Bombs and Butter

By night, we drop bombs; by day, we drop peanut butter and jelly. Our daytime rounds, at least at the outset of the campaign, seem more symbolic than our nightly ones; the amount of food we're delivering from the sky does not make up for the amount of food that no longer can be delivered on the ground now that our counterattack has begun.

Still, the operational side of the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan looks, in its first few days, about right. The facts on the ground there--the relative absence of the kind of infrastructure to which our air force could lay waste--have precluded a Curtis LeMay, bomb-'em-back-to-the-Stone-Age offensive. The need to build an anti-Taliban coalition, and to keep the Middle East from a further turn toward militant Islamic fundamentalism, has impelled us to target our strikes carefully--though any claims to surgical precision are ludicrous. For the same political reasons, we are scattering our happy meals from on high. Plainly, we need to do a lot more scattering than we've done thus far.

In the very opening phases of the operation, then, the Bush administration's response seems figuratively on target. (Whether it's literally on target is too early to tell.) The combination of the ongoing threat to the United States and the political imperatives of region prescribe the kind of modulated offensive our government has undertaken. The response of an Al Gore administration would not likely have been significantly different; indeed, it would surely have had the same internal debate that the Bushmen have conducted, with its own Wolfowitzians calling for a march to Baghdad.

But the Bush administration is largely neglecting other fronts that need serious attention if we are ever to defuse at least some of hatred on which the terrorists feed. First, both to reflect and enhance the political legitimacy of our response, we should immediately secure the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council for our campaign. The four permanent members besides the United States (Britain, France, Russia, China) are individually supportive of our action, as are a majority of the other member nations. On this issue, the United Nations seems just the kind of institution that Franklin D. Roosevelt had in mind when he conceived it: a global body capable of uniting in defense of civilization's core values. Summoning it to that mission now is neither a distraction nor an academic exercise; it would be a powerful political statement that could vest the current operation with heightened legitimacy.

Second, the administration needs to go into overdrive in pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The hands-off approach that the Bush administration took toward this conflict, coinciding as it did with a rising cycle of bloodletting, was myopic bordering on blind before September 11 and is worse than myopic now. (Then again, this characterization applies to virtually all of Bush's nutzoid unilateralist foreign policy before September 11--for instance, its lonely opposition to the treaty banning chemical and biological warfare.) Of course, interjecting itself into the Israeli-Palestinian issue carries no assurance of success; Bill Clinton spent considerable time and energy trying to resolve it, in the end not only failing to do so but also failing to diminish much of the Arab world's anti-American animus. Moreover, the prospect of a genuine resolution would surely spur the ultranationalists on both sides to even greater acts of violence; the fundamentalist Islamists, like the Israeli far right, will be happy only with a one-state solution. But absent a two-state solution, the chances of restoring at least the rudiments of normal life to both Palestine and Israel--not to mention the prospects for a regional de-escalation of tensions and for less authoritarian Arab governments--remain all but nonexistent.

Third, the administration's attempt to link the current crisis to its campaign for global laissez-faire is bad economics and bad geopolitics. Ironically, the renewed push to restore fast-track trade authority (giving the administration power to craft trade treaties with little or no regard for workers' rights and labor and environmental standards) comes on the heels of congressional passage of a trade deal with Jordan that does in fact include labor and environmental protections.

It's worth recalling that our largest economic interaction with a predominantly Muslim nation in recent years was with Indonesia during the East Asian financial crisis, when the International Monetary Fund, in the name of investor confidence, forced that country to make draconian cutbacks in spending. The result was a stunningly deep recession in the nation that's home to more Muslims than any other. Rather than continue to push for a policy that further enshrines the power of the same banking community that devastated Indonesia, the administration should be pushing for accords more like the new Jordan pact. It won't, of course, and that obligates Democrats to take up this fight--not just on behalf of American workers but on behalf of workers in nations whose support we need to cultivate in the current conflict. If decency doesn't impel the Democrats to do their duty, one would hope that they at least understand the new imperatives of geopolitics.

So although the administration's operation in Afghanistan seems in its opening phases appropriately measured, its grasp of the many longer-run challenges that we confront ranges from shaky to nonexistent. Winning the immediate battle is of utmost importance, but it will take more vision than the administration has shown to win the wider war.

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