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Saturday, Sept. 6, 2003

Only one way that the terrorists can win

SINGAPORE -- Terrorism and the world economy are heavy on the minds of Asia right now. Among many government officials, leading academics and others, Tokyo and Hong Kong -- not to mention this clean-as-a-whistle, well-run island city-state -- there is increasing agreement that future world geopolitics will be framed by the terror counteroffensive of nations and civilizations that value stability and modernity.

Leading that charge is the United States, of course, but doubts grow daily about Washington's wisdom and vision.

"But this is a war that the world must not lose," observes a widely respected senior Southeast Asian official. "For if the United States fails or walks away from the terrorist challenge, they'll go for us all even worse."

The worry is that the Bush administration is widely -- though not openly -- viewed as heavy on the hubris and light on the nuance. It believes it has the answer to almost everything and doesn't want to listen to different views.

So, in Iraq, every day ticks off yet another death or two or three of brave American soldiers -- including high-ranking intelligence officers -- caught in the cruel crossfire of Muslim or Arab vengeance and Bush administration intractability.

Instead of declaring military victory, handing the keys to the country to the United Nations and asking Secretary General Kofi Annan to take over, Washington, it is believed by many in Asia, foolishly sticks to its unilateralist guns. The result, right now, is global gloominess and geopolitical shakiness.

To make matters worse, U.S. President George W. Bush has to gear up for the quadrennial re-election ordeal, with the body bags piling up. The question is whether the U.S. will stick it out, notwithstanding the cost, or cut its losses and leave.

Yet for all the criticisms of the current Republican administration, it is also widely believed here that if the Democrats regain the White House, the prospects for a sustained antiterror effort and ultimate stability in Iraq will evaporate.

Fairly or not, many in Asia feel the world overall is probably better off with the Bush administration re-elected -- while at the same time wishing the Bush people would lower their stratospherically high self-esteem.

Washington, it seems from here, still hasn't come to terms with the new global reality: The simple black-and-white canvas of the Cold War is no more. There is no longer an overarching consensus on a geopolitical framework for the globe, despite the post-9/11 terror.

The trans-Atlantic split between Europe and America won't go away overnight. And in Asia, China is rising as Japan -- struggling to right its economy and play a helpful military role in the world -- resigns itself to that melancholy inevitability.

And Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, with the largest number of Muslims, is finally coming to terms with the malicious and cruel terrorists in its midst.

The only point of optimism in the region about the terror problem is that the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta has shaken Indonesia's Muslim moderates out of their psychological denial and strengthened the hand of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the country's mild-mannered president, who had hesitated to go all out against the terror groups for fear of creating a sympathetic backlash among moderate Muslims.

But when more Indonesians than Westerners were killed in the Marriott suicide bombing, the tide of public opinion turned. In consequence, the Indonesians are accepting technical and police assistance from "white" Australia to an unprecedented extent.

America (with its superior electronic intelligence) and Singapore -- worried that Indonesia might fall apart or be taken over by an intolerant Muslim government -- are also helping out. That's why steadiness of purpose and expansiveness of vision are needed from Washington more than ever.

Governments from Tokyo to Jakarta want to help -- but they also want to be cut in on the major strategic decisions, not isolated. Go-it-alone unilateralism in Washington may be a more potent force to sustain the terrorists than the suicide bombers. The terrorists can't win unless the antiterror coalition withers or self-destructs.

Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2003 Tom Plate

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