International Papers

Diversionary Action?


For Tuesday and Saturday morning delivery of this column, plus “Today’s Papers” (daily), “Pundit Central” (Monday morning), and “Summary Judgment” (Wednesday morning), click here.

Thursday’s U.S. airstrikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan were met by strong protest in the Pakistani press. According to Pakistan Press International, “large anti-American demonstrations are underway in Pakistani cities … condemning America’s violations of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan.” Dawn reported that “Pakistan received the news of US attacks … with a complete sense of shock.” According to Pakistani daily the News, Osama Bin Laden contacted one of its correspondents “on satellite phone at 9:00 pm on Thursday to convey his statement through another Islamic leader.” Bin Laden denied responsibility for the African bombings but called for the continuation of “Jehad against Jews and Americans.”

The airstrikes received qualified approval from most British newspapers. The Times of London described the attacks as the “beginning of America’s fightback against terrorism.” In an editorial Friday, the newspaper said, “This was a legitimate and necessary response which should not be understood as blind retaliation for the appalling crimes committed in Kenya and Tanzania. It was far from blind; and there is good reason to credit President Clinton’s claim that this was a pre-emptive assault on operational terrorist bases preparing to carry out further attacks on American targets which would have cost, as they did in Nairobi, the lives of hundreds of non-Americans as well.”

The Independent reported that “Tony Blair welcomed the US action. ‘The atrocities this month in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Omagh have shown the pain and suffering terrorism can bring to innocent people,’ he said. ‘I strongly support this American action against international terrorists.’ ” The story concluded with a dispatch from Independent correspondent Jason Burke, one of few Westerners in Afghanistan when the airstrikes occurred: “Our hope is that the Taliban may have struck a deal with the Americans, perhaps giving them the details of Bin Laden’s whereabouts in return for recognition by Washington as the legal government of Afghanistan. If so, the Taliban might be expected to protect us against the anger of the mob which everyone expects to materialise any minute.”

By contrast, the liberal Guardian signaled its attitude to the American actions with the headline of its editorial: “Diversionary action.” The paper clearly laid out its Wag the Dog theory: “After a weekend of sexual revelations and lies, which have taken a severe toll on his reputation, the President with the help of the Defence Secretary, William Cohen, has found a means of rallying the country behind the presidency and the Stars and Stripes.” It concluded, “[F]or Mr Clinton the firm action against those who have taken American and other lives is [a] clear way of demonstrating that the institution of the US presidency is about much more than the first DNA test taken at the White House.”

In Spain, the right-wing daily ABC took a similar tack. The newspaper’s pictorial cover juxtaposed a shot of a statesmanlike Clinton with one of Monica Lewinsky arriving for her deposition accompanied by the headline “Clinton Bombed Sudan and Afghanistan While Lewinsky Testified Before the Grand Jury.” Inside, an opinion piece suggested that on hearing news of the bombardment, “no impartial judge could avoid the immediate suspicion that it was a desperate maneuver to distract world public opinion.” The more liberal Spanish daily El País was more supportive, though it counseled fewer U.S. surprise attacks and more U.N. involvement.

According to Israel’s Ha’aretz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the U.S. airstrikes despite concerns that they could lead to retaliation in the Middle East. A Netanyahu aide observed, “If we allow our fear of retaliation to dictate our action or inaction, we will have handed the terrorists the ultimate victory.” An analysis said, “The United States yesterday invoked the old Israeli method in the war on terrorism, which tries to deter terrorists and make them pay a price for their actions. Although the results of the strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan could not be immediately confirmed, the critical factor here is not the damage that was caused but the signal that Washington sent in response to surging international Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.”

Elsewhere in the same paper, however, writer Zvi Bar’el sounded a more negative note: “In the absence of precise intelligence, the administration has … adopted two general methods of operation: bombing targets of some kind … and imposing sanctions. In the case of Sudan and Afghanistan, the states that have given sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, imposing sanctions would be ineffective. Apart from the export of opium, Afghanistan has no commercial ties with the United States; and partial sanctions have already been imposed on Sudan–sanctions that do not interfere with the business interests of American petroleum companies. Because of those interests, Sudan was removed from the sanctions law last year, even though it is included on the list of countries that support terrorism.”