
In the days and weeks after the terrorist attack, a certain amount of self-interest could be detected in the expression of sympathy and support from nations around the world. The honor for the most egregious example of shameless opportunism has to go to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who advertised a crackdown on his critics in the press as an attack on supporters of terrorism. He’s by no means the only despot to get this idea.
Russia and China, countries with whom the Bush administration has established budding relationships in the wake of September 11, hastened to draw parallels to their own brutal internal crackdowns, in Chechnya and in China’s Xinjiang province. The strategy was particularly successful in the case of Russia, which President Bush at the Crawford summit in November praised for its progress towards respect for human rights and democratic principles. In an interview with The Washington Times last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell listed the post-September 11 developments between the United States and Russia as first among the administration’s achievements
The Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union have found their strategic location a ticket to closer ties with the United States, even if their contributions have been minimal. Uzbekistan has remained one of the most repressive regimes of the post-Soviet era, allowing no political, religious or other freedoms for its citizens. It has also been fighting its own al Qaeda-linked domestic rebel movement, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan is another recent ally, whose oil-wealth solidifies its status. Despite his record of domestic repression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently received red carpet treatment at the White House, as indeed he had at the Clinton White House before.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both long-standing U.S. allies, are breeding grounds for terrorist operatives and Osama sympathizers. Both have autocratic regimes that do not allow for any peaceful transfer of power. In the case of Saudi Arabia, we may soon face the daunting prospect of either endorsing an Algeria-type crackdown on the political opposition, or an Iran-like collapse of a corrupt regime once the West’s support is withdrawn. Even worse is Syria, which is now (hilariously) emerging as an ally in the fight against terrorism. This is a bit like smokers joining an anti-smoking crusade on the principle that you have to smoke tobacco to get rid of it.
The Human Rights Watch report makes the reasonable point that promoting human rights in general undermines support for terrorism. Respect for human life counters the impulse to sympathize with those who would sacrifice civilians in the name of their own cause, in this case a bizarre violent version of Islamic fundamentalism. “Thus the Middle East and North Africa is one of the regions where it is essential to affirm a culture of human rights as an antidote to terrorism,” says the report. This is a big job, but one that would benefit all, with the exception of corrupt and despotic regimes.
At the end of the day, we should want not just revenge for the loss of 3,000 American lives and the destruction of a dangerous enemy. We should also want to come out of the war on terrorism with our faith in the foundations of American civilization intact.