CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Is the United States stepping away from a fundamental element in the global war against terrorism: the willingness to play a dynamic leading role in finding permanent solutions to the most serious of regional conflicts?
The Bush administration is fully justified in its concentration on Al Qaeda. Growing revelations demonstrate that this international movement was dedicated to undermining the influence of the West - and, particularly, the US.
But an important difference exists between Al Qaeda and other militant groups. Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Middle East and the Kashmiri militant groups in South Asia have targeted US interests, their primary objective is territorial - related to the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the status of the Himalayan state. Other groups classified as terrorist, such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and the Acenese in Indonesia are based on demands for autonomy that go back decades.
US policy beyond Al Qaeda, reiterated in the president's State of the Union address, emphasizes eliminating terrorism wherever it occurs through pressuring governments to take action. This policy not only encourages cease fires and direct talks, but also emphasizes particularly the need to suppress militant movements and resume direct talks.
Active US or international mediation does not appear to be a current option. This raises a serious question: Will the detention - whether short term or long - of militant activists cool their ardor or reduce the frustrations of oppressed populations on which such groups feed?
For many people in lands suffering under occupation, terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the strong. Such acts may not achieve a political objective, but they achieve revenge and bring notice for their cause. As long as issues fester, frustration and peer pressure will lead to terrorism.
Clearly, the US cannot actively mediate every serious conflict or use diplomatic capital to pressure the UN or others to do so. Further, early resolutions of these several conflicts cannot be certain to end terrorism.
Nevertheless, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Kashmir dispute, major US interests are at stake: the control of nuclear weapons and the stabilization of regions that have fostered enemies of the United States. The US remains the sole power capable of mobilizing international action on these disputes. If the Bush administration says it is not open to an active mediating role, will leaders conclude that they will not be pressed to make the tough decisions essential to longer-term peace?
No solution to either dispute will satisfy everyone, but it should be possible, through labored effort, to create the frameworks of fair solutions that will give those seeking peace a true rationale against terrorism. Rigidity of parties on both sides makes this type of leverage impossible today, and extremists will continue to frustrate realistic solutions.
Taking on these issues will not be easy. The US has been involved before and it is still involved. But perhaps the time has come for Washington to state more clearly: The crushing of Al Qaeda has been essential to the security of all of us. But if the threats against innocents are to be reduced worldwide, now is the appropriate time to focus attention on Israel and Palestine and on Kashmir.
The US must also state that it is prepared, in consultation with the UN secretary general and the parties to the disputes, to take a leading role in determining whether genuine peace is possible in these two regions, so long plagued by the tragedies of terror and conflict.
Terrorism may for a time be crushed by military action and political suppression, but it is unrealistic to assume that, in the absence of a renewed international effort to find resolutions to conflict, the victory over terrorism will be permanent. The blazes may be extinguished, but the embers smoulder.
David D. Newsom is a former ambassador and under secretary of State.