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Monday, Oct. 7, 2002
Howard vs. Mahathir -- who's correct?
By TOM PLATE
LOS ANGELES -- In the Asia-Pacific reEgion, there is no uniform view on the Iraq issue. Many support the Bush adminisEtration, while hoping that somehow the war clouds will pass. Only a few are speaking up loudly. From Australia, plain-spoken Prime Minister John HowEard is supportive and hopes for the best, while Malaysia's Prime Minister MahaEthir Mohamad, the warning voice of moderate Islam, fears for the worst.
The recently re-elected Howard, short on eloquence but often long on solid judgEment, supports U.S. President George W. Bush's instinct about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, despite polls showing that his countrymen overwhelmingly opEpose pledging Australian forces against Hussein without a clear U.N. resolution and wide international support.
But Howard is for military action reEgardless of any resolution. Hussein, he argues, would never have agreed to a reEsumption of U.N. weapons-site inspecEtions (as flawed as these procedures may be) in the absence of the threat of unilateral U.S.-British military action. Howard supports Washington whether its current aggressive posture is all bluff or serious determination.
In a forthright speech last week in SydEney, the conservative prime minister took the view that the core principle of national security could justify, if necesEsary, the Bush administration's predilecEtion for unilateral pre-emption. America could invoke national security because terrorists have "introduced into world security considerations a new, hitherto unimaginable dimension."
It's a solid point. And had Howard left it at that, he might have emerged masEsively influential in the global debate. AfEter all, Australia earned widespread inEternational respect with its successful peacekeeping deployment in troubled East Timor. Alas, he chose instead, in his remarks before the Australian ChamEber of Commerce, to becloud, if not beEfoul, his position when he added that, whatever the pros and cons of an Iraqi attack, Australia needed to support the Americans and the British because of their similar values and "similar .EE view of life."
That sounded racist Eand it was most unfortunate. Consider that all the targets now under consideration by the West Ethe terrorists, Iraq, Iran Eare Muslim. What Howard in effect did was to invoke the us-against-them, white-against-nonEwhite, Western vs. Islamic showdown that makes one shiver.
That's precisely the persistent worry of another prominent prime minister who has repeatedly warned about this. Says Malaysia's Mahathir, whose counEtry has been recently put on the West's terrorism "watch list," the United States could win the battle against Baghdad but lose the more important campaign to build strategic alliances in the Islamic world. He is less worried about Bush's policy toward Iraq Ethis moderate IsElamic leader is certainly no friend of Hussein, either Ethan about the core atEtitudes in the West regarding the Muslim world. He drew a large Epossibly overEblown Elesson from a recent personal experience at Los Angeles International Airport. Before a flight to New York last month for the fall U.N. General AssemEbly session, he and his deputy were subEjected to rude treatment by airport secuErity officials. His deputy prime minister was even ordered to take off his shoes and belt.
Mahathir, 74, read much into the inciEdent: "They can check if they want to, but there is no need to be harsh .EE I am not a terrorist." For the outspoken MaElaysian Eas colorful as Howard is colorEless, as critical of the West as Howard is solidly pro-American Ethe experience reinforced his sense that the war on Iraq and terrorism will evolve into an anti-IsElamic crusade, even if the American, British and now Australian governments intend nothing of the sort. Mahathir's point is that if even a Muslim head of state cannot be treated civilly by the West, or while in the West, what of other Muslims?
Howard vs. Mahathir, who's correct?
The answer may be that both will be proven right: that the United States will be rightfully acting within its national inEterest even if it attacks Iraq without a U.N. Security Council blessing; but that the net result will create a monumental wave of anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world. If so, the impending Western assault on Iraq will launch a war with no real winners Eand Hussein could win for losing. Who wants that?
Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.