For George W Bush’s proclaimed “global war on terror”, this has been a week to remember – but also a week that should make us challenge the basic assumptions behind this so-called “war”.
Last Tuesday, the world commemorated the sixth anniversary of 9/11, when the ultimate totems of America’s capitalist pride, the 110-storey Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, were attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists using hijacked airliners as guided missiles, and then, with the world watching on TV, collapsed one by one like broken Lego.
It was this stunning event which goaded President Bush into declaring his “global war on terror”.
But the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, was nothing like Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, when the entire American battle fleet was sunk or crippled by a mass air attack by another great power, Japan.
No matter how sensational its impact, 9/11 still remains a terrorist outrage perpetrated by a mere 19 men armed with Stanley knives.
Nor had the attack been masterminded, like Pearl Harbour, by the government of a foreign state, but simply by an Islamist fanatic and a handful of co-conspirators.
So for Bush to declare “war” on Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda was actually to exaggerate their importance – and glorify their actions. Worse, it was his declaration of “war” that led in 2001 to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and, in 2003, to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
As it happens, this week has also been marked by Bush’s speech in which he said 5,700 US troops would be brought home from Iraq by the end of the year, followed by a gradual withdrawal up to next July.
There was also General David Petraeus’s report to Congress on how the “war” is going in Iraq four-and-a-half years after Bush’s own bragging announcement of “Mission Accomplished”.
Of course, Petraeus asserted that the new offensive against Iraqi insurgents (now all conveniently dubbed “Al Qaeda”) is going well, even if the insurgents may well have simply shifted out of the way of his 168,000 Darth Vader-style storm troops.
“Give me another six months,” says Petraeus, and the chance of one last military heave, and success would at last be won.
Success? While Petraeus was being subjected to sharp questioning this week by Republicans as well as Democrats, he could only offer the hope that by next summer – five years after “Mission Accomplished” – American forces in Iraq could be cut back to 130,000, the total before the current “surge”.
But let us recall that at the beginning of 2004 – repeat, 2004 – the Pentagon was proposing to reduce the 135,000 men then in Iraq to 105,000. In the bosoms of the American military and the Washington political hawks, hope certainly springs eternal.
The truth is that Petraeus has simply been using a temporary and doubtful tactical success in order to conceal long-term strategic failure.
In any case, whatever Petraeus achieves on the ground will be irrelevant because of the hopeless disarray, the utter impotence, of the Al-Maliki government in Baghdad. At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush and Co expected to create a strong and stable democratic regime. Instead, they have brought about a failed state.
And the human cost of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”? The total number of American servicemen and women killed in action already amounts to 3,826, with 168 British forces having been killed. And between 500,000 and 600,000 Iraqi men, women and children have died. What’s more, since Saddam fell, four million Iraqis have become refugees, either inside Iraq or beyond.
Meanwhile this week, another two British soldiers have been killed by the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, bringing the total British losses since 2001 to 78.
The occupation of Afghanistan in November 2001 was the first bitter fruit of that “global war on terror” declared by Bush in the hour of America’s rage and fright after 9/11.
When the Taliban regime refused to surrender Osama Bin Laden or shut his Al Qaeda training camps, Bush and Co decided that the only answer was to topple the Taliban, take over the country and convert its tribes and warlords to democracy.
So six years on, we have North Atlantic – repeat, North Atlantic – Treaty Organisation forces attempting to defeat a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a struggle which some soldiers estimate could last ten years or more.
And while in Iraq “democracy” has meant a government whose writ hardly runs beyond the Baghdad “Green Zone”, so in Afghanistan it has meant the government of Mohammed Karzai, whose writ hardly runs beyond Kabul.
This sixth anniversary of 9/11 has also been commemorated by Osama Bin Laden himself, popping up on a new video in order to praise the “martyrs” who carried out the attack, and to call on America and the West to convert to Islam.
No doubt as intended, the tape sharply reminds us that Al Qaeda has not been crushed by the loss of its Afghan bases.
The truth is that despite Bush’s “war on terror” and the American-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, Islamist terrorism has continued to seethe and bubble across the world – and sometimes explode, as in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.
This summer, an attack on Glasgow Airport mercifully failed because of the terrorists’ own incompetence. And German counter-terrorism police foiled a plot (meant to mark the sixth anniversary of 9/11) which was aimed at truckbombing Frankfurt Airport and the US air base at Ramstein.
Yet the basic puzzle of 9/11 remains: exactly why did Osama Bin Laden decide to attack the World Trade Centre and other American targets?
It is clear enough that Bin Laden himself and Islamist militants everywhere are motivated by sheer hatred of America, her global hegemony and her materialist civilisation. This goes hand in hand with a passionate religious belief in the righteousness of the cause.
