Diplomatic Diary: The 9-11 Effect

Let's face it: terrorism works. It works in the short run, blowing up the Middle East road map along with dozens of Israeli citizens. And it works in the long run, bringing the terrorists closer to their political goals.

What we've witnessed in the space of one brief, bloody week is yet another display of how effective terrorists can be. Not just in terms of killing people. But by changing the political landscape they leave amid the wreckage-whether it's Saudi Arabia in the East, Morocco in the West or Israel at the heart of it all.

Take Israel. After five suicide attacks in less than 48 hours, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon drove a stake through the heart of the road map process. Sharon, who postponed a trip to the White House this week, is now more determined than ever to rewrite the road map on more favorable terms, according to Israeli officials.

Sharon never liked the plan as constructed, and his aides were openly scornful of the philosophy behind it. Whether it was because of the central role for other players like the European Union and the United Nations, or the road map's incremental approach to peace, Sharon was looking for an excuse to overhaul it. And the terrorists have handed him a perfect reason to play hardball. It was little wonder than he explicitly refused to "accept" the road map when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed it with him earlier this month.

At the White House, President George W. Bush insists that he still has confidence in the road map-and to prove his point he did something on Tuesday that he simply could not stomach until recently: he placed a phone call to the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. But while Bush voiced his support for the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (otherwise known as Abu Mazen), the U.S. president's own aides say that nothing has changed since the days when Arafat was in full control of the Palestinian Authority. Security for Israel is still the single most important piece of the Middle Eastern puzzle, and nothing can move forward without it. In that sense, the terrorists are succeeding in driving the road map off the table.

However, there is another, more optimistic version of events. Instead of hardening the positions of the warring parties, terrorism could become a catalyst for change. Call it the September 11 effect: a giant terrorist attack awakens a slumbering nation. Along the way, the nation discovers that terrorist groups can be destroyed from the top down rather than indulged as some particularly violent form of street protests.

That is what is supposed to have happened in Saudi Arabia after last week's apparent Al Qaeda attacks in Riyadh. To Americans and Saudis alike, the devastation at the so-called westerners' compounds evoked New York in September 2001. Colin Powell, traveling through the region to push the road map, couldn't help but draw those parallels.

Soon after he arrived in Riyadh, and just hours after the bombing, Powell drove with his entourage to the Vinnell compound. There, as a sandstorm whipped around them, Powell walked the short, violent route driven by the terrorists, trying to piece together how they had mounted their attack. What he found in front of the rubble of the low-rise apartment blocks was something altogether more personal: memories of lower Manhattan. "You had the sand blowing around, the devastation, the knowledge of people dying, and the smell of cordite in the air. Even with all the wind you'd catch a smell of the explosives," said one senior Powell aide. "It was a kind of sensory memory of Ground Zero. It hit pretty hard."

It also hit hard in the inner circle surrounding Crown Prince Abdullah, the Saudi ruler. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, admitted to Powell that his government had failed to get ahead of the terrorists. "We have done a good job tracking these people but we have been one step behind them," Prince Saud told Powell, according to an official who was present. "We need to figure out how to get one step ahead of them." Another Saudi official said the political pressure inside Saudi Arabia to confront the terrorists was now huge. "We know what the Americans felt like after September 11th," he said, "and we feel what the people in Israel have gone through. Hopefully the Israelis won't feel they have a monopoly in suicide bombers attacking them. Hopefully it will lead to more cooperation... We used to worry about public opinion back home, but public opinion is now five steps to the right of us in terms of fighting the war against terrorists," he added. "If we don't take strong measures on this, our public will kick us out. It's not just counter-terrorism, it's education, the mosques, opening up the economy."

That is the optimistic view of what terrorism can do. But in fact, the first steps in fighting terrorism run counter to the kinds of social reforms mentioned by the Saudi official, and by U.S. officials since 9-11. Bringing democracy to the Arab world was one of the White House's main reasons for confronting Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Yet, as the United States has discovered since the September 11 attacks, it's extremely difficult to balance democratic freedoms with a sweeping crackdown on potential terrorists. Innocent people get caught in the dragnet, while others find their liberties-such as the freedom to travel-curtailed.

If it's hard to strike that balance here, imagine what it's like in an entirely undemocratic country such as Saudi Arabia. Ask Prince Nayef, the controversial Saudi interior minister, who infamously blamed "Jews" for the 9-11 attacks. Because of those comments, Nayef is rightly portrayed in the western media as a questionable ally in the war on terror. Yet some Saudi officials believe that doesn't tell the full story. "Nayef has really got a bum rap because he talks about issues that he knows nothing about," said one. "But his is the only ministry without its own religious-affairs department. He's very open-minded and he isn't a guy with blood on his hands, the way most interior ministers are in the Third World."

That might well change as Saudi Arabia plunges into its own war against terror. As American and European diplomats closed their embassies and consulates this week-waiting for more terrorist attacks-we are facing the unhappy reality of winning and losing the war on terror at the same time. Winning by capturing some of the terrorist leaders. But losing by encouraging the very repression we want to bring to an end.

Diplomatic Diary: The 9-11 Effect | News