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Of course, many of the allies the President is trying to rally are more interested in the political dimension of Bush's speech how Washington proposes to address the causes of terrorism than in sharing in a vague notion of "responsibility." And the centerpiece of that political discussion, both for Bush and for the propagandists of Osama bin Laden, is the pursuit of peace in the Middle East.
Bin Laden and his spokesmen have lately taken to making the Palestinian issue their primary talking point. And despite his reluctance to see the issues as linked, President Bush was forced to acknowledge the importance of Middle East peace in a speech devoted to the war on terrorism.
The President's speech was a frank, often hard-hitting discussion of the issue of violence in political conflict. Addressing an audience for whom one man's terrorist is often another's freedom fighter, Bush stressed the urgency of a global consensus on the conduct of political conflict. "We choose lawful change and civil disagreement over coercion, subversion and chaos," he said. "In this world, there are good causes and bad causes, and we may disagree on where that line is drawn. Yet, there is no such thing as a good terrorist. No national aspiration, no remembered wrong can ever justify the deliberate murder of the innocent. Any government that rejects this principle, trying to pick and choose its terrorist friends, will know the consequences."
By acknowledging that terrorism can be a means (albeit an abbhorent and illegitimate one) of pursuing political ends, President Bush is confronting concerns voiced by some of his coalition partners. Many European and Arab governments have stressed that the threat posed by groups such as al Qaeda can't be successfully eliminated without redressing the political grievances that fuel terrorism. British prime minister Tony Blair was in Washington on Wednesday to make precisely that point, reportedly warning President Bush that the perception among Arab leaders that Washington has failed to live up to its promise to seriously engage in renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was hurting the prospects of the anti-terror coalition.
Most Arab allies second Washington's disgust for terrorism as a form of political action. But they tend to see many of the groups who practice terrorism as using illegitimate means to pursue goals they consider legitimate, such as ejecting Israel from southern Lebanon (in the case of Hezbollah) or resisting Israel's occuption of the West Bank and Gaza. That conundrum inevitably creates ambiguity in their response to U.S. demands: Lebanon last week refused Washington's entreaties to freeze Hezbollah's assets. Indeed, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to find Arab governments willing to use the word "terrorist" for Hamas or Islamic Jihad, because many Arab leaders see these groups as responding to what they consider Israel's illegitimate occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. So while they would agree with President Bush's preference for "lawful change," many Arab statesmen also maintain that terrorism is the inevitable consequence of the absence of such change.
Al Qaeda, for its part, appears determined to exploit such philosophical differences. In bin Laden's TV address that coincided with the launch of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, the plight of the Palestinians suddenly emerged as the centerpiece of al Qaeda's propaganda effort. And in a nimble preemptive strike on Qatar's al Jazeera TV network on Friday, Bin Laden's Number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, insisted that U.S. support for Israel had been the "main engine" behind the September 11 attacks. He also slammed the Bush administration's decision, announced earlier this week, to deny Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a meeting with the President during the weekend U.N. session. There is a supreme irony at work here, of course: Al Qaeda regard Arafat as an apostate, and Al Zawahiri would sooner amputate his own hand rather than shake that of the Palestinian leader. No matter, this is a propaganda war and Bin Laden's men are determined to paint themselves as universal spokesmen for widely held Arab grievances.
Bush sought to address those same grievances in his speech to the U.N. "We are working toward the day when two states Israel and Palestine live peacefully together within secure and recognized borders as called for by the Security Council resolutions," he said. "We will do all in our power to bring both parties back into negotiations. But peace will only come when all have sworn off forever incitement, violence and terror."
The problem, of course, is making such a peace happen. And just as Washington is looking for action rather than words from partners in its campaign against terror, so are some of those partners looking for action rather than words from the U.S. in pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. (The Israelis, for their part, are determined to avoid being pushed into an uncomfortable peace agreement as a result of international pressure.) Aware of Bin Laden's propaganda game, the White House has resisted any link between the anti-terror war and Mideast peace the U.S. and its partners would beat Bin Laden "peace or no peace in the Middle East," Bush insisted earlier this week. Perhaps. But one of Blair's messages earlier this week was that greater American involvement on this particular front would certainly make the larger task at hand a lot easier.