The Politics of Disaster

What is the point of spending billions of dollars - or pounds, or even euros - on intelligence services, and having highly experienced advisors on every conceivable subject, if the only criterion for policy is what will appease the electorate? Rule by focus group and by opinion poll is bad enough when only domestic policy is involved but now, since the appalling events of 11th September, it could involve us all in a futile and dangerous war.

Terrorism is unacceptable in all its guises, particularly when it targets civilians, and the attacks on the USA were appalling and horrific in their enormity. No cause, however plausible and even if completely just, can justify killing 6,000 civilians in such a cataclysmic attack. In raw emotional terms the immediate popular demand for revenge and retribution is understandable, but in political terms it is wholly misguided. Have the Americans learned nothing from their experience in Vietnam? And why is Tony Blair pursuing a totally opposite policy in Northern Ireland to that which he now supports with George W Bush in relation to Afghanistan? Does no politician ever draw any lessons from forty years of conflict in the Middle East? This alliance of western militarism currently appears likely to press on inexorably into a morass in which soldiers and civilians continue to be killed year after year and from which no-one will know how to extricate themselves.

Virtually every comment and every action since the attacks has exacerbated the situation. "Bin Laden - Dead or Alive" may play well in Texas but to the Islamic world it characterises the American attitude to justice in relation to those it decides are guilty. Launching a "crusade" may sound innocent to naive American ears but it has hugely provocative historical significance to Muslim ears. To continue along the hawkish path will be completely counter productive and will recruit more terrorists determined to repeat their spectacular "success". All the proposed increased security at airports and internal surveillance is simply window dressing to make the public feel that "something is being done". It will not prevent it happening again - particularly in a country made up of immigrants from every community on the globe.

The Americans have suffered a catastrophic blow. The mainland of the USA has been successfully attacked for the first time in its history, and the myth of the USA's territorial invulnerability has been shattered for ever. All its sophisticated defence and intelligence systems were futile in the face of such an action. American politics, indeed American life, will never be the same again. It will be etched indelibly into its collective memory, even when this generation has passed on. But, paradoxically, the events of 11 September may be so gross and enormous that they could, within a reasonable time, bring a rethink of US foreign policy, but only if it does not get completely bogged down in an unwinnable and inextricable military struggle against "terrorism", however that may be defined territorially.

The nature of the attacks on New York and on the Pentagon were, in their way, copies - multiplied a thousand times - of the recent attacks by Palestinian militants in Israel. The method used, the suicide bomber, is a concept impossible to accommodate within our mental and emotional limitations, but its very irrationality renders it impossible completely to guard against. Throughout history guerilla warfare has been the natural tactic of those with a cause but who face overwhelming military forces. It was the weapon of the Maquis - and much commemorated for it - against their German occupiers. It was effective on the grand scale against the Americans in Vietnam, and, significantly, against the Russians in Afghanistan. It was used by African liberation movements against their colonial oppressors, and it is used today by Palestinian "extremists" against their Israeli occupiers. It was the weapon of the IRA against Britain in Ireland. Where in the history of the world is there an example of such indigenous action being defeated by outside military might? It can be diminished and territory can be "ethnically cleansed" or even obliterated but, in the end, it reappears in the next town, the next province, or the next house - as the Russians are still discovering in Chechnya - with still more militants recruited by the very action designed to wipe them out.

It is not even a question of whether the cause for which the militants are prepared to sacrifice themselves is accepted as legitimate by the Americans or by anyone else, but rather what is an effective means of engaging with those who espouse it so passionately, in order to avoid it having to be promoted by such terrible means. If all that the Western allies have is military might then they are indeed weak. Such hardware is a poor substitute for the power of diplomacy, argument and persuasion. The ability to bomb Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Serbia and Kosovo is no proof of a just cause. Even the language used in the aftermath of 11 September is ill chosen. The definition of "civilised" as what the USA is and does, is grossly offensive to those countries thus portrayed as uncivilised when they have a cultural heritage way, way older than that of the States, which - as these countries well recall - slaughtered two million native Americans en route to its "civilisation".

Those politicians who, as early as 1948, surveyed the wreckage of three Franco-German wars within seventy years, then began the task of building a Europe in which the two time dishonoured enemies would be so intertwined that war again between them would be impossible. European union is still unfinished business, but its original catalyst is worth pointing out to those currently suffering across the Atlantic. Fifty years later we take western European peace for granted but in 1948 emotions were as powerful as today in America, and the enmities were as raw. I have worked in enough different countries to know how similar human beings are from whatever background and tradition they spring, and I have enough American colleagues to know that their country's belligerence does not represent all its citizens.

To turn around the present situation is actually very easy! It simply requires a leader of stature. The transformations of recent years have been largely brought about by a Gorbachev, a de Klerk, a Rabin, and even a Trimble, being prepared to say that what has gone before for so long does not work and will have to be changed. At some point all those western governments that are even now talking of military strikes, of increasing repressive policies, considering identity cards and putting armed guards on 'planes, will have to deal with the disease itself and not its symptoms. Why are these passionate individuals prepared to blow themselves up for their cause? Why Israel? Why the USA? Unless and until political rigour replaces military might - or rather impotence - terrorism will thrive.

The task for Liberals is to be sensitive to the effects of 11 September on the USA but to point out gently but firmly that removing injustice is the way forward, not dropping bombs.

30 September 2001