June 03, 2008

Danish Embassy Bombed

After the American Century

Last week, I heard a seminar lecture given by Harvard Professor and foreign policy expert Mark Kramer on the Cold War. During the question and discussion period, he also discussed the current world situation. He said that the greatest danger to world security was to be found not in North Korea, Iran, Iraq, or Palestine, but most definitely in Pakistan. The nation has whole provinces dominated by terrorists. It also has an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, the Danish Embassy in Pakistan was car-bombed by an as yet unknown group. The attack killed at least six persons and wounded 23. None of the victims were Danish citizens working at the Embassy. As is so often the case, people who just are in the wrong place at the time of an explosion, and who have nothing whatsoever to do with the matter, are the victims.

Press speculation, probably correct, is that the bombings are related at least in part to cartoons published by one of the Danish newspapers, a right-of-center rag that takes an intemperate view of most things Muslim called Jyllands Posten. For those who have not seen these cartoons, one can say that they depict Moslems and their prophet in an unflattering light. They were not published as commentary on current events, but rather were intended as a provocation and as a declaration of freedom of the press. I should say that I have no respect for that newspaper, because it attacked me inaccurately by name on a quite another matter. I refuse to give interviews to its journalists, and I must hold my nose as I declare that of course they have the right to free speech. I also have the right to say that I no longer respect and certainly will never purchase that newspaper, which deserves to go out of business because other readers also stop buying it. Yet while I have been insulted, I have no desire for bloody revenge, and I think it madness to declare a fatwa on its cartoonists, some of whom now must hide in "safe houses."

For many Danes, Jyllands-Posten and its cartoons are all about freedom of speech and not giving in to intimidation. For many Moslems, they are about being gratuitously insulted, about respect for their religion and about defending the prophet Mohammed. It is one of those confrontations that may last a long time, because neither side has any intention of backing down. And so, a small country of 5.2 million people, the size of Massachusetts, has become the focus of international terror. A country that has only a small military and that has instead used its money to contribute a great deal to foreign aid programs, a country that has defined itself as a mediator, a listener and a champion of human rights, finds itself an object of hatred. A Danish expert on the Middle East whom I have spoken with worries that a terrorist attack on a target inside Denmark is only a matter of time. I hope he is wrong, though fear he is right.

Has the Danish government understood the dangers and the consequences? Perhaps not. The embassy in Pakistan was not particularly well-located. Yesterday, the Danish radio news repeatedly emphasized how secure the building was, with video cameras and only one entrance. Located on a dead-end street, it was reportedly hard to approach. But the BBC stated that "the Danish embassy was an easy target because it is located in a residential area outside of the high-security diplomatic enclave." Danes were mislead by their own news media into thinking their embassy was particularly safe. Perhaps it is, when compared to other Dansh embassies around the world. [Update: the Danish newspaper Politiken reports today (4.6.08) that many Danish embassies in the Moslem world are potentially easy targets, notably that in Egypt. The right-wing Danish government simply has not understood that having such a high profile in the war on terror entails far more security and has real economic costs.]

The security problem, and the perception of high-security, is inseparable from the major shift in Danish foreign policy that occurred when the current right-wing government came into power in late 2001. During the last century, although a member of NATO, Denmark had generally not been a belligerent. Rather, it often was part of UN peacekeeping forces. The nation was known for its willingness to take on the difficult job of patrolling boundaries and dampening regional tensions. It did such a good job of it that the Danish national flag at times was confused with the Red Cross flag. Until 2001.

Once the foreign policy changed, however, the government clearly should have moved its embassy in Pakistan to a highly secured area inside the diplomatic enclave. Now that a car bomb has exploded, it is time to move into the safest area. The time when Denmark could put its embassy in any nice residential area is over.

Denmark is no longer seen as a peacekeeper, but as part of the American-led effort to drive the Talliban out of Afghanistan. Danish troops are fighting every day there. They were also part of the occupation of Iraq until last year. The happy days when a Danish passport was one of the best ones to have if taken hostage also are well and truly over.