You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Cost Benefits

The cold war is back in vogue. For a month now, politicians and commentators have been analogizing the newly declared war on terror to America's 40-year war against communism. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for one, says, "This campaign will be waged much like the cold war, in the sense that it will involve many fronts over a period of time." But the parallel extends beyond similarities of scope and duration. The war on terror has also revived a thorny dilemma about unsavory allies: whether America can fight alongside them without betraying its creed.

The human rights establishment says it cannot. Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, recently complained that "the United States will condone actions committed in the name of anti-terrorism that it would have condemned just two weeks ago." He's right. And, if the United States intends to win the war on terror, it has no choice. But that doesn't mean it has no choices. Indeed the Bush team has already found itself entertaining moral trade-offs--with Central Asian dictators who repress their subjects but offer U.S. forces access to the Afghan border; with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose corrupt and brutal regimes nonetheless favor the United States more than do their populations; and with Sudan, Iran, and Syria, who offer, well, absolutely nothing. The first two trade-offs make strategic and moral sense. The third makes none.

Human Rights Watch can't comprehend why the United States would make common cause with Uzbekistan, which boasts an "already abysmal human rights record." But Uzbekistan abuts Afghanistan and, as such, has a critical role to play in the U.S. war effort. In the name of proximity, too, the White House has all but announced it will turn a blind eye to Russia's war in Chechnya. Returning the favor, Moscow blessed the decision by its former republics to let the United States use their bases and airspace. Similarly the administration has lifted sanctions against Pakistan, cozied up to dictator Pervez Musharraf, and pledged financial aid to Islamabad. Neatly summarizing the logic of these trade-offs, a senior administration official asks, "Would you rather we launch air strikes from Scandinavia?"

Cynical? Absolutely. But in self-defense against a colossal evil, cynical calculations are justified. Alas, organizations like Human Rights Watch have always lent far more weight to the morality of means than to the morality of outcomes. (What really impressed Human Rights Watch about U.S. air strikes to halt Serb depredations in Kosovo was that the targets were "disproportionate and should be found violations of international humanitarian law.") But there's a distinction between noble intentions and noble consequences. And the consequences of alienating the nations bordering Afghanistan would be anything but noble: It would, in fact, mean forfeiting our capacity to rid the region of an evil far greater than anything the tin-pot dictators of Pakistan and Uzbekistan have contemplated.

If the crisis has forced the United States into alliances with helpful human rights abusers, it's also compelled us to stand by repressive regimes that have not, in turn, stood by us. Saudi Arabia has refused to permit the launching of U.S. air strikes from its soil, and Riyadh and Cairo have uttered barely a peep in support of the war effort (though the Bush team claims that Egypt has shared intelligence, and that privately, the Saudis' chief concern is that the United States won't prosecute the war with sufficient vigor).

Rather, our continued support of these governments derives from a candid acknowledgment of what would replace them if we did not. For all their defects, unlike, say, Iran or Afghanistan, neither has enshrined the export of terror in official policy. Both, however, find themselves under siege by forces that, once in power, would do exactly that. "This really isn't the time to complain about repression $(in Saudi Arabia and Egypt$)," says a senior administration official. "Anyway, our complaint isn't that they've been dealing too harshly with (fundamentalists). They're not doing enough." Put another way, repression in the Arab world may be one of many "root causes" of terrorism; but for now, at least, it's also part of the solution. And, as this official points out, to pretend otherwise would be to repeat the mistake of the Carter years--when ill-timed American pressure merely encouraged the replacement of friendly autocrats with unfriendly ones.

In some instances, however, the Bush team has taken the trade-offs too far. Thus the administration has abandoned its opposition to lifting UN sanctions on Sudan and pressured congressional leaders to discard legislation imposing new penalties on Khartoum. Foggy Bottom has also sought, unsuccessfully, to entice Iran into its anti-bin Laden coalition. State Department officials, including Colin Powell, have mused as well about enlisting Syria, even though the latest terrorism report by the very same State Department concludes that Damascus continues "to provide safehaven and support to several terrorist groups." And last week Foggy Bottom pointedly declined to object to Syria's ascension to a two-year perch on the UN Security Council and infuriated Pentagon officials by pushing to omit Syrian-sponsored terror groups from an executive order citing terrorist organizations with global reach.

If it's true that during wartime the United States takes its allies where it can find them, it's equally true that it usually doesn't take them when they're on the other side. But that's exactly what the State Department--and, specifically, the Bureau of Near East Affairs and the Policy Planning staff, according to a senior administration official--counsels today. This isn't dictatorships and double standards; it's dictatorships and no standards. To begin with, none of these countries has responded in kind to American blandishments--which is just as well. In the name of tactical advantage, such an alliance virtually ensures that the broader war against terror will fail. That's because, by embracing as coalition partners states that actively support terror, the United States surrenders the ability to punish them later if the terror trail leads back to their borders. But, of course, for the State Department, that's the whole point. "Keep in mind," says a member of the Bush team, "(the State Department) doesn't want this thing going any further than Afghanistan."

Navigating these dilemmas isn't really so complicated. If a trade-off compromises the war on terror, as would cooperation with Iran, Sudan, and Syria, it's not worth making. But if it furthers that war, as does U.S. cooperation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan's neighbors, it is. After all, a defeat for the world's most powerful force for decency means, ipso facto, a defeat for the cause of human rights as well. Do trade-offs in the war on terror carry moral costs? Absolutely. But so does losing.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a senior editor at The New Republic.