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Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004

Bin Laden exploiting Western divisions

SEOUL -- Ban Ki Moon, ordinarily a mild and discreet gentleman, could barely contain smoldering anger over the "October surprise" as he sat down for breakfast with me just hours after Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network, released a videotape apparently starring the inimitable Osama bin Laden.

The soft-spoken foreign minister of South Korea wasn't so much angry over the content of the tape -- which featured bin Laden explaining to the world the reasons for his outfit's 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and explicitly criticizing the incumbent U.S. president -- as over its intended effect.

"It's highly sophisticated psychological warfare," explained the erudite diplomat, who holds impressive degrees from Harvard's JFK School of Government and South Korea's prestigious Seoul National University. "He's trying to sow the seeds of division. He's trying to create divisions not only among the U.S.-led coalition forces but also among Arab countries."

Many Arab countries, he suggested, are caught between Iraq and a hard place, the latter being their own domestic public that's in part sympathetic to the grisly heroics of suicide bombers. And what angers Foreign Minister Ban most is the possibility of such divisive tactics hitting their mark, again and again.

From disunity arises upheaval, and the best diplomats have long memories. Back in 2001, this career Korean foreign-service officer -- then with the title of Republic of Korea ambassador to the United Nations -- was serving as chef de Cabinet to the president of the General Assembly of the U.N. It was a nail-biting assignment.

Even after the horror of Sept. 11, he recalled, "there was a tremendous lack of consensus at the United Nations about even the definition of terrorism. There was no single convention, no comprehensive approach. Everyone had a different definition of the problem -- for some, terrorists were freedom fighters. So many nations had so very different views. And this is still the problem today: There are still too many countries that do not express clear views on this question."

The inevitable tragic result, Ban told me emphatically, is a terrifying global Tower of Babel. And this vexing vortex of vulnerability on the fearsome terrorism challenge provides Osama bin Laden and his opportunistic network an evil-promising future.

"It's divide and conqueror, classic divide and rule," said the foreign minister with low-key passion. He shook his head as if decrying the foolishness of the civilized world in its inability to close ranks and isolate the terrorists.

The foreign minister of the Republic of Korea wasn't born yesterday, of course. Now a spry 60, he has held diplomatic posts from Austria to India. He knows full well the myriad of differences among nation-states, with their various national interests, political systems and cultural and religious histories. But if the civilized community of nations is to stay glued together, he plainly feels, it requires a consensus about who the bad guys are and what must be done about them.

The foreign minister has no rooting interest in the outcome of the American presidential election, of course. Even if he had, he'd have kept it to himself. But what came across so powerfully in our breakfast conversation was his deeply held view that any leader of the "Free World," as we Westerners quaintly refer to our part of the world, must work much, much harder to bring us all together. For our disunity and our paucity of shared perspectives enable evil spirits such as bin Laden to exploit our divisions and erect platforms on which new evils can be spawned, festered and spread. Without our unnecessary division, he suggests, the terrorism movement would have little traction. Bin Laden has had this long figured out.

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

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