'With or against us' war irks many UN nations

Bush's intention to broaden the war beyond Afghanistan fails to galvanize UN.

Until now, supporting the United States in its war against terrorists has been relatively easy for many members of the United Nations. But faultlines deepened in the international coalition this week when President Bush informed the UN General Assembly that he intends to take the antiterror campaign beyond Afghanistan.

In comments before the assembly of more than 1,000 delegates, the president warned that some states, "while pledging to uphold the principles of the UN, have cast their lot with the terrorists," alluding to Iraq. There will be "a price to be paid," Bush said.

That message has some diplomats and UN-watchers wondering how Washington will simultaneously hold together its coalition while broadening its war aims. Meanwhile, a growing number of UN members are signaling a waning appetite for Bush's "with-us-or-against-us" campaign.

To some, the with-us-or-against-us smacks of Stalinism. They say it muzzles domestic critics and squelches dissent from those abroad who fear repercussions from the world's economic and military superpower.

The president's good-versus-evil rhetoric also denies shades of gray, says Richard Falk, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. Such language "implies too much clarity in a world that's much messier than that," he says. "It shows a lack of respect for the sovereignty of other countries and may place them between contradictory pressures."

President Bush's with-us-or-against-us slogan was an effective rallying tool following the Sept. 11 suicide attacks. But the power of those words is fading with every civilian casualty in Afghanistan, and could even be polarizing opposition to the US course.

By contrast, says one analyst, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is making a convincing case. "Blair is not boxing leaders in, but saying, 'This is the moral imperative, this is the task at hand, will you help us?' " says Scott Lasensky, a Mideast expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

"If you ask whether we condemn the Sept. 11 attack, we're with you," says one South American diplomat. "But is more violence the best answer? The Americans don't leave room for alternative opinions. When will countries speak out: after 1,000, 100,000, or 1 million more are killed?"

Yesterday, UN officials were rushing to put together an interim government in Kabul. And US Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier indicated he thought a UN peacekeeping force in Afghanistan should be led by Muslim states such as Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.

To encourage the coalition support of all of America's key partners in the campaign - from Russia to China, from the Middle East to Africa - Washington will pay them off in one way or another, says a diplomat from a NATO country.

Each country, he says, expects the US "to offer economic or military assistance, debt relief, or at least that Washington will turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses or political repression."

They would be happy to have Mr. bin Laden out of the picture, the European diplomat says, but "it's not that there's genuine anger against terrorism. They're looking to benefit somehow, to promote their own interests."

Pakistan, for one, was rewarded by Bush this week with a $1 billion aid package and the likelihood that assorted sanctions will be lifted.

Important Arab and Muslim coalition partners also need something to soothe their restive publics: a renewed American push to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and greater "balance" toward the Palestinian side.

So they praised Bush for his vow Saturday to pursue a "just peace" and then for becoming the first US president ever to utter publicly the name "Palestine." However, the Arab world seemed to overlook that Bush also rejected "national aspiration" as justification for "the deliberate murder of the innocent" - an implicit reference to Palestinian terror attacks on Israelis.

A quick test of coalition support came last week when Lebanon refused to freeze the assets of Hizbullah, which is supported by both Syria and Iran. Syria is expected to follow Lebanon's example. Under a new UN Security Council resolution, sanctions of some sort may be in the offing. But would the US pursue a military option as well? Furthermore, will the hawks at the Pentagon prevail and win approval for attacks on Iraq?

European public support for the Afghan war is dwindling, so a move on Iraq may cause coalition defections on the Continent. If nothing else, it would further inflame Arab-Muslim public opinion and perhaps apply enough pressure on the regimes to cause "diminishing returns" in coalition partnership, Lasensky said.

Out of self-preservation, then, they would presumably withdraw, regardless of the with-us-or-against-us ultimatum. "I can see some in the Middle East associating that phrase with American policy writ large," he said. "And there are a lot of US policies they oppose."

And that might spell the end of the coalition itself. If that happens, even countries that steadfastly support the war in Afghanistan say America would have only itself to blame.

While much of the world views America as a mostly benevolent power, diplomats say, there was sufficient anti-American resentment pre-Sept. 11 that it won't take much more than the passage of time for remaining sympathy to dissipate altogether.

Which is why so many diplomats say they hope the events of Sept. 11 will spur Washington to reflect on the sources of terrorism and anti-American enmity - and reassess its policies abroad.

"As long as the great socio-economic disparities are there, the problems will remain," said a diplomat from a developing Asian nation. "If you act as if other countries don't exist, as if other people don't exist, they will find the means to bring attention to themselves."

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