It was never going to be easy to keep a sense of perspective in the face of a terrorist campaign as violent as the one being waged by al-Qaida; some have found it harder than others. The claim by James Woolsey, the former CIA director, that we are in the process of fighting “World War IV” stands out as a particularly silly example of the hyperbolic overdrive that has characterised much of the debate over the past two-and-a-half years. So does Tony Blair’s assertion that the terrorist threat is “existential” in its scope.
Islamist terrorism poses a threat to the physical existence of those who stand to be killed as a result of its actions, as yesterday’s news of a plot to explode a chemical bomb in Britain reminded us. But it is not comparable to the threat posed to western democracy and European Jewry by Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s, let alone the prospect of nuclear annihilation during the cold war. Policy choices that proceed from that assumption are almost certain to be wrong.
For similar reasons it is nonsense to argue that America and her allies are “losing the war on terror.” Al-Qaida’s capacity to carry out horrific acts of violence may continue to grow, but its real mission – to establish a pan-Islamic theocracy – is doomed to end in failure. Even a Talibanised Pakistan or Saudi Arabia would be too enfeebled to present much more than a temporary and localised threat. The ideology of Islamism will remain contained by the backwardness it shares with other forms of religious fundamentalism.
Even so, Bush seems determined to test this theory to destruction by playing so eagerly the role scripted for him by Osama bin Laden. If the invasion of Iraq was intended to bring democracy and enlightenment to the darkest recesses of the Arab street, it must be obvious that it has been a spectacular miscalculation. Instead we have a spiral of violence that now involves attacks on coalition forces by armed elements of the Shia majority.
Furthermore, the forced closure of a militant Shia newspaper that provoked this reaction has been followed by the use of helicopter gunships in built-up areas, suggesting that Iraq is slipping into the cycle of repression and resistance that usually ends in defeat for the occupying power.
Far from striking a blow against terrorism, the invasion of Iraq has unleashed the very forces of extremism it was supposed to destroy. This shouldn’t surprise us. Successful counter-insurgency strategy always relies on two interrelated elements: a military campaign aimed at the perpetrators of violence, and a political campaign designed to isolate them from the wider population. By invading Iraq, the Bush administration violated both principles simultaneously.
In his memoirs, Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism chief, reveals the extraordinary extent to which those who planned the “war on terror” remained fixated with Saddam Hussein even after responsibility for the attack on the Twin Towers was pinned on Bin Laden. The following day Donald Rumsfeld even suggested bombing Iraq on the basis that there weren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. His advice was ignored – but not for long.
Instead of focusing on stabilising Afghanistan and pursuing the large numbers of committed terrorists that escaped the fall of the Taliban, the Bush administration decided to widen the war on terror to carry out an act of geopolitical adventurism that had been part of the neoconservative game plan before most senior officials had even heard of al-Qaida.
By taking its eye off the target in this way, the US government not only allowed Bin Laden and his followers to escape and regroup, it acted to broaden their base of support by demonstrating utter indifference to the opinion of Muslims. The invasion of Iraq may have been wrapped up in high-minded rhetoric about the need to liberate suffering Iraqis from a brutal regime, but most Muslims understand that the US removed Saddam from power for the same reason it installed him in the first place: to engineer a balance of power favourable to its own interests.
This perception of double standards has been compounded by the fact that no serious attempt has been made to address legitimate Muslim or Arab grievances. The roadmap for an Israel-Palestine peace settlement remains locked in the glove compartment, as Sharon continues the illegal annexation of Palestinian land under the pretext of building a security wall and pursues his own militaristic and unsuccessful war on terror. Meanwhile, Bush pretends not to notice. The result of this hypocrisy is that in the places where al-Qaida needs legitimacy in order to generate money and recruits, Britain and America are losing the propaganda battle hands-down.
The neocons are loud in their denunciations of anyone who argues that an attempt to reduce the popular resentments that inflame Muslim opinion must be an integral part of any successful counter-terrorism campaign. To even suggest it is a “reward for terror” and an act of “appeasement.” But the obligatory references to the 1930s and the neocons’ obsession with Churchill illustrate how profoundly they have misconceived the nature of the threat.
Those who devised the classic counter-insurgency method during the wars of decolonisation understood the difference between fighting a state and fighting a guerrilla movement. Through experience, these military men realised that an insurgency must be defeated in the political sphere. The neocons dismiss this as liberal bunk but, like their chicken-hawk president, most of them have not so much as grazed a knee in defence of their country.
Blair, to be fair, always wanted to pursue the war on terror primarily as a campaign to win hearts and minds. His speech to the Labour conference in the shadow of 9/11 was visionary in its desire to deal with the grievances on which terrorism feeds. It was only later this instinct was repressed by an even stronger desire to stand with Bush. It is this false hierarchy of priorities for which he must be blamed.
Blair has paid a heavy price for his determination to avoid turbulence in the special relationship by setting out tougher conditionality for Britain’s support. As things stand, his legacy may be to go down in history as co-author of a war on terror that left us more vulnerable than ever. A Kerry victory in the presidential election may be his last opportunity to escape that fate. Any embarrassment he might feel at the electoral defeat of another Iraq ally would be replaced by a sense of relief at America’s return to the multilateral fold and the possibility it would create for a war on terror that might succeed in reducing terrorism.
David Clark was a special adviser at the UK Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001.
Copyright 2004 The Guardian. Reprinted with permission of the author.