<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 133 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

December 12, 2003

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A war that can never be won

Jonathan Steele

The bombast has increased with the bombs. The explosions in Istanbul mark a significant widening in the choice of targets by those Islamist radicals who use terror to express their hatred of British and US policy. The Blair/Bush response reached an equally alarming new level of ferocity.

At their swaggering joint press conference in London, the two men repeatedly made the risible claim that they could win their war on terror. The prime minister was the worse. While George Bush gave himself a global carte blanche to intervene anywhere, by speaking of his "determination to fight and defeat this evil, wherever it is found", Blair put the issue in terms of a finite goal. He talked of defeating terrorism "utterly" and "ridding our world of this evil once and for all".

The hyperbole of the religious pulpit allows for all-embracing and eschatological language, but these men are meant to be practical political leaders. When Blair, in his opposition days, invented the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", he knew that crime could never be totally eliminated. The task is to reduce and restrain it by a variety of methods.

Terrorism is a technique. It is not an ideology or a political philosophy, let alone an enemy state. Our leaders' failure to understand that point emerged immediately after September 11, 2001, when they reacted to the attacks by confusing the hunt for the perpetrators with the Afghan "state" that allegedly "harboured" them. The Taliban ran a vicious regime, but Afghanistan's nominal leader, Mullah Omar, had no control over al-Qaida.

By the same token the "war" on terror should have remained what it initially was, a metaphor like the "war" on drugs. But instead of being harmless linguistic exaggeration to describe a broad campaign encompassing a range of political, economic and police countermeasures, it was narrowed down to real war and nothing else. The slippery slope that began with Afghanistan quickly led to the invasion of Iraq, a symbolic and political enormity whose psychological impact Bush and Blair have not yet grasped.

When Ariel Sharon, then a middle-aged general, wanted to send Israeli tanks into Cairo in October 1973, it was the arch-realist Henry Kissinger who saw how devastating the emotional effect would be in the Arab world, and stopped him. For a new generation of Arabs, the sight of American tanks in Baghdad is just as humiliating. Osama bin Laden's claim that having US forces at airbases close to the Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia is a desecration appealed only to a few Muslims, but the daily television pictures of US troops in the heart of an Arab capital inflames a much larger audience.

In the long history of terrorism, al-Qaida has provided two novelties. One is its global reach, marked by a willingness to strike targets in many countries. The other is its use of suicide attacks as a weapon of first, rather than last, resort. Under the broad heading of terrorism as a political and military instrument, suicide bombing is a subcategory, a technique within a technique.

In the post-colonial world its first proponents had nothing to do with the anti-Islamic myth that martyrs are motivated by the hope of being greeted by dozens of virgins waiting in heaven. It began with Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, an act of martial self-sacrifice by angry women as well as men. When it spread to Palestine over the past decade, it was an act of last-resort desperation by frustrated people who saw no other way to counter Israel's disparity of power, as Cherie Blair once publicly pointed out. Al-Qaida has merely taken an old technique and made it the weapon of choice.

The shock now is that Bush and Blair not only still believe that war is the way to deal with terrorists but that even when faced by the escalation of Istanbul they think victory is possible. The real issue is how to control risk. Anti-Western extremism will never be eradicated, but it can be reduced by a combination of measures, primarily political.

The first is an early transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people and the withdrawal of foreign forces. An arrangement whereby the new Iraqi government "requests" US troops to stay on will convince few in the Middle East. Second is sustained pressure on Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians.

There is no guaranteed defence against a suicide attack on a soft target. "Hardening" targets by turning every US or British building, at home or abroad, into a fortress makes little sense. It is better to try to reduce the motivations that make people turn themselves into bombs. That endeavour will also never produce complete success. In Blair's misguided words, it cannot be done "utterly" or "once and for all". But it is the more productive way to go.

(Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003)




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