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Last Updated: Friday, 8 September 2006, 07:17 GMT 08:17 UK
'War on terror' loses clear direction
Paul Reynolds
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

President Bush making Salt Lake City speech
Bush in Salt Lake City: war must be won

In the five years since 9/11, a clear-cut and well-supported "war on terror" declared by President Bush has become confused and divisive.

Whereas Le Monde declared the day after 9/11: "We are all Americans now", a placard at a demonstration in London recently read: "We are all Hezbollah now".

American policy has had successes. The quick war in Afghanistan after 9/11 (now flaring up again in the south) toppled the Taleban and has denied al-Qaeda its training bases, which were important to it (base is what the word Qaeda means).

Al-Qaeda has lost much of its leadership. It has not toppled governments as it had hoped. Western forces have not left the Middle East, and in particular the government of Saudi Arabia, guardian of Mecca, which is probably Osama Bin Laden's ultimate target, stands.

Yet Western and other publics are left in fear, and rightly so. Al-Qaeda is no invention. Its impact - or that of its sympathisers - was seen not only in New York and Washington but in Bali, Madrid, London, Morocco, Istanbul and elsewhere.

The power of fear

Fear is a powerful motivating factor. Fear after 9/11 led to the Bush doctrine of the pre-emptive strike.

But this doctrine has not been endorsed by all.

Doubts, divisions and defections have developed among American allies. For many around the world, sympathy for the United States has changed into suspicion and, for some, even into hatred. The prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the treatment of prisoners, secret prisons and rendition flights all added to this feeling.

The changes just announced by President Bush - acknowledging and emptying the secret camps and other moves - might answer some criticism but not all and their overall effect remains to be seen.

Pessimism about Western tactics

Professor Michael Clarke of King's College, London, is gloomy in the short term at least.

"If I was Osama Bin Laden sitting in my cave, I would think I was winning," he said.

"I would consider that I am still at large, I have a global movement, I strike a chord with young Muslims everywhere, I am an inspiration not a planner and I have lured the US into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of my choosing and of my way of fighting."

He added: "Nor is the West countering the easy narrative offered by the jihadis. They are, and I agree with the Bush language on this, Islamic fascists, but we are not engaging enough in the war of ideas and are instead dwelling on their actions. They can counter that by dwelling on ours, in a game of moral equivalence."

Iraq hangs like a shadow

The shadow of Iraq hangs over American policy and the world's view of it.

The problem is that many governments and peoples do not see Iraq as part of the answer to terror. They see it as part of the cause. They therefore want to distance themselves from American policy.

Not that al-Qaeda's terrorism was prompted by the Iraq invasion. The 11 September attacks preceded Iraq and recently, German trains were the target of an attempted attack even though Germany opposed the invasion.

But Iraq has probably been the greatest single factor in producing the confusion that is now evident. Washington declares that Iraq must be won or the war on terror will be lost. Opponents say it has made things worse, though many opponents add that now it must be won.

Woman and boy in Baghdad street
Iraq hangs like shadow over war on terror

A difficulty for the Bush administration is that it argued differently when the invasion was announced. Then, it was about weapons of mass destruction.

Terrorism floated only in the background as a nightmare in which a rogue state might give some terrorist nuclear weapons.

Now, Iraq has been declared the frontline which has to be held or it will move to the streets of America.

Language changes to reflect policy shifts

The extent to which Iraq has influenced events can be seen by looking at the language used by President Bush before and after the invasion.

On 31 August this year he told the American Legion in Salt Lake City: "This war will be long... but it's a war we must wage, and a war we will win...The war we fight today is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st Century."

For many around the world, sympathy for the United States has changed into suspicion and, for some, even into hatred

His use of the future tense in "We will win" contrasts with what he said before the invasion. On 26 February 2003, he declared in a speech in Washington: "We have arrested, or otherwise dealt with, many key commanders of al-Qaeda. Across the world, we are hunting down the killers one by one. We are winning."

The change of tense shows how far any expectation of victory has been put off.

No settled narrative

It is perhaps not unlike the debate over South Vietnam. That war, too, was declared necessary for victory in the other long war, the Cold War. In those days, it was said that if South Vietnam went, the whole of South East Asia would go too, in a fall of the dominoes.

And nor has Washington been effective in solving another motivating factor for the jihadis - the Israel-Palestine conflict. Its portrayal of Israel as a victim in the war on terror sits uneasily with, say, the Europeans, who generally see the dispute as territorial not ideological and therefore amenable to a compromise.

There is therefore no agreed and clear narrative for the "war on terror".

Optimism about Western values

Professor Clarke is more optimistic in the long term.

"It will get worse before it gets better but I expect western policy to win eventually because it offers a superior political, moral and economic model. However we have not made things easy for ourselves by mistakes, first in Afghanistan by allowing Taleban and al-Qaeda leaders to escape and then on a grand scale in making a strategic mistake by invading Iraq.

"This is probably going to take a generation to resolve, until the angry young jihadis turn into tired old men, as the Marxist-Leninists did."


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