No national answer to international terrorismn

The terrorist attacks on Egyptian hotels catering for Israeli tourists just across the Red Sea from the Sinai take international terrorism into yet another dimension. The continuing wave of kidnappings in Iraq and their consequent atrocities beg the searing question to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, "did you envisage what is happening today when you embarked on the invasion of Iraq?" Any answer - yes or no, or an equivocation - will reveal a great deal.

The conflict has become its own imperative. Just as the Vietnam war sucked in more and more troops and continued for a number of years because the USA could not face up to the implications of admitting the original mistake, increasingly the argument for the ongoing disaster that is Iraq is the necessity to make a success of the invasion. In other words, having destroyed the governing structure of the country, the Americans and the Brits have to stay on in the hope that a new administration will emerge out of the electoral process and that stability will somehow arrive for the poor Iraqis. I doubt it. The question of whether the people of Iraq are better off with the removal of Saddam Hussain is facile. Of course they are. But the question that requires asking is how high is the price of that removal and for how long has it to be paid.

It is no coincidence that terrorism finds ever changing ways of attacking its perceived enemies nor that the targets themselves have no real understanding of how to combat the globalisation of terror. The knee jerk reaction of American and European governments to atrocities is to declaim their commitment to the "war" on terrorism and to pull up their national drawbridges ever higher. Essentially, their actions are a response to the last attack not a means of averting the next. The mindset, typified by the use of the word "war", is of an enemy traditionally being one state threatening another, whereas Al Qu'aeda is a network not a state, and is not harboured by a particular state, and does not rely on the support of any specific state. No wonder that the "war" is failing.

Look at the consequences of present Western attitudes. Accurate intelligence is hard to come by. Infiltration is exceptionally difficult. The reception and analysis of electronic messages has been shown to be logistically overwhelming and flawed in interpretation. As the IRA commented after the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton: "we only have get it right once, you have to get it right every time." Alas, that is correct, and on 11 September 2001 it was proved vividly so in New York.

In typical fashion, the Americans clutched each other ever more tightly and retreated into fortress USA, with draconian restrictions on civil liberties and a search for scapegoats that still keeps over 1,500 detainees in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay.

The present American attitude to the Islamic world - including its own Muslim citizens - fed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, has vivid echoes of the fear of the Soviet Union that lead to the McCarthyist paranoia towards communism in the 1950s. Then the junior Senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, chaired the "Committee on Un-American Activities", and pursued a witch hunt of presumed communists and fellow travellers. The sole consequence was a diminished American reputation in the world, a lot of ruined careers and many emigrants to Europe. It did nothing to reduce the Soviet threat to world peace. It took the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev almost thirty years later to achieve that.

Talking tough and imposing draconian restrictions on personal freedom and on immigration may look good and, conceivably, might work at the ballot box, but, by dealing with symptoms not causes, they are ineffective.

What, then, can be done? First and foremost, a solution to the Middle East conflict ensuring a secure and viable future for the Palestinians will remove a specific provocation. The USA's one- sided support for Israel undermines all its efforts to broker a peace deal. It also guarantees the continuing insecurity of Israel and makes the USA more of a target for Al Qu'aeda. Second, to allow full legal representation to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay and to bring them into a legitimate legal process. This will remove another visible provocation. Third, to accept the errors inherent in the invasion of Iraq and of the continuing occupation - in practice if not in theory. Support for UN leadership of a large peace-making and peace-keeping force, drawn mainly from countries with Muslim majorities, accompanied by a rapid reduction in US forces, will improve the status of those organising the transition to a legitimate democratic government in Iraq.

Fourth, support for the United Nations generally, so that the world community is drawn actively into the forum for debate and action on the economic and social conditions that assist the recruitment of terrorists. Fifth, support and encouragement for steps towards democracy in countries with Muslim majorities. The American branding of Iran as part of the "axis of evil" caused an inevitable backlash and undermined the tentative but incrementally progressive policies of President Khatami and strengthened the influence of the mullahs and imams. It would have been far better to have recognised the progress made. In Iraq, contrary to all the rhetoric on "regime change", the northern fifth of the country had already had its regime change over a decade earlier when the Kurds set up their own democratic autonomous region and kept Sadam Hussain at bay - with no help on the ground from the West. The opportunity was missed to assist this initiative as an example to other Iraqis.

Sixth, the West needs to ponder the effects of the theologically unsound efforts to brand the USA and the EU as "Christian" and instead it should emphasise the secular nature of the state, and support the few Islamic organisations that advocate a similar prescription. Lastly, and most difficult, Western lifestyles, characterised by an Islamic spokesman as an obsession with sex, booze and cash, are deeply unattractive and are a catalyst for young Muslims to become involved with extremist groups. Now, there's a challenge for us paid up hedonists.

10 October 2004