War talk

A war against terrorism works well in words - but the reality is proving more problematic.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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So far, President George W Bush seems to be having a good war. He is benefiting from overwhelming approval ratings at home, and unprecedented levels of support abroad.

For the first time in history, NATO has invoked Article 5 – the declaration that an attack on one member state will be considered an attack against them all. Bush has created an amazing international alliance consisting not only of the USA’s usual friends, but also of many of its erstwhile foes in the Middle East.

But the war of words is one thing. As the time for action moves closer, there are some problems emerging.

After the horrific terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the world’s biggest superpower has had to respond, and to respond strongly. Bush’s language has certainly reflected this – as the days have gone by, his speeches have become more and more bellicose. This gesture militarism is primarily for domestic consumption and playing very well. But it contains more problems when translated into a real war against persons unknown elsewhere in the world.

While Bush has talked up the need for a war against terrorism, and the scale of such a war, it has become increasingly unclear what this war is, and what, practically, the USA should do. An initial attack appears to be in the offing – but in terms of the longer-term strategy, the press seems to announce a different plan every day.

To declare war on a state is one thing; to declare war on a shadowy network of individuals within one or more states is something else entirely. ‘The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends’, Bush told Congress on 20 September. ‘Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.’ (1)

This sounds good as rhetoric – but as a practical strategy, it is fraught with difficulties. How can the USA attack any nation state, in a war that is explicitly aimed against individual terrorists, without jeopardising the fragile new alliance with its Muslim and Arab friends? But how can it go to war at all, without attacking any nation state?

‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make’, declared Bush. ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.’ Yet when the terrorists are ill-defined and faceless, and when the USA has taken such pains to show it is at peace with its Arab and Muslim friends, how does it draw this kind of stark line between ‘us’ and ‘the terrorists’?

The USA has preoccupied itself with taking a hard response, against the right people. But the more it has searched for the right people to attack, the more difficult the USA has found it to take decisive action against them. And the more difficult Bush finds it to take decisive action, the more he cranks up his militaristic gestures – committing himself to a process that is difficult enough to see through in the short term, and in the long term is potentially destabilising.

One ironic consequence of Bush’s support from his former enemies is that this support makes his war against terrorism more complicated. The extent to which countries like Pakistan have pledged to help the USA – sometimes at a significant cost to their domestic stability – indicates just how little the terrorist actions of 11 September had to do with the politics of the Muslim world. But maintaining alliances with Islamic countries against what are presumed to be Islamic terrorists cannot be easy.

This tension has come out most starkly in relation to the Taliban, Afghanistan’s ruling militia. Even the Taliban has proved unexpectedly cooperative with the USA’s demands – not squaring up to the USA, but calling upon Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. George Bush has attempted to brush over this conciliatory approach, and has indicted the Taliban regime for ‘sponsoring and sheltering and supplying terrorists’ and ‘aiding and abetting murder’ – before presenting it with a list of demands with which no regime would comply, and which ‘are not open to negotiation or discussion’. Yet at the same time, he took pains to state that ‘the United States respects the people of Afghanistan’.

In Afghanistan, it seems, Bush has finally found a nation state (if Afghanistan can still be talked of in those terms) that he can hold responsible for the terrorist attacks of 11 September. To an extent, he can cite the failure of diplomacy – in other words, the refusal of Afghanistan to do exactly what it is told – as the cover for any military action the USA might want to take.

But in emphasising the fact that the problem lies with terrorists, not nation states or people, the Bush administration has opened a can of worms. How does it now go to war with Afghanistan, and still confirm its respect for the Afghan people?

Bush has been keen to stress, all along, that his war against terrorism goes way beyond simply bringing Osama bin Laden to book. ‘Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there’, he told Congress. ‘It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.’ Again, this plays very well at home – but as a diplomatic and military reality, it is problematic. How will nation states that pledged their support for the USA immediately following 11 September react to this broader demand: that any country in which there are terrorists opens itself up totally to the USA?

The attack on the USA was not a direct consequence of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. But it is certain that retaliations led by the USA against the Middle East will not stabilise things there – regardless of the current paper ceasefire. The USA cannot expect to expand its role as global policeman to the extent it has suggested without being met with some resistance; and as it seeks to make nation states put their domestic interests aside in order to prove themselves on the side of the angels, it is likely to unleash some new and unpredictable tensions. And history tells us that even gesture militarism has blood on its hands.

The further things go, the harder it is to imagine that even NATO will maintain an absolute consensus. The Western alliance was quick to rally around Bush on the principle of going to war on terrorism, but cracks are already beginning to appear when it comes to the specifics of the response.

The final outcome of all this remains unpredictable, but the underlying tensions are already clear enough. The immediate effect of Bush’s ‘good war’ has been a substantive boost to the moral authority of America in the world. In the longer term, however, the more disintegrative forces unleashed by this crisis are likely to be hard to contain.

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Topics Politics


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