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Date posted: February 14, 2002
By Jonathan Power

DAWN (14 Feb 2002)--Winston Churchill who invented the phrase "Iron Curtain" did not dream up the term "Cold War". That- La Guerra Fria- was coined by thirteenth century Spaniards to describe their uneasy coexistence with Muslims in the Mediterranean.

This is perhaps the time to bring it back into its correct historical usage. For there can be no doubt that if Saudi Arabia goes ahead with its apparent decision to ask the US to close down its important military base in Saudi Arabia, many Americans will conclude that a cold war of sorts between the US and the Islamic world will have begun.

Everyone knows that removing America's military presence from the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia has been Osama bin Laden's number one demand. In meeting it America, however brave a face it puts on it, will feel deep inside itself that its 50-year long relatively benign relationship with the oil kingdoms and sheikhdoms of the Arabian peninsular - and one should add in Egypt - is drawing to a close.

While neither side can cut the economic relationship - America needs to buy and the Arabs needs to sell their oil - it is inevitable that the past intimacy will be transformed into a more workaday arrangement. It will indeed take everyone's ingenuity for that not to slide into a cold war. The Americans will feel rebuffed and all too ready to believe that they and the Arabs are on opposite sides of what has become a very high fence.

One senses that the White House has seen this coming, and even more so since September 11. Not for nothing has it been courting the ex-Asian republics of Kyrgizstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Muslim in a loose and ready way they may be, but the Soviet era did much to secularize the culture. Moreover, they are not Arab and they certainly do not belong to the heartland of Islamic culture as bin Laden sees it.

Most important, they appear to value an alliance with America, all the more to shore up their new found independence from Russia. They seem to be indicating that even if the war in Afghanistan is over they wish the Americans to stay in their new bases, and even expand them. And America sees in the long term an alternative supplier of oil to the Arabian peninsular

It is also becoming apparent that the Americans may stay on a while in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf is clearly sincere in his wish to break the grip of Pakistani fundamentalism once and for all. Although fundamentalist parties have never won more than a small percentage of the votes in an election they have called too many of the shots, not least in the dangerous relationship with India, over Kashmir.

It appears that Musharraf sees an American military presence as a valuable source of influence in helping push his own army and intelligence services in the direction of making a much-needed breakthrough on finding a solution to the division of Kashmir.

Meanwhile, America is about to step up the military relationship with predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Forced to wind down its military training program after the fall of Suharto it is now considering being drawn in again as the new government struggles with radical Islamic armed movements.

All this suggests that the picture painted by Samuel Huntington in his "Clash of Civilisations" is rather more complicated that he suggested. The Islamic world is not that homogeneous and is riven by fault lines, even as it shares one important historical experience- the imposition of Western culture, first by force of arms and more recently by the twin influences of the market place and economic modernisation. - Copyright Jonathan Power

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