Ballot Box

Global Reach

The latest euphemism for American self-interest.

A week after last year’s attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., President Bush declared war on “every terrorist group of global reach.” Since then, U.S. officials have been asked many times what this means. They’ve never given a straight answer. Now that terrorists have massacred Israelis in Kenya, and the United States has urged Israel to restrain itself, it’s clear what “global reach” means. It means terrorism against the United States.

“Global reach” has served two purposes. To begin with, it has made other countries think they have a direct stake in our fight. A year ago, Bush told a conference of CEOs in China that the Sept. 11 attacks “were really an attack on all civilized countries.” “Our enemies are murderers with global reach,” he said. “Every nation now must oppose this enemy or be, in turn, its target.” Two weeks later, he warned European leaders, “This is not just a matter between the United States and the terror network,” but a threat to “the whole world.”

Why not declare war on all terrorists? Because that would “tie us down around the world for a lifetime of terrorist-chasing activity,” explained Secretary of State Colin Powell. Two weeks after Sept. 11, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked whether Bush would take on Chechen separatists as well as the Taliban. No, said Fleischer, because the Chechens didn’t have “global reach.” Their conflict required “a political solution.” When Colombia’s civil war flared up, Fleischer was asked about fighting the Colombian terrorist group FARC. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that FARC has global reach,” he replied.

Who exactly meets the global reach standard? Other than al-Qaida, I can find only one outfit to whom the administration has definitively attributed global reach: Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a Kashmir-based group that has targeted India. How about the Tamil Tigers in neighboring Sri Lanka? Do they have global reach? Vice President Cheney ducked that question. How about Abu Sayyaf, the group that has staged several bombings in the Philippines? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ducked that one. How about the Irish Republican Army or its offshoots that have contacts in Latin America? Fleischer dodged that one. So did State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who also shrugged off a query about Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat.

Does Hezbollah have global reach? Lebanon says no. What’s the American view? The National Security Council’s spokesman won’t say. A year ago, Bush implied that Hamas had global reach, but Boucher couldn’t explain why. Islamic Jihad? No answer. How about Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization? Powell and Cheney danced around that one. Arafat “is not a target,” said Powell. “We would like very much to see him fulfill his obligations … so we can get the peace process back on track,” Cheney added politely.

Why all the bobbing and weaving? Because U.S. officials have no idea what they’re talking about. Three days after Bush first used the term “global reach,” Powell was asked how many groups on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations met that standard. “We have to treat all of them as potentially having the capacity to affect us in a global way,” he said. A few days later, Boucher added, “‘Global reach’ is not a legal phrase; it’s a description of the kinds of organizations that we want to go after. … We will define such things further in the future.” So reporters waited. And waited. “The definition is a terrorist organization that is having impact on citizens of the world,” Treasury Undersecretary John Taylor proposed unhelpfully in December. “We’ll see how the definition turns out.”

Here’s how it’s turning out. Israel wants a free hand to strike back at the terrorists who killed its citizens half a continent away. No way, says the Bush administration, which wants Arab help in fighting Iraq. Israel’s ambassador to the United States doesn’t get it. What was all that stuff about terrorists with global reach?

It was about reaching us. “If it is the type of terrorism that has a global reach that could affect our interests, the welfare of our citizens or the interests of our friends in a way that it becomes an interest of ours, that is on our agenda,” Powell said last year. Fleischer implied the same equation: “Wherever there are people who are engaged in terrorism which would threaten the lives of people in this country, or terrorism that has a global reach, the United States will take whatever action is required.” In January, Cheney was asked by what standard the IRA didn’t have global reach. “The IRA has not operated against the United States,” he replied.

If this war is all about looking out for No. 1, fine. But let’s stop pretending it’s more than that.