Answering Sharon

Look, are we at war with terrorism or are we not? Not.

“There is a broad feeling among Indonesian elites,” writes Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, in a phrase so humbling to a fellow columnist that I could barely finish reading the sentence. It is not essential, though, to have stuck a thermometer into a single, narrow Indonesian elite in order to comprehend Friedman’s point and even (if this is not presumptuous) to agree with it. The point is that if anti-terrorism is the value America promotes and rewards beyond all others in the world, then our formerly highest value—democracy—gets short shrift. We shower affection on a cooperative military strongman in Pakistan while sparing little for a nascent democracy like Indonesia, with its magnificent profusion of elites.

But surely, you may be thinking, even Indonesian elites must realize that George W. Bush was dead serious when he declared that defeating terrorism is now America’s overwhelming priority.

Oh, yeah? So, what is your answer to Ariel Sharon? The Israeli prime minister and his supporters say: President Bush has declared an all-out war on terrorism. The United States has already invaded one country (Afghanistan), toppled and replaced its government, and killed thousands of its citizens, including many civilian noncombatants, in aid of this supposedly transcendent cause. And President Bush not only asserts the right to do the same thing anywhere terrorism may be deemed to lurk, but ostentatiously flips through his appointment book looking for a good day to invade one other country (Iraq) in particular.

Sharon says: Suicide bombing surely counts as terrorism. And yet the United States insists that Israel not only restrain its response to each new outrage, but actually negotiate with the sponsors of the terror. Are we in a war against terrorism or are we not? It’s true that Bush limited America’s war to terrorism “of global reach.” But that is because only global-scale terrorism can threaten a continental superpower, and because the United States does not want the burden of fumigating the entire world. Surely, though, this limit in America’s war aims gives those nations threatened by local variants more justification, not less, for acting on their own.

So? So, one possible answer to Sharon of course is: You’re absolutely right, General. Do what you need to do, don’t worry about “collateral damage,” and thank you for your contribution to the war effort. But that is not the Bush administration’s answer. Nor is it an answer most Americans are happy with.

Another way out of this logical trap America has set for itself is to maintain that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are not responsible for the terror because they do not and cannot control it. As Robert Wright points out, if true, this would make negotiating with Arafat moral—but pointless. In any event the report Sharon’s government released last week, based on captured documents, makes pretty clear that Arafat is at least guilty of the related offense of “harboring” terrorists—which Bush has insisted repeatedly since Sept. 11 is just as bad as terrorism itself and should be dealt with accordingly.

So? So? So? So, the right answer to Sharon’s question is that, on second thought, terrorism is not an evil that transcends all other considerations. This does not mean, as some would have it, that suicide bombing is justified as a legitimate response of an oppressed people. There may be circumstances where that is true, but the circumstance of the Palestinians (who, among other considerations, have effectively won their fight for statehood in principle and are arguing about the details) is not even close. Nevertheless, an illegitimate tactic used in a legitimate cause, as part of a conflict with legitimate and illegitimate tactics and aspirations on both sides, is different from an illegitimate tactic used for purposes that are utterly crazed and malevolent.

In short, circumstances matter. They may not matter morally, but they matter in terms of what you do about it. This fairly obvious point—which the Bush administration clearly believes, though it cannot say so—undermines the very concept of “terrorism,” which is based on the premise that circumstances do not matter. The axiom is that terrorist tactics are uniquely evil and uniquely threatening to civilization and demand an uncompromising response.

The Bush folks should not have needed the annoying Sharon to remind them that the facile absolutist rhetoric of the weeks after Sept. 11 was unwise. Bush’s oil buddies the Saudis believe that dealing effectively with terrorism itself requires dealing financially with terrorists. Appeasement is not a very attractive anti-terrorist tactic, but Bush was never prepared to call them on it because even his more bellicose and principled approach needs Saudi official backing.

So, when the United States declares that we are in an all-out war against terrorism, the Israelis take us all-too-seriously while the Saudis don’t take us seriously enough. And Indonesian elites are apparently just depressed about the whole thing.