Chechnya, Iraq and beyond

William Pfaff


President Vladimir Putin of Russia is in grave difficulty because he has refused to acknowledge the real nature of the challenge to his government in Chechnya. The terrible hostage crisis in North Ossetia and the bombings of recent days are the result of his unwillingness to recognize the implications of defying nationalism - not mere "terrorism" - in the Caucasus.

Putin is making the same mistake that President George W. Bush and the U.S. government made after the Sept. 11 attacks. Like Putin, they insisted they were merely dealing with terrorists or criminals.

They were actually dealing with terrorism and crime in the service of nationalism and religion, which is entirely different. In the political circumstances of today, nationalism and radical religion have come to compete and overlap in Chechnya, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nationalism has been a driving force in the Caucasus since the 18th century. The Chechens fought Czarist imperial expansion from 1818, /after 1917, they fought the Bolsheviks. They rose again when the German offensive reached Chechnya in 1942, and in revenge Stalin deported many to Central Asia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Chechens again demanded independence, and President Boris Yeltsin sent troops against them.

Putin, too was foolish enough to think that he could crush the Chechens. He renewed the war against them to win votes. He won Bush's favor in 2001: Were the Chechens not terrorists? Were they not America's enemies, too? But now Chechen terrorism is undermining Putin. Like Bush, he has promised to "win," but he is not winning.

In invading Iraq, the Bush administration made a gift of Iraqi nationalism to the Islamic fundamentalists. Without nationalism, the fundamentalist cause is weak. The aim of its jihad is to recreate the fundamentalist intellectuals' idealized notion of medieval Islamic society. Recovering a golden age is an idea that recurs in weak societies suffering the crises of development.

A segment of society, usually young, often Western-educated and from privileged circumstances, experiences a puritan reaction against the dominant materialism, moral disorder, licentiousness and abuse of power that it sees in the West.

This is a common phenomenon. The "Maoist" terrorists of western Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s included pastors' daughters and former seminarians motivated by moral outrage against capitalism.

Young Muslims who mobilized to fight Russian aggression in Afghanistan moved on to fight corruption and heresy elsewhere - in Egypt, Algeria and Bosnia. The people in those countries, however did not follow them. Just as in the case of Europe's "Maoists," the radicalized young had believed that ordinary people were ready for revolution, and were mistaken.

When the people won't follow, the next step for the radical, in Europe and the Islamic world, is terrorism - "terrible" acts meant to awaken Muslims to the truth, and to terrify enemies by invoking God's liberating wrath. That brings us to Al Qaeda.

Fundamentalism and nationalism were parallel forces at work in the Caucasus and the Middle East well before the new fundamentalists came home from Afghanistan. Nationalism, with terrorism a part of it, drove the Zionists' war against the British and the Palestinians before Israel was created. Palestinian terrorism has been part of the war against Israel ever since.

Whatever Washington thought it was doing - and there seems to have little responsible thought about what it was doing - it made a basic error by declaring a "war on terror" after the Sept. 11 attacks and then attacking the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and invading Iraq.

It created the circumstances in which nationalism and "terrorism" are now at war with the United States. The Iraq insurrection's essential motivation is nationalism. Thus, sooner or later, the United States will be forced out of Iraq.

Nationalism has been the most important force in modern history, resisting and outlasting all totalitarianisms, which is another way to affirm identity. It makes use of terrorism because this is the weapon of the weak. But nationalism is what it is all about. After all, what has driven U.S. policy since Sept. 11, 2001, if not outraged nationalism?