How you look at things.
Sept. 27 2001 3:00 AM


In the war on terrorism, what are we fighting for?


President Bush says we're fighting for democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties. Terrorists "hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government," he declared in his speech to Congress last week. "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan." Bush concluded, "This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It sounds good, but it doesn't add up. A coalition of governments that believe in all these principles can't include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan. According to the U.S. State Department's latest Human Rights Report, all three countries restrict freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, and movement. Jordan is a monarchy propped up by security forces that have committed "extrajudicial killings." The Saudi royal family "prohibits the establishment of political parties" and enforces "a rigorously conservative form of Islam" through "religious police." Egyptians "do not have a meaningful ability to change their Government." Egyptian security forces "arbitrarily arrest" and "torture" people in the name of "combating terrorism."

Are you passionate enough about freedom and democracy to exclude these countries from an anti-terrorism coalition? Are you willing to give up Saudi cooperation in the detection and destruction of Osama Bin Laden's financial network? Are you willing to give up Egyptian intelligence, which informed us of Bin Laden's plot to kill Bush in Europe two months ago? Are you willing to sever ties with Jordanian security forces, who thwarted Bin Laden's plans to massacre tourists in the Middle East two years ago?

No? Would you rather have the help of those countries against Bin Laden than push freedom and democracy on them? Then let's take a harder case. According to the State Department, Pakistan harbors and supports Muslim extremists associated with hijackings and suicide bombings against India. A few years ago, we slapped sanctions on Pakistan for testing nuclear weapons. In 1999, Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized control of the country in a coup. But now that we need Pakistan's help to stage operations in neighboring Afghanistan, we're lifting the sanctions and offering substantial economic aid. Is that OK with you? Are you willing to tolerate military dictatorship, nuclear proliferation, and a faraway proxy terror campaign in order to get Pakistan's assistance against Bin Laden?

Does it bother you that 62 percent of Pakistanis, according to a Gallup Poll, oppose their dictator's decision to support the United States in this conflict—or that only 9 percent of people surveyed by Gallup in 27 Muslim nations favor airstrikes against Afghanistan? Does it bother you that the Pakistani and Saudi regimes are keeping their collaboration with us as secret as possible in order to avoid angering their citizens? We're not just ignoring democracy as a goal. We're deliberately circumventing it. Is that OK with you?

Maybe we can justify these compromises, and maybe we can't. But we can't even have that debate until we stop deceiving ourselves about what we're doing. We're not building an alliance for democracy, pluralism, or freedom of speech and religion. We're setting aside those principles in order to build the broadest possible alliance against terrorism.

We've been here before. Pearl Harbor drove us into an alliance with the murderous Josef Stalin against Hitler. The Iron Curtain drove us into an alliance against communism. To contain and defeat the Soviet Union, we compromised human rights, pluralism, and democracy wherever we thought it necessary. We propped up right-wing dictators. We tolerated torture. We armed Pakistan. We armed Afghanistan. We armed Bin Laden.

Then communism collapsed, and all the principles we had suppressed while fighting it rose to the surface. We sanctioned Pakistan. We denounced Afghanistan's religious intolerance. We started talking about human rights and the treatment of women.

Then came Sept. 11. A new global menace commanded our attention. Suddenly, democracy in Pakistan and women's rights in Saudi Arabia seem expendable. The concentrated fear that drove us to anti-fascism and anti-communism is driving us to anti-terrorism.