Philip Stephens: False comfort from words of war

Financial Times

September 10, 2004

The language of politics is too often the enemy of intelligent judgment. The simple slogan obscures more than it illuminates. Three years on from the horrors of September 11 2001 and a week after the murderous attack on the schoolchildren of Beslan, everyone knows what the politicians mean when they talk about the war on terrorism. Yet for all its apparent clarity, the phrase is a dangerous mis-description, a source of convenient self-delusion for political leaders and of false comfort for the rest of us.

Part of the confusion arises because the word terrorism describes a tactic rather than an enemy. The problem, though, runs deeper than this obvious linguistic imprecision. A declaration of war invites the conclusion that it is the sole legitimate response. Everything else has been tried and failed; to suggest otherwise is appeasement.

Terrorists, this characterisation continues, are all the same. Eta in Spain, Hamas on the West Bank, dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland, militants in Kashmir and Chechen separatists in the Caucasus - all must be lumped together with the al-Qaeda jihadists who brought down New York's twin towers. There is good and evil, and nothing in between; no place for careful calibrations or for political engagement.

Thus Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, declared this week that critics of Moscow's repression in Chechnya might as well suggest Osama bin Laden be invited for a cosy chat at the White House, asked for his demands and then handed them: No one has the moral right to tell us to talk to childkillers. Instead, Mr Putin has joined America's George W. Bush in asserting the right to launch pre-emptive attacks against the terrorists at any time and anywhere.

At this point, I suspect that one or two of my regular correspondents will be reaching for their keyboards . . . You Europeans have always been soft on terrorism; you have suffered nothing like the attacks on New York and Washington; you have never understood the difference between principle and pragmatism; and, past experience tells me, worse.

So before I am deluged with criticism, let me be clear. The destruction of al-Qaeda bases and the removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan were necessary and right. The mistake made in that country has been a failure to commit sufficient resources, military and financial, to complete the task (and, incidentally, find Mr bin Laden) and to assure Afghanistan of a stable future.

Military force, sometimes massive force, is a vital part of the struggle against those Islamist extremists whose ambition is the destruction of civilised values; and, yes, the aims and psychology of many of these people put them beyond reasoned dialogue. But to say that is not to escape the less palatable truth that terrorists are not all the same, that their objectives differ and, unforgiveable as their tactics are, their support is sometimes rooted in legitimate political grievance. History is a guide here. Look around the world and people who were once labelled terrorists have become respected political leaders in places as far apart as South Africa, Ireland and Israel.

Mr Putin, of course, is not alone in dismissing such obvious realities. Having coined the phrase after September 11 2001, Mr Bush has made the war on terrorism the central plank of his campaign for re-election. With truly breathtaking cynicism, Dick Cheney, the vice-president, has gone many steps further. To Mr Cheney's mind, John Kerry's advocacy of a broader strategy to fight the terrorists is tantamount to treason. If the Democratic contender wins the November election, the vice-president said this week: The danger is we'll get hit again.

The truth is probably the opposite. There have been important military victories over al-Qaeda. The combination of aggressive use of force, improved intelligence and tighter domestic security has undoubtedly thwarted many attacks. But in the medium to long term, such victories will dissolve into defeats for as long as the jihadists find fertile recruiting grounds in the Islamic world.

Emotionally, Mr Putin's words struck a chord. Who could contemplate trying to reason with the wickedness of the terrorists in Beslan? This, though, is a diversion. Douglas Hurd, a former British foreign secretary, explained why in a lecture last night dedicated to the memory of Stephen Lawn, one of the British victims of September 11 2001. Hard power is needed to deal with those who have already turned to murder. But soft power is essential to prevent fresh recruits to murder . . . No steps could do more to outwit today's terrorists than serious efforts to establish in Chechnya, Palestine and Iraq governments which are supported, or at least accepted by, the bulk of the population. I would add Afghanistan to that list.

This is what Mr Cheney calls treachery. But even as the death toll of American soldiers killed in Iraq rises above 1,000, the US administration has yet to learn the simple lesson of Falluja. That city was never a centre of Islamist extremism. It became one because the US followed faithfully the vice-president's dictum that force is the only answer.

I have struggled and failed to find a slogan to replace the war on terrorism. That is because the real world demands all those challenging, complex things - nation-building, brokering peace deals, listening and learning, talking to past enemies, compromising - that politicians find too difficult and voters puzzle to understand. But if we keep on talking about a war, we are destined to lose it.