What to Fight for
Despotic regimes of Central Asia may work with the US not in defense of freedom

The Washington Post, 24 September 2001

IN EXPLAINING TO Americans the war he would lead against terrorism, President Bush on Thursday described the enemy as heir to the "murderous ideologies" against which this country fought for most of the last century: fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. As with those ideologies, he said, the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attack sacrifice human life to their radical vision of the world and respect no value but the "will to power."

The analogy is powerful in many ways. It reinforces Mr. Bush's message that the struggle will be long; the United States fought communist totalitarianism for many decades. It bolsters also the message that the struggle will be fought on many fronts -- not just military but, as in the Cold War, economic, political, propaganda and more. Above all it elevates the struggle to a seriousness that cannot be slighted, by this or future administrations; if the enemy is aiming for the destruction of civilization, no priority could be more important than that enemy's destruction. As during the Cold War, the United States might take on other tasks and causes but must never forget the long-term ideological struggle.

But precisely for that reason -- because Mr. Bush has put this war at the very forefront of the nation's agenda -- it is important to be careful and precise in measuring the foe and setting the goals. Is it the entire story, for example, that the terrorists target America because they hate its open society? Mr. Bush described a fight between freedom and fear, and that is part of it. But then why do the terrorists also target authoritarian regimes such as those of Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia? It's important to recognize distinctions where they exist -- among different terrorist organizations and among varying goals even within organizations. And it's important to think about the ways in which "a fringe form of Islamic extremism," as Mr. Bush described the ideology of the foe, also might differ from the hostile ideologies of the past century in tactics, goals and sweep.

As in the Cold War, the new struggle will put the United States in league with allies of convenience, unsavory ones at times. Already, to root out the terrorists in Afghanistan, the United States finds itself pondering cooperation with the despotic regime of Central Asia's Uzbekistan. Saudi Arabia, an intolerant monarchy, is sought as a partner. China, the largest remaining outpost of communism, now is suggested as an ally in the war against terrorism. Such regimes may work with the United States because they also fear the Islamic extremists, but not in defense of freedom. To the dictators of China and Central Asia, the terrorists may represent chaos, a challenge to state authority; but no one running those countries views democracy as the alternative to Islamic extremism.

In forming tactical bonds with such nations America must not forget what it is fighting for as well as what it is fighting against. In the struggles against Nazism and communism the United States allied with repressive regimes, sometimes wisely, sometimes to its detriment. In the long run, democracy will be the best antidote to religious extremism. And just as in its past struggles, the U.S. fight against this latest foe will succeed best if the country is seen to be promoting the freedoms Mr. Bush championed Thursday night: "our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

The Washington Post, 24 September 2001