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By Graham Fuller

Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council and one of the U.S. intelligence community’s top experts on Islam, was once political officer of the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

-- The Al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11 drastically altered the character of international relations, with rising tensions accompanying a stunning American lurch toward unilateralism. The critical question is how permanent the new features of the geopolitical landscape prove to be.

For Americans the September events represented a rude coming of age as the costs of being the world’s sole superpower struck home and created a harsh challenge to America’s civil liberties. But for the rest of the world Sept. 11 unleashed an open-ended U.S. war on terror, whose implications are as yet far from clear.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime and dealt a severe blow to Al Qaeda’s infrastructure and freedom of maneuver. But Al Qaeda has survived and gone on to represent not just a symbol of radical attack on U.S. power but to denote in U.S. official pronouncements almost any group of Muslims anywhere who perceive the United States as the enemy -- diverse groups whose numbers are probably growing.

Even more ominously, the events of the past year raise the disturbing possibility that Osama bin Laden may have largely succeeded in imposing his agenda of cultural warfare between the United States and the Muslim world for the foreseeable future.

Justifiably or not, today most Muslims view the intrusive war against terrorism as a war against Islam. As a result the Muslim world has reverted to a defensive, hunker-down mode, with U.S. actions crowding off deeper Muslim reflection on Bin Laden’s impact upon their own world. The incursion in Afghanistan, the overwhelming pressures on Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria, followed by a U.S. political struggle against the Palestinian leadership, a probable future massive war against Iraq, possible U.S. strikes against military targets in Iran, and the singling out of Muslims in the United States for special investigation have convinced Muslims that they are indeed the target of the war. Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But all these events took place in reaction to a justifiable need to identify, deter or eliminate terrorists. The real revolution has been wrought in the new overarching philosophy of U.S. foreign policy that emerged in the name of the war on terror. We witness a retreat from an evolving generalized sympathy for smaller liberal governance and toward restoration of powerful, more intrusive government, marked by a strong state and tight borders.

The change is not limited to the United States. In the process of seeking allies for the anti-terrorist struggle, the United States has relegitimized and empowered a range of authoritarian regimes and governing styles, all of which have embraced the war on terror to justify internal crackdowns, especially against their own minority Muslim populations -- in places such as Russia, China, India and the Philippines. Authoritarianism in general has been emboldened across most of the Muslim world.

More broadly, the Bush administration and its neo-conservative ideologists have suspended traditional geopolitics around the globe as the totality of American foreign relations fall subservient to the war on terror. Unilateralism -- the ideological preference of the Bush administration from the outset -- has been powerfully reinforced as Washington has moved away from international consultation and cooperation if it imposes the slightest restrictions on U.S. freedom of action.

Indeed, the administration in private does not even shy away from the American imperium concept, a form of empire that historically has invoked deep discomfort within the country. Americans are far from sure what this will mean for them, and, depending on the cost of the project, they may not want it at all. But they are not yet ready to challenge the breathtaking pace of policy evolution emerging from the White House.

Most dramatically, with the collapse of its Twin Towers icon, globalization has suffered a grievous blow. Globalization is now a far shakier concept in American thinking, with the recognition that terrorism is part of it. With the supreme U.S. foreign policy goal of absolute security for the American homeland, globalization has taken a back seat: We see a severe setback in the free movement of goods, peoples, even ideas, across U.S. borders and internationally. Indeed we might say we are witnessing ‘‘securitization’’ becoming the dominant characteristic of globalization in the new post-Sept. 11 era.

In specific policy terms, much of the geopolitical map has been reshuffled. Afghanistan and Pakistan are now shaky American clients that could plunge into chaos at any point. The United States is closer to India and Russia for the moment and drifting away from Europe -- now ‘‘irrelevant’’ to most U.S. global concerns. China has become a big loser as its major presence in Central Asia has been preempted by the new U.S. political and military presence there.

Undeniably serious problems of bad governance in the Muslim world are indeed a major source of instability and terrorism. And defensive Muslim reactions to the Bin Laden attacks and the war on terror have contributed to a dangerous domestic debate in America, with potentially sweeping implications for U.S. foreign policy. A ‘‘debate’’ about Islam has appeared in which pro-Israeli and Christian Zionist are the overwhelmingly dominant voices in a media far less open and liberal than one year ago. In the wake of these events, the United States is deeply allied with the hardest line Israeli government in history. Any suggestion of linkage between trouble abroad and U.S. foreign policy is dismissed out of hand, considered a public relations problem.

In the neo-conservative vision of a new American imperium, Muslim states rank high on the list of those requiring radical reworking. And today Muslims are the de facto enemy in what passes for public discussion in the country. Consequently, U.S. relations with the Muslim world have reached an unprecedented depth and are still falling -- even the long untouchable U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is now under direct attack.

Democratization -- a desperately needed commodity in the Middle East if the region is ever to climb out of its current desperate shape -- has been selectively adopted by the Bush administration as a weapon to be used against its Muslim enemies, and not to be seriously discussed with authoritarian ‘‘friends.’’ Dangerous regimes with dangerous weapons are indeed a potential threat, but preemptive war is on its way to becoming a preferred tool of policy.

What will be the duration of this astonishing trend toward an American imperium? Does it truly represent a new American vision, or simply that of George W. Bush’s ideological counselors? If the present process continues over the next two years of the Bush administration, will the United States eventually fall victim to the classic disease associated with such projects, imperial overreach?

The American public’s appetite would seem to be limited for this new foreign policy project, especially as various price tags become evident. But even if Bush does succeed in the military phases, how long will this suspension of normal international geopolitics persist? Judging by history, not long. Seeds of backlash are already present.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 8/29/02)