Never-ending war on terror obscures the real threats

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: June 25 2006

Sometimes the threats seem to be everywhere: we are menaced by a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, by the insurgency in Iraq, turmoil in Palestine, Iran’s nuclear programme, political instability in Pakistan, and failed African states such as Somalia. The list goes on. Conflict and chaos have coalesced in a virulent strain of Islamist fundamentalism.

Sometimes, you can be too afraid. Before we despair and, more dangerously, talk ourselves into the war of civilisations, it is worth remembering where we came from. Uncertainty may have deepened our insecurities but life was never safe. Those who think otherwise should read an eloquent lecture given the other day by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security adviser. The lecture* honoured the memory of Christopher Makins, a distinguished Atlanticist and past president of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

Mr Brzezinski recalled his time as national security adviser to Jimmy Carter more than one-quarter of a century ago. One of his tasks was to inform the president if the US was under nuclear attack. Mr Brzezinski had three minutes to verify the nature of the attack. The president had four minutes to decide the response. Six hours later some 160m people would be dead. Today’s perils are on nothing like that scale. They are amplified in our minds by the fact they are at once ubiquitous, imprecise and sometimes invisible. The enemies are simultaneously fragmented and connected, without and within. Should we be worrying about the successes of Islamists in Somalia or the radicalisation of young Muslims in the north of England?

The simplicity of mutually assured destruction has been replaced by the unpredictability of religious fundamentalism and the proliferation of unconventional weapons. We knew how to counter communism. Deterrence, containment and mutual restraint were strategies honed over decades. But how do you deter a suicide bomber armed with a nuclear or chemical weapon?

The cold war, though, was never as stable as it seems in retrospect. There was always the chance, as Mr Brzezinski remembers, of nuclear war by mishap, of a technical glitch or a missile exchange by miscalculation. The consequences would have been far more terrible than anything we can imagine today. This does not make the thought of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon seem less frightening. It does provide what Mr Brzezinski calls a sense of proportion.

The pressures on political leaders are otherwise. Complexity and uncertainty do not sell to voters. They expect a guarantee of absolute security. The shock delivered by the attacks on America in September 2001 and subsequent terrorist outrages across the world demanded of politicians a simple narrative.

So the myriad conflicts and threats to the west have been woven by George W. Bush into a Manichean struggle between good and evil, freedom and oppression. The “war against terrorism” has become all-embracing, in the US president’s description an ideological struggle comparable to the cold war.

Britain’s Tony Blair has chosen different language but has also emphasised the global dimension. The fight against violent extremism in London, Madrid or Paris, he said recently, was the same as that against Hezbollah in Lebanon or rejectionist groups in Iraq. The killing of school children in Beslan was inseparable from the taking of innocent lives in Saudi Arabia or Yemen. The clash was not one of civilisations, but it was one about civilisation.

You can see why political leaders speak in such terms. We are living through a period of immense political and ideological upheaval.
Mr Brzezinski speaks of something akin to the 18th century political awakening crystallised by the French Revolution – but this time on a global scale. An explosive mix of stirring political awareness, unleashed passions and anger and escalating aspirations is challenging the status quo across great swaths of the globe.

The rise of radical populism in much of the world coincides with the dismantling of national borders in the process we call globalisation. Ease and speed of travel, large-scale migration and instant global communication have connected disparate grievances and conflicts. Extreme Islam, al-Qaeda if you like, supplies the unifying ideology between jihadis in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq, rebels in Chechnya and many others. It then connects these groups to isolated and resentful Muslim communities in Europe. The internet gives a new and terrifying force to terrorism’s oldest weapon, the propaganda of the deed.

This world of multiplying frictions – economic, religious, cultural and ethnic – thus presents the west with a threat that is simultaneously distant and close up. With Islamist fundamentalism providing ideological glue, the inevitable temptation is to frame the threat as one rooted in a single global confrontation.

This is a mistake. As Mr Brzezinski says, painting the challenge in vague and sweeping terms may well serve as an encouragement to the Muslim world to unite against the west; and, I would add, to Muslim communities in Europe to take up the fight.

The global struggle paradigm too easily becomes an excuse for inaction, a distraction from some of the hard issues the west must confront. It deflects attention from the real grievances that feed the anger in much of the Arab world, cast the west in the role of a colonial power and give extreme Islam much of its force.

There are no easy solutions to the stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians, the sectarian war in Iraq, the revival of the Taliban or Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But, intractable as they may seem, these are problems that, over time, can be tackled by traditional methods of statecraft and diplomacy. Progress towards settling them would not snuff out the extremism of Osama bin Laden’s followers. It would, in that ugly but evocative phrase, begin to drain the swamp. What is required of the west – of the US above all – is even-handed engagement.

I am not among those who believe that today’s threats are largely in the imagination of our leaders; nor among the myopic isolationists who think that the west’s security lies in retreating from the Middle East. But the rhetoric of global confrontation, of titanic ideological struggles and never-ending wars against terror serve to obscure rather than illuminate the challenges. We should be less afraid and more engaged.