Martin Wolf: We embrace Putin at our peril

By Martin Wolf

Financial Times

Published: September 22 2004

When an author articulates views that resonate in the government of the world's greatest power, he deserves attention. When the position he expounds is dangerous, he deserves a response. In an article that appeared on the FTs Comment page on September 8 about the massacre of schoolchildren in Beslan, William Kristol, the influential editor of the neoconservati ve publication, The Weekly Standard, provided such an analysis of the terrorist threat. This is my response.

The arguments provided by Mr Kristol are beguilingly simple. We, the forces of civilisation, are confronted by barbarism and should regard jihadist terror - the impulse at work in Beslan - as comparable to the genocidal totalitarianism of a Hitler or a Stalin. We should condemn as appeasers those who seek to address the causes of terrorist acts and place pursuit of the war against terror ahead of a search for a "better diplomacy". We must, above all, join in common cause against our terrorist foes.

What is wrong with these views? Almost everything, is the answer. Mr Kristol is wrong to place the Russia of Vladimir Putin among the forces of civilisation, and is mistaken in regarding Russia as a valuable ally in the struggle ahead. He misunderstands the war against terror. He is misleading in his comparison between the war against the jihadis and that waged against the totalitarian states of the mid-20th century. He is misguided in downplaying the role of diplomacy. He is, in short, displaying an attitude and propounding a strategy that is more likely to increase than reduce the dangers we confront. Let us start with Russia's onslaught on Chechnya. In the wars fought under Boris Yeltsin and Mr Putin, some estimates put the number of Chechens dead at 250,000, while the population of Chechnya is thought to have fallen from 1.25m to some 500,000. Who can seriously consider a state prepared to wage so murderous a war against its own citizens an ally in the struggle against genocidal barbarism, rather than a perpetrator?

Mr Putin's road to power is paved with Chechen corpses. The bombings that preceded his first election and then as conveniently ceased gave him the presidency. Since then, a cycle of repression, Chechen revenge and Russian retaliation has marked Mr Putin's accretion of arbitrary sway over his country. This war is giving Mr Putin the victory he seeks in the struggle that matters to him: the one for absolute power in Russia. It is an outcome we should detest, achieved by means we must abhor.

The Chechens, we are told, are terrorists. That is, apparently, sufficient justification for the atrocities. But just imagine the response if the UK had used the same excuse for laying waste to Ireland in the late-20th century. Russia's savagery has, inevitably, radicalised the Chechen population and turned the war for national independence of a people who happen to be Muslims into one marked by religious fanaticism. Who can be surprised? And who living in cosy security can be sure of their response to so brutal an onslaught on those they love?

Now consider our understanding of the struggle we are engaged in. A war against terror is absurd. One cannot fight abstract nouns. To declare war against any or all terrorists is lunacy. It would put the west on the side of thugs over whose actions it has no control. Even to declare a war against all terrorists with an Islamic tinge is mistaken, as it risks open-ended western engagement in purely local conflicts with Muslim populations.

The parallel with the great wars of the 20th century is equally foolish. Hitler controlled the resources of a state. By defeating that state, the danger could be ended. For the same reason, it was right to remove a Taliban regime that supported the jihadists. But Islamist terrorists can operate without states. All they need is supportive Muslim populations. The surest way of increasing that support - indeed of turning this struggle into an unwinnable war against much of the Islamic world - is to take as allies regimes with marked contempt for Muslim lives.

A struggle against terrorists cannot be won by military means. If it could, the conflict would already be over, so great is US conventional preponderance. This struggle can ultimately be won only in the hearts and minds of Muslims. The populations inclined to support the jihadists must come to view them as the greater, not lesser, of two evils. A close alliance with Mr Putin's Russia can only achieve the opposite.

The condemnation of those who oppose US policies as "appeasers" is worse then merely unfair. To appease the jihadists is, indeed, futile. But to oppose wars that are irrelevant to the central conflict, as in Iraq, or are sure to make it worse, as in Chechnya, is not appeasement. It is intelligent discrimination between what is likely to contribute to the struggle and what will not. Close embrace of the Russian regime is an excellent way to lose the war for Muslim opinion and so, ultimately, the war itself. "This war cannot wait for better diplomacy," says Mr Kristol again.

The truth is the opposite. It can be won only with better diplomacy. Containment of the terrorists and transformation of the conditions that create them are possible only with the concerted support of both states and ordinary people. Intelligent di plomacy is, for this reason, no limp-wristed diversion from the war against terror but an inescapable component.

If the past year in Iraq has not convinced US neoconservatives of the limits of wars that are not accompanied by sensitive diplomacy, nothing can. But the rest of us are allowed to be more responsive to experience. We can recognise the obvious: an ill-focused war against terror cannot defeat jihadi terrorists. But it can all too easily increase the support they receive and so the danger they pose.

In the contempt he pours on French appeasement and the indifference he displays towards Russian atrocities, Mr Kristol conveys perfectly the arrogance towards dissent with the overriding anxiety towards terrorism that characterises the present administration. He calls for grief, anger and solidarity. Why not try intelligence, instead? To pity innocent Russian children is right. To embrace the butcher of the Chechens as an ally in the struggle against barbarism is to risk losing our souls, not just the struggle against the Islamists.