A war that
can never be won
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.
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".
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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