Counting Our Friends, Remembering Our Foes

As the bombs burst on enemies for a change, let us run down the list of them, with the shorter list of our friends.

The war will begin on two distinct, though overlapping, fronts. The first front is the war against Osama bin Laden and his terror network, and the first phase of it involves destroying him and his Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

There is irony in the fact that we helped arm bin Laden in the first place, when he was a warrior against the Soviet Union after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The irony is not as great as many make it, however. Bin Laden was only one of many Afghan fighters we helped; the members of the present Northern Alliance also received our largesse. Bin Laden and the Taliban emerged as the rulers of Afghanistan partly because our “friends,” the Pakistanis-for geopolitical reasons of their own-funneled much of our aid to them, while our other “friends,” the Saudis, kicked in their mite. The reason we were throwing money around was to weaken a superpower with ICBM’s trained on us. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Men must face what is in front of them, even though they can’t see farther ahead.

What are the prospects of success on this front? History shows that it is well-nigh impossible to occupy Afghanistan. It also shows, though, that toppling its rulers is easier. If we do not intend to stay, we should be able to exact just retribution. The factions of Afghanistan, from the deposed king on the Via Veneto to the long-suffering people, can work out their destiny after we do our work.

The second front of the war involves the states that helped, or could have helped, bin Laden. The four-airplane attack was too complex for even an imaginative and rich free lance to carry out by himself; therefore, bin Laden had the support of a state. But which one? Libya and Syria have long backed terror and revolution in various parts of the world, although Libya has been quiet since Ronald Reagan bombed it, while Syria even (feebly) joined the Gulf War coalition. Both regimes could profit from witnessing exemplary justice. Iran is a delicate case-a large, energetic nation with a feral clerisy and a populace stirring from its dogmatic slumbers. Sudan makes an attractive enemy-isolated from its soulmates behind the horn of Africa, and enslaving its black Christians.

The most likely target, of course, is Iraq. It has the intelligence know-how to have supported the Sept. 11 attack (it was linked to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993), and it pursues the technical skill to devise further attacks (biological, chemical and nuclear). It also has the grudge, having been humiliated in the Gulf War, though not nearly enough. Did our embargo since then inflame the Iraqi people against us? Perhaps-although that is irrelevant as an explanation of Iraq’s actions, since the Iraqi people have no say in their government, and any commerce that Iraq might have engaged in would not have benefited them, but Saddam Hussein’s cronies and war machine.

When it comes time to begin the Gulf War again, we will not be able to launch it from Saudi Arabia. This brings us to the category of friends who are “friends.” The American-Saudi coalition of 1991 was a blip in the graph of our relations. The norm is that the Saudis have gouged us economically for almost 30 years, whenever they have gotten the chance. Everybody is entitled to maximize his profits, but everybody’s victims are not required to see such behavior as the actions of a friend. Now our enemy is the black sheep of a rich Saudi family, who espouses religious principles that are only a more consistent version of those of the Saudis themselves (both bin Laden and the Saudis wish to protect Islam’s holy places, but bin Laden, so far as we know, does not order champagne and spare ribs and grope stewardesses the minute he sets foot on flights to Europe). Against this enemy, the Saudis show their true, timorous colors.

The Arab nations generally will do likewise. Bin Laden is playing to a powerful Arab emotion, the shame of a disorganized and incompetent culture. He referred twice in the tape broadcast on Oct. 7 to the wrongs of 80 years ago. By 1921, Britain and France, the victors of World War I, had divided most of Turkey’s Middle Eastern empire between them. Infidels ruled believers; Zionism is only one chapter in a long book of humiliation.

Islam, it must be said, gives the Arabs few resources for dealing with defeat. Jews have had to address captivity and the destruction of the Temple; when Christian Rome fell, St. Augustine distinguished the City of Man from the City of God. Apart from its mystics, traditional Islam offers only the binary option of conquest and wrath. Does the experience of modernity in countries like modern Turkey, or in the Islamic diaspora in Europe and America, offer a third way, or only more provocation? We shall see.

Surprisingly, the United States has some new friends. The Bush administration was drawing closer to India even before the world changed. Keep it up; if Pakistan goes down or splits in two, we could use English-speaking computer geeks with nukes next door. Stranger and closer are our new friends, the Russians. We’ve worked with Russians a lot worse than President Putin (namely, Stalin). Just call it the Fifth International.

Then there are the old friends-not many of them. Tony Blair is giving the special relationship what may be its last hurrah. (If he succeeds in dissolving Britain into Europe, how can we stand together the next time?) Then there is Israel. Some day, some Philip Roth of diplomatic history will explore the neuroses of American-Israeli relations-on our side, overbearing denial; on theirs, bluster and manipulation. We tell them to sit tight when Scuds fall on their heads; they give us Jonathan Pollard. But some families are defined by their enemies. The assimilated Reform Jews of 1930’s Europe did not consider themselves to be Jews first, but Hitler thought otherwise. Osama bin Laden has said that he is fighting Crusaders and Jews. We’re in the same boat; we will scull along.

Can New Yorkers worry about their own fate in the midst of these questions? In the dwarf political landscape of New York, Thursday’s primary pits Dopey against Grumpy. Fernando Ferrer has found odd allies of his own-from Ed Koch, grotesquely seeking affection and publicity in his dotage, to Mayor Giuliani, scheming to assist the weakest rival to his comeback in 2005. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton has moved from Freddy’s Fashion Mart to Freddy Ferrer. The political class dislikes Mark Green because he is obnoxious. I look at the charnel house opposite Church Street and ask: At times like these, don’t we need an asshole?

Counting Our Friends, Remembering Our Foes