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Less Respect, More Success

Killing terrorists is more important than making friends.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By MAX BOOT
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There was no question that the United States was better liked abroad in the 1990s, at least if public opinion surveys are to be believed, but was it more respected? When the Clinton administration went privately to Middle Eastern countries seeking cooperation against terrorism, it sometimes got significant help--the Jordanians, for instance, helped bust up the 2000 millennium plot. (Jordan has also been very helpful to the Bush administration.) But often the Clinton administration got the cold shoulder from governments that were wary of a fickle America that would likely flee at the first sign of adversity, as it had in Somalia after 18 commandos were killed in 1993. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were actively aiding the Taliban and perhaps even al Qaeda before 9/11 because they were more scared of alienating Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar than Bill Clinton. Bush's steely response to the 9/11 attacks helped change the calculus within these wavering states: They became more wary of trifling with the gunslinger in the White House than with his smooth-talking predecessor. Perhaps for this reason Bush got a good deal of tacit cooperation from Arab regimes even in the controversial overthrow of Saddam Hussein (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, among others, hosted U.S. troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom), to say nothing of the broader war on terror. These regimes perceived that this time America was serious; it was not like the days of Clinton, when all the United States would do was lob a few cruise missiles and leave neighboring states to deal with the fallout.

Kerry says he could get still more help, especially in Iraq, but how credible is his claim? French and German diplomats throw cold water on Kerry's assertions that, if he were elected, those countries would suddenly rush troops to Iraq. It is doubtful that they would send even a few hundred men, much less the numbers necessary for the kind of rapid drawdown of U.S. forces that Kerry apparently envisions. NATO has made Afghanistan a top priority, but the Europeans still have only 6,400 troops there, as opposed to 20,000 Americans. Even worse, the Europeans are completely reliant on U.S. logistics; they have trouble mustering even a handful of helicopters to transport their troops. Sure, it would be nice to have more foreign help in Iraq--beyond the many nations, such as Poland, Britain, and Ukraine, whose contributions Kerry conveniently overlooks--but it's doubtful that even a French-speaking president could entice more forces into such a dangerous and unsettled situation.

In cataloguing the consequences of American unpopularity abroad, Democrats suggest that Bush is driving more recruits into al Qaeda's arms. This is a real possibility, but it is not a claim that can be verified or falsified, since there is no roll call of terrorists. All we can say for sure is that al Qaeda had no trouble recruiting young Muslims to attack U.S. targets in the 1990s even as Bill Clinton was doing everything possible to make America more popular. The 9/11 attacks were being plotted, after all, while Clinton refrained from a serious military move against terrorists in Afghanistan, in part for fear of disrupting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Far from being mollified by U.S. restraint, Osama bin Laden and his followers were emboldened toward ever more spectacular aggression.

No doubt the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have driven some Islamic zealots over the edge and led them to pick up a rocket-propelled grenade or a homemade bomb. Certainly some Afghans and Iraqis have opportunities they never had before to attack U.S. soldiers, if not U.S. civilians. But it's also true that the international forces opposing al Qaeda have gotten immeasurably stronger during the Bush administration--strong enough to prevent any acts of terrorism on our own soil during the past three years. This record of success will not, unfortunately, last forever, but to have gone even this long without another 9/11 belies the Democratic accusations that America's unpopularity imperils our safety. Perhaps it is George W. Bush's very willingness to do the hard, unpopular things--the kinds of things that Bill Clinton never did, and John F. Kerry most likely never will--that allows us to "get the terrorists before they get us."

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times.