Stop This Game
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, November 25, 2003; Page A29
PARIS -- Imagine for a moment a horrifying game called "terrorist roulette." The unfortunate players are huddled in different groups and spend much of their time bickering about who got them into this mess.
Every few days one of the players is taken away and shot.
If the players could agree on a common strategy, they could overwhelm the assassins. But none will sacrifice their individual prerogatives for the logic of collective action. Some imagine they'll be safe if they stay separate and keep their heads down. Others try subtly to make friends with the captors. The most muscular member of the group insists he can "go it alone."
So the quarreling goes on. And every few days, another victim is hauled off and killed.
Unfortunately, this isn't a ghoulish exercise in game theory but an analogy to what has happened over the past few months as the war in Iraq has become more deadly and more international. The logic of uniting to fight a common enemy could not be clearer, yet the political discord continues.
Last weekend it was British bankers and diplomats in Istanbul who were attacked, along with Turks who happened to be nearby. The toll of dead and wounded reached nearly 500. The previous week it was two synagogues in Istanbul, where six Jews and 19 Muslims were killed and more than 300 wounded. The week before, it was 19 Italian troops who were keeping peace in central Iraq; before that, it was a Polish officer in the United Nations-mandated multinational force.
The U.N. headquarters in Baghdad has been bombed twice. The International Committee for the Red Cross has been bombed. It seems the potential target list includes anyone who is trying to help the Iraqi people. And still the international community quarrels or looks the other way.
The most poignant victims are the Iraqi people themselves. Any Iraqi who dares to dream of building a new country risks being killed. Last weekend suicide bombers attacked two police stations north of Baghdad, killing 11 policemen and five civilians. Their crime was that they were cooperating with U.S. occupation forces to maintain law and order. Iraqi tribal leaders who try to stabilize the country are targets. I'm told that a prominent member of the Dulaimi tribe in western Iraq was targeted last week in a car bombing outside his home that killed two, and that a list is circulating of three other Dulaimi "collaborators" who are marked for execution.
Terrorist roulette has even struck the Imam Ali mosque, the sacred shrine for Shiite Muslims. An attack in August killed at least 95 Iraqis, including Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim. He was working to help create a new Iraq on the ruins of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers. For that he was assassinated.
A traveler in Iraq two months ago could still find Iraqi children in many towns running alongside U.S. military convoys and waving to the soldiers. But someone has recently been spray-painting warnings in Baghdad: "The hand that waves to the soldiers will be cut off." It's a war, and a diabolically vicious one. And yet the world so far has mostly stood on the sidelines and watched, muttering about how the Bush administration brought the disaster upon itself by invading Iraq in March.
The French, for example, have talked vaguely about helping train Iraqi police, but have done nothing concrete. They insist on transferring sovereignty to Iraq in five weeks, a political timetable that many experts (especially Iraqis) regard as dangerously unrealistic. The more the United States moves toward French proposals, the more standoffish the French become. They won't take "oui" for an answer.
The Bush administration isn't blameless in this ruinous game. President Bush has too often preferred bombastic sermons about terrorism to the diplomatic work that can build powerful alliances. The notion that the United States was so powerful it didn't need international approval to fight terrorism was a mistake. So was the "bring 'em on" rhetoric about postwar insurgents.
One bright spot is that the world's spies and cops have continued to cooperate while their political leaders bicker. Even as France maintains its diplomatic diffidence, for example, its security services are offering what Western officials say is unprecedented cooperation with the CIA and FBI in fighting terrorism -- including some joint operations.
The world needs to look at terrorist roulette for what it is -- a threat to everyone. Historians can debate whether the Bush administration blundered in invading Iraq. But right now, that truly isn't the issue. Tomorrow or the next day, another player in this game will be taken out and shot. The world needs to unite and stop the killers now, and worry about assigning blame later.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company