When John Howard sent Australian troops to Iraq last year, without the approval of the UN and against the wishes of most Australians, he promised us that this would help make Australia and the world safe from terrorism. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration assured Americans the war would not become a Vietnam-like quagmire, and Pentagon officials predicted a maximum six-month occupation.
Last week, as the Japanese, US and other governments faced the horrible dilemma posed by the kidnapping of their citizens, Howard insisted the only way to defeat terrorism was to "stand firm". "At the present time," he said, "any talk of withdrawal or any weakening of resolve or commitment will only encourage a repetition and extension of this kind of behaviour."
A US military spokesman put the point more bluntly. The US-led coalition, he said, does not respond to or negotiate with terrorists. They only "seek to capture or kill them".
They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
It sounds so persuasive, so morally right, this appeal to "stand firm" in the face of cruel acts of kidnapping and bombing. Ever since the distant days of the hostage-takings at the 1972 Munich Olympics, conventional wisdom has taught us that responsible governments do not cut deals with terrorists. To do so, we have been told, will only encourage the terrorists to further acts of violence.
That position made perfect sense in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, when terrorism was still primarily a criminal issue, punished through the judicial system. But it does not make sense today.
Everything changed the moment the US and its allies decided that the massive use of conventional military might was the only way to defeat terrorism.
As critics of this strategy predicted from the start, its result has been a vicious cycle. Even the most "pin-point" targeting of presumed terrorists causes death and destruction to many innocent people, and this destruction in turn creates a widening basis of support for violent retaliation.
In recent days, between 470 and 600 Iraqis, many of them women and children and many of them unconnected to the attacks on US personnel, are believed have been killed by coalition forces in Fallujah alone. Does anyone seriously believe this is creating a basis for a stable democracy in Iraq? The US military strategy in Iraq is like pouring water on burning oil: the more you quench the fire, the more it spreads.
As a result, the US and its allies are now facing what might be called "the Ariel Sharon paradox". In a war where the enemy is not a state but an assortment of groups using tactics such as kidnapping and suicide bombing, refusal to deal with any terrorist means there can never be any communication with the enemy. Peace can never be negotiated. Violence can only be answered by violence.
In a war with a non-state enemy, terrorist acts cease to be isolated acts of extreme protest. Instead, they become the very means by which the war is fought. There is, therefore, never a "right moment" for a change of course or a scaling down of the military presence. Adherence to the conventional wisdom of "standing firm" means the troops must stay there indefinitely. War must be fought to the bitter end: and that end, if it ever comes, is likely to be very bitter indeed.
In the 21st century, the most courageous act is not an endless repetition of the mantra "we will stand firm against terrorism". The most courageous act is to recognise past failures of intelligence and strategy, and look for alternatives.
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