We’ve seen this in the videos of Bin Laden and of those young jihadists about to blow themselves up along with their fellow human beings.
But I have long thought that Bin Laden was also motivated by a specific strategic purpose in launching 9/11 – a wish to trap the United States into an ideological struggle with the Islamic world. He certainly succeeded in this – but only because Bush and his neo-con cronies have been all too willing to accept the challenge.
Why? Because just as much as Bin Laden and his fellow jihadists, they, too, see world affairs in simple terms of ideological conviction.
Remember, Bush and his vicepresident Dick Cheney are fundamentalist Christians, while Bush’s own political base lies in his fellow fundamentalists of the American ‘Bible belt’. And tragically for Britain, Tony Blair passionately shared Bush’s belief that world policy must be inspired by religious faith.
The grim truth is that when George W. Bush declared “a global war on terror”, he was really announcing a jihad of his own – a struggle to convert the whole world to American-style capitalist democracy.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Bush trumpeted to a tame audience of the American Legion that the U.S. was engaged in “the first ideological war of the 21st century”.
So we have two global jihads colliding head on. The collision has transformed world affairs from the cool-headed fixing of deals into an apocalyptic conflict between Good and Evil.
“We” are the righteous, while our chosen enemy is “the Axis of Evil” or “the Great Satan” (take your pick) with whom no compromise is possible, and against whom any violence is permissible.
Al Qaeda and its associated jihadists massacre the innocent to the cry of “Allah Akbar” (‘God is Great’). Meanwhile, President Bush launches “shock and awe” aerial onslaughts on Iraqi and Afghan villages and cities in the sure belief that Jesus Christ wants him to spread democracy around the world.
Yet belief in the righteousness of the cause is only the vehicle for something deeper and even more alarming. And that something is sheer emotion. We see it in jihadist books and preaching. We see it in Bush’s inflamed rhetoric. We saw it in the preachings of Tony Blair.
Such emotion is terrifyingly dangerous. The great German philosopher on war, Carl von Clausewitz, pointed out that the intensity of a conflict is determined by the importance of the political object at stake.
If the war is about some limited issue like ownership of a province or control of an economic asset, then the war itself will be limited in violence, extent and duration.
But wars have no such limits if they are fuelled by mutual hatred, or inspired by rival political or religious faiths, or fought for national survival. Instead, they will escalate to extremes.
All three of these factors were true of the titanic struggle to the death between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1941-45.
Now we see a comparable mutual hatred and fear – comparable fanatical beliefs – fuelling the current struggle between the two jihads of Bush and Bin Laden.
Here lies the peril for the future. For how can “the Axis of Evil” and “the Great Satan” negotiate a businesslike compromise on the basis of live-and-let-live?
Today, Iran has become the prime target of Bush’s ideological mission. He recently trumpeted: “We will confront this danger before it is too late. Either the forces of extremism succeed or the forces of freedom succeed. Either our enemies advance their interests in Iraq, or we advance our interests.”
In this inflamed rhetoric, echoing his rants in 2002 and 2003 about Saddam Hussein and his alleged development of weapons of mass destruction, we can hear the louder and louder beat of war drums.
It therefore seems that the disastrous consequences of American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught Bush nothing.
Nor has he learned the harsh lesson from history that launching a war in order to achieve an ideological objective can lead to horribly unintended consequences.
Hitler expected a sixweek walkover when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, only for the war to end four years later with his suicide in the ruins of his own capital, Berlin.
The lesson here – the lesson of all military history – is that war, no matter how passionate the belief in the righteousness of the cause, is inherently uncontrollable, its outcome quite unpredictable.
Now, during the present honeymoon of Gordon Brown’s premiership, is therefore surely the moment for Britain to revert from ideology to strategy as the guide to her own approach to world affairs. For example, we should stop regarding the Iranian regime as yet another “monster” to be confronted and, instead, negotiate with those more moderate ayatollahs.
In 1820, that outstandingly able Tory statesman, Lord Castlereagh, refused to join other European states in meddling in “the domestic upsets” (his words) of certain countries then in revolutionary turmoil.
He told the great powers that Britain “would not charge itself as a member of the Alliance with the moral responsibility of administering a general European police”.
For ‘European’ in 1820, substitute “global” today, and Castlereagh’s dictum still makes admirable good sense.
Very similar advice was given to the young United States in 1821 by John Quincy Adams: “We are friends of liberty everywhere, but we go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
If only George W. Bush would abandon his paranoid search for ideological monsters, we could all sleep more peacefully in our beds.
The true answer to Islamist jihad does not lie in Bush’s ideological counter-jihad, but in cool political heads and painstaking work by police forces and intelligence services across the world.