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Less Respect, More Success

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
September 6, 2004
Weekly Standard


ONE OF JOHN F. KERRY'S most damning accusations against President Bush is that he has made America a global pariah, thereby undercutting the international cooperation we need to win the war on terrorism. Kerry pledges to restore "America's respect and leadership so we don't have to go it alone in the world" and to "rebuild our alliances so we can get the terrorists before they get us."

Opinion polls show that a large number of Americans have bought this argument. The Pew Research Center recently found that 67 percent think the United States is less respected in the world than it used to be, and 43 percent think this is a major problem. It's easy to see why so many people would come to this conclusion, since surveys do show that U.S. popularity has declined in many countries during the past four years. Obviously it's better, all things being equal, to be liked than disliked. Kerry has a point when he accuses the Bush administration of squandering some opportunities to garner support abroad. The mishandling of Turkey before the Iraq war is a case in point.

Where Kerry is dead wrong, demonstrably wrong, is in suggesting that this unpopularity is taking a heavy toll on America's efforts to win the war on terrorism. Actually, by all indications, the United States is now getting significantly more cooperation in fighting terrorists than it ever did in the balmy days of Bill Clinton, who did all the sweet multilateral things that Kerry endorses— trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord, signing the Kyoto global warming treaty, not offending "Old Europe" or threatening the power of Middle Eastern autocrats.

Early last week, Pakistan announced the arrest of a dozen Islamist radicals who had been plotting attacks on the U.S. embassy and other targets. This comes shortly after the capture of some 25 other jihadists, including a computer expert, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose arrest led to the exposure of an al Qaeda cell in Britain that was said to be plotting attacks on New York, Newark, and Washington. Recall that until 9/11 Pakistan was a leading supporter of Islamist militants. Portions of its intelligence service and military maintain their links with these fanatics, but Islamabad has become much more responsive to U.S. concerns.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which turned a blind eye to Islamist terrorism in the 1990s, has been capturing and killing many leading al Qaeda members. In 2002, a Council on Foreign Relations task force rapped the Saudis for not cracking down on terrorist financing. This June, the task force released a follow-up study that found the Saudis, while still far from perfect, had greatly improved: "Saudi Arabia has taken important actions to disrupt domestic al Qaeda cells and has improved and increased tactical law enforcement and intelligence cooperation with the United States, though important questions of political will remain."

Europe, too, is offering unprecedented cooperation with the United States in the fight against terrorism, even though many Europeans disagree with U.S. actions in Iraq and elsewhere. Many European countries have passed tough laws that enable them to prosecute or expel supporters of terrorism even if they are not directly implicated in any attacks. French and German forces are serving alongside the U.S. military in Afghanistan and in the waters off Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Both France and Germany, along with many other countries, are also cooperating with the United States in the Proliferation Security Initiative designed to stop nuclear smuggling. This effort paid big dividends with the discovery last year that Abdul Khadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, was selling nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. The exposure of Libya's nuclear program led Muammar Qaddafi to renounce all support of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction— one of the biggest victories ever in the fight against nuclear proliferation.

What's going on here? Why are countries from Pakistan to Portugal doing so much to help the United States if George W. Bush has purportedly done so much to alienate them? Chalk it up to pure self-interest. Many nations have come to realize, as they never did in the past, that Islamist terrorists pose a mortal threat to them. Saudi Arabia has significantly boosted its fight against al Qaeda since two attacks in Riyadh in May 2003. Pakistan has done much more since President Pervez Musharraf was almost killed in two assassination attempts in December 2003. Europe has boosted its cooperation since the March 11 bombing of the commuter trains in Madrid. When countries face a mega-threat like this, it doesn't make any difference how popular or unpopular the United States may be. They are happy to cooperate with the U.S. government, any U.S. government, even if it's led by a tough-talking Texan. Or perhaps especially if it's led by a tough-talking Texan.

There was no question that the United States was better liked abroad in the 1990s, at least if public opinion surveys are to be believed, but was it more respected? When the Clinton administration went privately to Middle Eastern countries seeking cooperation against terrorism, it sometimes got significant help— the Jordanians, for instance, helped bust up the 2000 millennium plot. (Jordan has also been very helpful to the Bush administration.) But often the Clinton administration got the cold shoulder from governments that were wary of a fickle America that would likely flee at the first sign of adversity, as it had in Somalia after 18 commandos were killed in 1993. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were actively aiding the Taliban and perhaps even al Qaeda before 9/11 because they were more scared of alienating Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar than Bill Clinton. Bush's steely response to the 9/11 attacks helped change the calculus within these wavering states: They became more wary of trifling with the gunslinger in the White House than with his smooth-talking predecessor. Perhaps for this reason Bush got a good deal of tacit cooperation from Arab regimes even in the controversial overthrow of Saddam Hussein (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, among others, hosted U.S. troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom), to say nothing of the broader war on terror. These regimes perceived that this time America was serious; it was not like the days of Clinton, when all the United States would do was lob a few cruise missiles and leave neighboring states to deal with the fallout.

Kerry says he could get still more help, especially in Iraq, but how credible is his claim? French and German diplomats throw cold water on Kerry's assertions that, if he were elected, those countries would suddenly rush troops to Iraq. It is doubtful that they would send even a few hundred men, much less the numbers necessary for the kind of rapid drawdown of U.S. forces that Kerry apparently envisions. NATO has made Afghanistan a top priority, but the Europeans still have only 6,400 troops there, as opposed to 20,000 Americans. Even worse, the Europeans are completely reliant on U.S. logistics; they have trouble mustering even a handful of helicopters to transport their troops. Sure, it would be nice to have more foreign help in Iraq— beyond the many nations, such as Poland, Britain, and Ukraine, whose contributions Kerry conveniently overlooks— but it's doubtful that even a French-speaking president could entice more forces into such a dangerous and unsettled situation.

In cataloguing the consequences of American unpopularity abroad, Democrats suggest that Bush is driving more recruits into al Qaeda's arms. This is a real possibility, but it is not a claim that can be verified or falsified, since there is no roll call of terrorists. All we can say for sure is that al Qaeda had no trouble recruiting young Muslims to attack U.S. targets in the 1990s even as Bill Clinton was doing everything possible to make America more popular. The 9/11 attacks were being plotted, after all, while Clinton refrained from a serious military move against terrorists in Afghanistan, in part for fear of disrupting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Far from being mollified by U.S. restraint, Osama bin Laden and his followers were emboldened toward ever more spectacular aggression.

No doubt the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have driven some Islamic zealots over the edge and led them to pick up a rocket-propelled grenade or a homemade bomb. Certainly some Afghans and Iraqis have opportunities they never had before to attack U.S. soldiers, if not U.S. civilians. But it's also true that the international forces opposing al Qaeda have gotten immeasurably stronger during the Bush administration— strong enough to prevent any acts of terrorism on our own soil during the past three years. This record of success will not, unfortunately, last forever, but to have gone even this long without another 9/11 belies the Democratic accusations that America's unpopularity imperils our safety. Perhaps it is George W. Bush's very willingness to do the hard, unpopular things— the kinds of things that Bill Clinton never did, and John F. Kerry most likely never will— that allows us to "get the terrorists before they get us."

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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