A new Iron Curtain threatens to divide

The Cold War allusion was well chosen by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The opening of the U.N. General Assembly last week was dominated by a thinly veiled back-and-forth between President George W. Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan over the Iraq war. But sandwiched between their verbal punches were a handful of remarks that should have found a wider audience.

In separate appearances at the General Assembly, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf warned of the deepening rift between the Islamic and Western worlds. Their comments echo the very real fear that the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are creating as many problems as they solve.

Borrowing a prophetic phrase from a 1952 speech by Winston Churchill, Musharraf asserted that Muslim grievances must be addressed “before an iron curtain finally descends between the West and the Islamic world.”

That Cold War allusion is well chosen. Decades of blind U.S. support for Israeli and Arab dictators have laid a solid foundation for anti-Western sentiments among Muslims. Now the war in Iraq risks hardening the Islamic-Western divide even further. Five-hundred-pound bombs dropped in Fallujah might wipe out Iraqi insurgents, but they also create a new generation of Muslims embittered by U.S. actions.

As if in response to Musharraf, Zapatero called for an “alliance of cultures” to strengthen political and cultural ties between Western and Islamic nations.

Zapatero was short on specifics, but those specifics are not hard to find. His “alliance” could take the form of a U.N. working group, comprising Western and Muslim nations, tasked with finding ways to overcome current divisions.

Such a working group should focus international attention on fighting poverty and promoting economic development in the Muslim world. It would remind the architects of the Iraq war that advancing democracy at the barrel of a gun does not work. It would also inform the Bush administration that the Muslim world will not warm to the West until the United States becomes an honest broker for peace between Israel and Palestine.

Without these efforts, the war on terrorism will only hasten a new iron curtain’s descent.