Editor's Comments

Non-refereed Journal Article

Burgess, J. Peter (2002) Editor's Comments , Security Dialogue 33(4): .

Editor's Comments

IN EARLY OCTOBER, a bomb attack shook the peaceful vacation paradise of Bali. Early analysis of the attack, which claimed close to 200 lives, mostly Western tourists, quickly identified the ‘fingerprint’ of globally networked terror methods. Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, has only recently seen the establishment of a precarious peace and economic stability after 40 years of military abuses and authoritarianism. The general transition to a democratically structured government – under pressure from the Interna-tional Monetary Fund – had been long, difficult and always fragile. US intelli-gence reports warned that an Al-Qaeda-like group was planning an attack on the island, and the working hypothesis of investigators is that Al-Qaeda is either directly responsible or provided inspiration for the highly successful attack.

The immediate impact of the attack will be felt by Indonesia’s vital tourist industry. A possible secondary aim was to target Westerners in the Pacific Rim. From a global perspective, however, the attack opens up a new – and, for the USA, welcome – front in the war against terrorism. Australia has been a staunch supporter of the US ‘global war on terror’ and is expected to pour re-sources into widening the ‘counter-offensive’ in the Pacific region.

At the same time, there is cause for prudence. There is an obvious danger in the political use of uncertainty for at least two reasons. First, Al-Qaeda’s in-volvement in the attack remains to be established. Analysts claim that a cer-tain modus operandi is recognizably Al-Qaeda. However, the Janus-face of globalization must not be forgotten. The global surveillance that supports the war on terror around the planet – enabling us to recognize Al-Qaeda’s ‘fin-gerprint’ 2,000 kilometres from Afghanistan – has the same shape and form as the terrorist networks that draw their strength from a globalized image of the Western enemy. Both are hard-wired into the same global informational system. Second, and somewhat more troubling, proof of direct Al-Qaeda involvement seems no longer necessary for the integration of a regional – possibly even local – complaint into a general global logic of terrorism in which ‘Al-Qaeda’ is simply taken as an abstract gloss for unconditional and undifferentiated ‘evil’. The more the generality of the evil ‘Other’ grows at the expense of culturally and religiously unique ethnic groups, the more their particular ambitions and grievances will be lost in the crowd and, subsequently, the more they will be forced to identify with each other in the face of their common enemy.

The threshold of anti-US and anti-Western violence will thus be brought down to the lowest common denominator. Specific knowledge, analysis and the patient consideration of locally and culturally determined grievances become the quiet casualties of the globalization of warfare. It is fortunate for all, however, that the USA still considers the UN Security Council as possessing some political utility. On 12 September 2002, President Bush addressed the UN General Assembly on the problem of Iraq, challenging the Security Council to stand by its earlier resolution concerning weapons in-spections and indicating that the USA would heed the Council’s resolution on condition that Iraq be obliged to do the same. Bush’s strong language, which underscored the responsibilities on both sides of the conflict, brought quick results. By 16 September, the UN had received reassurance from Iraqi authori-ties that weapons inspectors would have unconditional access to any sites they wished to visit. Yet Iraq’s seemingly obliging response called Bush’s bluff, foiling the US ultimatum. The stakes had to be raised. In the days that followed, the USA’s cavalier approach became irrepressible. By late Septem-ber, the Bush administration was insisting that inspections alone were not enough, and that the Iraqis themselves would be required to furnish docu-mentation of the available weapons and an assurance that disarmament would follow.

Both houses of the US Congress have now passed legislation authorizing the US President to use military force in Iraq in the name of self-defence. Previ-ously seen as an ineffectual global player (already suffering under compre-hensive economic sanctions specifically designed to thwart the development of weapons of mass destruction and with two-thirds of its airspace controlled and continuously patrolled by US air forces), Iraq has been rhetorically trans-formed into a direct and immediate threat to the USA. Since the passing of the congressional legislation, the USA has applied itself to pushing its own draft resolution on Iraq through the Security Council. Yet, if the USA wishes to come anywhere close to recognizing basic principles of international law, it will have to radically alter both its discourse of legitimacy and its actual policy proposals, as Geir Ulfstein makes clear in a Viewpoint article in this issue of Security Dialogue.

