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Tsunami Political Victims: How It Swamped al Qaeda

The Tsunami’s Political Victims (and how it swamped al-Qaeda).

By Paul G. Buchanan

Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.


Unnoticed amid the grief and human misery that followed the tidal waves across the Indian Ocean are the political victims of the relentless surge. As the world organizes an unprecedented relief effort to address the tragedy, what is most striking is the conspicuous absence of several otherwise prominent actors on the world scene.

Without historical precedent, what is remarkable is not the scope of the disaster or who is involved in the global relief efforts. What is telling are those who are not involved. Virtually the entire Arab world, including the richest oil monarchies and secular states, is nowhere to be seen, either financially or in terms of material support. This occurs in spite of the fact that most of those who died or were dispossessed by the wave and flooding were Muslims rather than well-to-do European tourists. Instead, Arab conspiracy theorists with government connections claim that the earthquake was either divine retribution or caused by a US-Zionist experiment. They are not alone in this view.

The Russians or Chinese are not much interested in offering more than token support and assistance. One is a former superpower and the other is the emerging giant, but both have preferred to act as by-standers rather than as global players when it comes to the greatest humanitarian disaster of modern times. They have nothing other than money to offer—and comparatively little on a per capita basis—which tells us something about their commitment to compelling international causes outside of their immediate national interests.

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It is largely the US and its allies, using their military capabilities, who are spearheading the disaster relief effort. The UN may be the arena for discussing what is to be done, and summits involving heads of state are good for publicity generation, but were it not for the military assets drawn down in support of the relief operations, it would be a matter of all talk and no action. Ironically, the tsunami gives the US a chance to revamp its image from that of unwanted occupier and global bully to that of international lifeguard, using its military might to come to the rescue where others cannot or will not. Smaller allies of the US such as Australia, New Zealand, several neighboring Asian states and a gaggle of European democracies are also fronting up with human and material aid as well as the machines necessary to get them to where they are needed the most.

At both a governmental and private level, Australians have responded in truly remarkable fashion, outpacing the US in terms of monies advanced to the cause and human presence on the ground in devastated areas. But there are other generous countries as well. This includes relatively underdeveloped nations such as Brazil, which has opened its collective wallet and offered personnel and equipment to increase the rate of delivery of emergency supplies in spite of pressing domestic concerns. Nor is Brazil alone in its generosity, as many other lesser-developed states in Latin America and peripheral Europe have put their shoulder to the load. They may have geo-strategic or diplomatic considerations for doing so, but that only makes more telling the absence of bigger players like the Russians and Chinese.

For countries and political actors actively involved in the relief effort, participation portends well for future relations between them. This includes those often at odds such as Australia and Indonesia. Even the Ache separatists and Tamil Tigers have temporarily set aside their guerrilla wars to cooperate, however grudgingly and on condition, with their respective governments and international organizations. In this common humanitarian cause political understanding is reaffirmed, made, or attempted by those involved.

Most of the countries affected, especially Indonesia, the Maldives, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, have responded by welcoming aid regardless of origin. In some instances they have overcome concerns about foreign military presence on their shores and the possibility of espionage resulting from the massive influx of outsiders. Malaysia has been less affected, more self-sufficient and less open to international assistance, but is still cooperating with the international community. Somalia and Kenya have not needed much outside help, in part because the damage was lessened by advance warnings. Of those directly affected, only the military dictators in Myanmar refuse to open their borders and accept international help, which speaks volumes about that regime.

The most important consequence of the tsunami may be a global political realignment based on who has fronted in the relief efforts and who has not, with the latter losing international stature as a result of not standing up when it was needed most. Natural disaster has supplanted human catastrophe as the new foundational moment for the international community. It represents the first opportunity to deviate from the war on terror paradigm that has dominated international relations since 2001, and has universal moral value on which to capitalize. It gives those outside of the “coalition of the willing” that intervened in Iraq an opportunity to demonstrate powers of intervention other than unilateral preemption.

To be sure, this is a political surface shift rather than a seismic event. But it brings the existing fault lines into base relief. One of these is the lack of confidence in the UN by some donor states like Australia, which has opted to channel its disaster relief directly to those affected rather than through the UN. Here the policy of unilateral preemption (which the Australians have endorsed as their own strategic doctrine) has been extended into the field of humanitarian operations. Even so, the Australians have offered military equipment and know-how to assist other UN operations in the emergency zone, and their commitment to the humanitarian cause is second to none.

The biggest loser in all of this is al-Qaeda. Not only has world attention shifted from the latest Crusade. At a moment when the jihadist movement had opportunity to offer something positive to the international community, even if only by allocating funds to the relief effort or issuing a statement of solidarity with the victims, it choose not to do so. Rather than show the other side of the coin and present to the world a compassionate face as a parallel or balance to Western-led relief efforts, and which would mitigate the terrorist label that it proudly wears, al-Qaeda is silent.

Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants have nothing to offer at this terrible moment for Muslims as well as “infidels.” In the end, other than when plotting mass murder and claiming authorship of a variegated range of atrocities, the jihadi leaders are powerless or unwilling to counter Western globalisation, here manifest in its front-line presence in relief operations. There are very few Muslim relief organizations or funds involved in the operation, and those on the ground only supply aid to their religious kin.

This is where the bankruptcy of al-Qaeda’s ideology is made apparent. It cannot surmount its defensive, reactive mentality in order to provide the world with a positive impression of what the Islamicist network can do in times of recognized global necessity. It is violence with a cause, but without the organizational capacity to do other than that. For a political movement that envisions a Muslim caliphate stretching in a crescent from the Arabian Sea to the Pacific, this is a ruinous proposition.

Islamic militants obviously should be wary of offering financial assistance or concrete help to the international community because such would make it easier for the anti-terrorist coalition to track them. Yet in trying to do so they could have explored new avenues of political opportunity, if nothing else by showing that Muslim relief efforts can compete with or at least match those of Western agencies (which are a mix of secular and religious organizations). They cannot because they have bigger problems, which their failure to respond to the tsunami serves to underscore.

For al-Qaeda, 2004 was a bad year. It may be militarily holding its own at a tactical level in Iraq (although it depends on nationalist sentiment and Baathist networks to do so), but it is losing strategically in the global “war on terror.” It was not able to mount an attack on the Olympics in Greece in spite of years of advance notice, the presence of numerous anti-US and anti-Western militant groups in Greece with whom to liaise with, the well-known professional deficiencies and corruption in the Greek security services, and close proximity to Arab sources of men and material ready and disposed to exact symbolic revenge against the modern Crusaders. It could not intervene in the US election other than with a last-minute Osama video interjection. It dares or cannot target Israel, and sees its support of the Palestinian cause diluted in the press to elections to determine Arafat’s successor.

Outside of Iraq, the majority of al-Qaeda linked attacks after the March train bombing in Madrid have been confined to the Arab world, Saudi Arabia in particular. It remains on the retreat in Afghanistan and could not stop the foundational election there; it is being pursued in Indonesia and Pakistan with increasing success; it is being increasingly audited throughout the international banking system, thereby making it harder to finance terrorist operations at the same time that the sources of revenue are exposed (to include those in the Saudi royal family); its connections with transnationalised organized crime are now being revealed; and it is running out of places to shelter in Africa, Asia and beyond.

For a political movement with global pretensions, it is not a good look. In fact, the look could be the image of defeat, for without something positive to offer and increasingly under siege, al-Qaeda is retreating to fight on an episodic physical plane. That is a losing proposition because the success of unconventional wars of attrition is based on the growing popularity of the guerrilla’s ideology as an alternative to the status quo. That in turn depends on the ability to balance war fighting with public good provision or ideological persuasion. After all, it is one thing to disrupt the plans of others, but it is very much another thing to win the hearts and minds of the global majority when there is nothing but asymmetrical violence to offer.

That is the situation global Islamicism finds itself in. Meanwhile, the US, Australia, the UN and other established states, as well as dozens of Western aid agencies and hundreds of individuals, are re-establishing a basis for goodwill throughout the Indian Ocean basin through humanitarian assistance and self-sacrifice on a scale the jihadis appear to not comprehend, much less want to match.

Although it has a few more atrocities up its sleeve, the al-Qaeda network is losing broad-based ideological support because it is increasingly revealed to be a stunted movement terminally anchored in messianic vengeance and retribution rather than politically calculated reason. US blundering in Iraq gave Islamicists some leverage in presenting their case to the court of world opinion, but in the non-response to the tsunami al-Qaeda’s deficiencies become glaringly obvious--especially to those they endeavour to recruit the most, who are Muslims across the world.

The US was compelled by diplomatic and strategic reasons to show its more humane face in this disaster, whether the Bush administration genuinely wanted to or not. The UN had to re-establish its credibility and demonstrate an area of competence beyond the US global reach. Allies on both sides of the Iraq intervention, those involved and those not, have political reasons to get involved in something quite different and equally as large in terms of global import. Others act on purely moral or humanitarian grounds.

The larger question is what becomes of those who chose to opt out? China and Russia will overcome their loss of prestige in this affair if nothing else because the inter-state system and international community need them to participate in the future, in different ways. Arab states will continue to wallow in the political backwaters due to their shameful lack of concern over the plight of others, and the Arab world will have to reflect on their countenance of governmental inaction or bias. For Osama and his followers, the tsunami is terminal, because they have no positive ideological project to offer outside of their reactive violence. Without ongoing ideological sustenance, terrorism suffers from a form of Newtonian physics: it wanes over time. If there is small comfort to be taken from this event, it is that.

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