Every war must end. To emerge as a victor presupposes a clear political idea of what constitutes victory. Without reliable and fixed political targets to define the limits of the war how will we know how the war is going, let alone if we have won? To win wars it is not enough to simply fight, you need to know when you have fought enough.
The recent Presidential election could be considered a referendum on the war on terror as it has hitherto been conducted. The Bush administration claims that over 75 per cent of al-Qaida’s strength has been depleted and that together with Saddam Hussein’s removal there are strong signs that America is winning the war on terror. The claim that “75 per cent” of al-Qaida has been eliminated requires the condition of a static universe. However, the world is never static. Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and elsewhere has certainly been disrupted. However the rising number of terror attacks worldwide attributable to it or its affiliates is surely an indication that it has capably reorganised and raised new recruits.
Treating the war in Afghanistan with that in Iraq as synonymous is a leap of political imagination. The 9-11 Congressional Commission has commented that there was no evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and the perpetrators of the attacks on 9-11 nor have any weapons of mass destruction been discovered. Yet blood and money is being spent in Iraq for a cause, which has become conflated, without basis, with the war on terror. What had been a successful and justified retaliation against the perpetrators of the attacks on the USS Cole, the Embassy bombings in Africa and the 9-11 attacks took a radical turn into an open ended conflict, most visibly with the invasion of Iraq. The miscalculation on how successful that war would be is still playing itself out, a year after the invasion and over three years since 9-11.
This is not to deny that terrorism must at some level be met with the threat of force. Indeed, effective violent suppression measures are a key tool in the fight against extremists. Intelligence infiltration and covert action are also ugly but essential weapons against the shadow warriors of terrorism. However, so are diplomacy, education, economic progress and civil stability. The Bush administration seems to place the ideology of democracy ahead of these fundamental measures of persuasion.
It believes that the “elixir” of democracy is enough to cure the evils of terrorism, religious fundamentalism and even anti-Americanism. While it is possible to agree intellectually that democracy is the most empowering political agency available, the Bush administration appears to be blind to the damage the violent methods required in this case to give birth to democracy, do to the cause. In other words, means matter as much as the ends.
Democracy where it is an indigenously generated political action has a standing chance of taking root and consolidating. However, democracy where it is imposed and engineered from without can prove to be stillborn. Even the seemingly positive outcome of the recent Afghanistan Presidential electoral process can be misleading. It took place under the guarantee of American political, economic and military support. What will happen when this is gone? How firmly can President Kharzai govern his provinces? Add to this ambiguity the fact that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, has not been occupied.
The violence in Iraq is operating politically at many levels. Only the most obvious is aimed at the America and coalition forces. Less clear is the internal struggle between religious factions to achieve political dominance. In between these layers of contest, transnational terrorists in the al-Qaida mould, function to radicalise the religious base towards its own grand strategy ends. As with the Johnson administration and Vietnam in the 1960s, the current administration refuses to allow the contention that the insurgents are nationalists and insists on lumping all together as “terrorists” and “killers”. The result is to obscure the political dichotomy between the world the administration is spending money and blood to achieve and the world that walks the streets of Iraq each day. It also focuses on the battle at the expense of winning the war.
America and its allies are faced with the prospect of an open-ended commitment to a war defined only on the loosest of terms. There is a palpable sense of America being a hammer perennially in search of nails to pound to the tune of national security. Recent administration reports on Iran’s nuclear ambitions eerily echo the drum beats which preceded the drive to Iraq. It is imperative that several active measures should be taken to bring definition to the administration’s policy of leadership through violent challenge.
First and foremost, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is important to step back from framing the war simply in terms of a contest of ideologies. It gives the political initiative to the terrorists who advocate violence based on an ideology. As the terrorists urge Jihad, the administration trumpets democracy. The example of Iraq should be sufficient to illustrate the costs of democracy delivered at the end of a gun barrel. Only such a bold commitment to rise above the easy reach of the sword can give America the moral authority vital to win. Defining the challenge in those terms automatically situates historical partners in the Middle East, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as the other.
At present, that commitment may well mean choosing the New Testament teachings of forgiveness over the Old Testament demands of revenge. First, there is a need, however difficult or unpalatable to the Christian right supporters of the Bush administration, to embrace the Islamic world in an effort to reach common cause and to seek peaceful means to disable terrorists and remove terrorism of its perceived moral authority. This would involve fundamental reform in Middle Eastern countries, which they will resist, and will involve an investment in a long-term, complex strategy of consensus building on the part of America.
Second, the international community should stand ready to share part of the “frictional costs” of that change, which will include diplomatic, economic, social and political measures to support greater understanding and co-operation between the Islamic world and the West. Needless to say, the terrorists would attempt to politically frustrate the process through violent action. This would reflect not their strength, but their weakness in the face of approaches, which will cut them off at the knees.
Third, Congress should compel the President to define the political limits of the war. It should not allow itself to be pacified by the stock refrains of the “whatever it takes to keep America safe” songbook. These may have been sung well in elections but these hymns are siren calls leading to a rocky future.
Fourth, the American people should develop the political sophistication to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. One represents love of a country’s ideals, the other merely the love of the idea of country. Independent thought can be crippled by the dead hand of blind loyalty if the two concepts are treated as synonymous. It is possible to be patriotic without being captured by the rhetoric of war at every challenge to national pride.
How realisable are these measures? It is certainly easier to be more pessimistic than optimistic. However , without a sense of finality we risk the war degenerating from being a means to an end to being merely an end. At which point, victory may well be indistinguishable from defeat. Upon reelection Mr Bush spoke proudly about his intention to spend the political capital he has amassed. Let the country and international community urge him to spend it on promoting a lasting peace rather than provoking an endless war.