Initial resistance to a resolution giving the USA carte blanche on Iraq came from France, Germany and Russia. France has held out in the Security Coun-cil, consolidating a fragile consensus, forcing the USA to back away from reso-lution language permitting ‘all necessary means’ to be used against Iraq and causing the Bush administration to renounce its aim of gaining authorization for an ‘automatic’ recourse to arms. The new compromise document – still under review as this issue goes to press – calls for further Security Council consultation and a new resolution before any military action can be taken. The geopolitical status quo, not to speak of US public opinion, remains uncon-vinced by US arguments regarding the imminent threat posed by the Iraqi ar-senal. Meanwhile, France (along with Jacques Chirac, who has spoken out publicly and assertively against the US resolution in various forums) has gained con-siderably in prestige. Forcing the USA to a compromise position on a Security Council resolution is undoubtedly a watershed in itself. It also constitutes a breakthrough from the point of view of France’s political prestige. Europe’s security identity remains weak, despite concerted top-down efforts by the European Commission to bolster it. Still, the additional fact that Gerhard Schröder’s Party for Democratic Socialism managed to (narrowly) maintain control of the German government while openly expressing opposition to the US initiative may indeed mark a change in European politics. The EU is badly in need of political rejuvenation. It had already lost its political innocence at the end of September when, after first expressing unified support for the International Criminal Court in the face of US demands for exemption, it released member-countries to negotiate individually with the USA on reciprocal im-munity agreements.

At first glance, the compromise on Iraq is a breakthrough for global consensus-building. Yet, as the time of writing, the UN Security Council stands at a true crossroads. A US-led war in Iraq seems to be a foregone conclusion, regardless of the kind of resolution the Security Council might manage to forge. The only remaining question – and it is an essential one – is what will be left of the in-ternational community at large, and the UN in particular, when the USA rolls into the oilfields at its geopolitical pleasure, making a mockery of world opin-ion and – through its unilateral global conduct – shunning the only viable attempts to create a system of global justice of the kind it claims to seek.

Consequences for world peace seem unclear but, in all conceivable scenarios, bleak. Should there be an all-out invasion and, as some analysts predict, the establishment of a ‘US protectorate’ in Iraq, the Arab world will undoubtedly close ranks, and its inner conflicts will be overridden by what it sees as the need to provide a legitimate defence against a common enemy. In addition, the path from nominally moderate Islam to fundamentalism would be short-ened. Of the hot spots that might be caught up in the flames, the most fragile is undoubtedly the region of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, already in an ut-terly desperate situation. A general Middle Eastern war would see the griev-ances of the Palestinian people drowned in the dust of mayhem. Other consequences would be structural. The UN would once again be rele-gated to a state of general impotency of the kind in which it was mired throughout the Cold War. A complete US disregard for the institution’s legitimacy and, at the same time, the inability of major Security Council players to shore up that legitimacy would be debilitating. Similarly, the basis of international law would be weakened. The International Criminal Court, from which the USA managed to negotiate more or less complete exemption, would similarly suffer in legitimacy, and European solidarity in the field of international law would be compromised.

This situation was further complicated in October when North Korea – an-other ‘rogue nation’ – admitted to having a clandestine nuclear weapons pro-gramme, in effect rendering null and void the bilateral nuclear arms agree-ment, ‘Agreed Framework’, made with the Clinton administration in 1994. Washington thus faces the problem of explaining to the US public and to scep-tical global allies alike why aggressive military posturing with regard to Iraq is indispensable while North Korea – one of the key points on the so-called axis of evil – remains exempt: According to the Pentagon, North Korea al-ready possesses ‘one or two’ nuclear warheads, while most analysts agree that Iraq is far from producing such a weapon.


J. Peter Burgess

J. Peter Burgess

Research Professor & Editor of Security Dialogue