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Wednesday, 12 September, 2001, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
The experts: George Joffee & Daniel Plesch
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The attack on American targets may well become the world's worst-ever terrorist atrocity.
Two hijacked passenger planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, causing it to collapse, and a third aircraft ploughed into the Pentagon in Washington DC.
How could this have happened? Who could have carried out such attacks in the world's most powerful nation? And how should the international community respond?
Middle East affairs expert George Joffee and Daniel Plesch, a security expert from the Royal United Services Institute joined us for a live forum.
The second question comes from Fred Baker in Kansas City, USA asks: How can confidence be restored in the government agencies responsible for protecting America?
The question of confidence is a huge one but I think one point I would make is that in the United States there is a great concentration on big ticket and quite glamorous weapon systems. If I can make an analogy with the naval operation in the Gulf - the Americans sent in aircraft carriers and found they were vulnerable to little, old World War I mines and the American Navy had no mine sweepers because they were little unglamorous ships which didn't lead on to becoming an admiral, to be frank. In the same way many of the unglamorous tools of intelligence, conflict prevention and conflict management, don't get much of a look-in in a culture which perhaps is a little bit too machismo for its own good.
To the first point, I think it is quite clear that Britain has been, over the years, the most faithful supporter of American policy in the world virtually. There has been a series of very good reasons for this - it goes back a very long way - right back to the Second World War and to the British assumption about there being a special relationship with the United States. Now that special relationship virtually disappeared with the end of the Cold War and was then recreated because of the nature of the new democratic movement in the United States under Bill Clinton and New Labour under Tony Blair where there was a very personal connection and Tony Blair went out of his way to show his solidarity with the policies espoused by the United States. The interesting question is whether or not that's continued with President Bush. Certainly Mr Blair has attempted to make sure that he is seen in Washington as the indispensable partner. His comments yesterday, I think, underlined that.
What does that mean in terms of the way that the rest of the world sees Britain? Well certainly in parts of the Middle East - and I think here particularly of Iraq - Britain is seen as the lackey of the United States. The one power that is guaranteed to parrot American policy and to imitate it and to support it and that has not done the British reputation very much good.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Britain has played a slightly more independent role, particularly over the Arab/Israeli dispute and the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, where Britain has attempted to show more even-handedness, but nonetheless has generally espoused Israeli policy positions and that has also meant, that in Arab eyes, by and large, Britain is now seen as being pro-Israeli, like the United States and therefore again a supporter of American policy.
Does that mean therefore that we are going to be threatened with the same kinds of attack that have faced America? Well that depends very much on who is responsible for the attacks themselves. If indeed it is a group associated with Osama Bin Laden, then one should assume that the primary target is the United States and Britain is of no great concern. If it's not, then of course we could be in a situation similar to that that we experienced with the bombing of Libya in the mid-1980s when Britain was the only European state that supported American policy and Britain, as a result, suffered the Lockerbie bombing some years later. So we have to be prepared for the fact that we might be tarred with the same brush. We may find ourselves in the same situation. But at present it appears that this was a direct attack on the United States as the world's only super power and in that case I doubt whether Britain will be involved.
So there is going to be a reluctance about the idea of invasion. Against that though should be set the fact that, for the United States, it will be intolerable not to punish a state - if indeed it is a state - that was responsible for what happened yesterday. That means that the Bush administration is bound to use very forceful means indeed if it has got enough evidence to confirm that a state is involved. We don't quite know what that will mean because there is also the well known reluctance of the United States to suffer casualties and they therefore may wish to use simply the air weapon as in the past. If ground troops are used, then I think we will be looking at some kind of invasion in the sense of a surgical strike to destroy a regime. But I think it is almost certain that we won't see a prolonged occupation or an attempt to take over a country. The implications of that will be just too great and no state will be prepared to accept that.
In those circumstances, the American military will not regard forced protection of their own troops as the prime concern and they will not expect the American people to ask for the military's lives to be put first. They will put themselves first to act as they see it to protect the American people. And with potentially tens of thousands of dead New Yorkers and people from all over the world in Manhattan, together with the tragedy at the Pentagon, I think if it becomes clear that a military option suits American national interest, then the question of casualties will not be the overriding one that it has been in the past.
It seems to me that the most likely explanation is going to reside in some way in a non-state actor - that's to say, a group of some kind and if that is identified then I think almost certainly the United States will use military force and it will use devastating military force to achieve its objectives. If it's a group, particularly in somewhere like Afghanistan, where the United States calculates it can make a surgical strike to eliminate the group in question, then I think it will use ground forces as well. The danger is of course that you can't extricate them before they become engaged in a major confrontation in a country like Afghanistan where after all the Soviet Union found tremendous problems in dealing with the local population.
If the United States decides to do that, I think it quite likely it will look to Britain and indeed Mr Blair has already promised to provide British assets to help in any operation for support - if only to spread the load. What I don't think we are going to see is the kind of multi-national coalition that was created during the Gulf War simply because there is not time and simply too because Arabs states couldn't join in even though their governments may be horrified by what actually occurred. That means, in effect, that the Americans are going to use considerable force almost certainly against a non-state actor - a group of some kind - the moment they feel they feel they have got sufficient evidence.
If you listen to what's been said in the United States at the moment, it is quite clear that they have got Osama Bin Laden in their sights even though they haven't got very much evidence and I think no direct evidence. It has even been said by one member of the administration - it doesn't really matter, he has done enough to justify it anyway. The consideration behind that would be that Mr Bush will be playing to a domestic audience long before he'll be playing towards a foreign audience and for that he must act quickly.
Whether or not they take firm military action is, I think, very much an open question but the idea that they somehow will respond in a hot-headed manner is I think too much of an arrogant assumption from overseas. There are very many very, very professional people - we may not necessarily agree with the all of the ways they conduct their policy but the idea that somehow this is going to be responded to in a reckless way is something at the moment there is no foundation for.
The second point, I think, is the most important. The real problem in relations between Western states and the Middle East do not reside over the oil question, they reside over a purely political issue which is that of the location of Israel in the Middle East, the history of Israel's presence there and the history of the kind of responses Western states, particularly the United States, have given to it in the context of the views of the Arab world. Now that is not going to go away if you change the basis of your energy supply. We have to live with the consequences of 50 years of policy making in history. Those things will continue to embitter the relationship. Beyond that too, one needs to remember that the Middle East is also strategically located close to central Asia, the underbelly to Russia, close to the Indian sub-continent. So in a sense there is a whole array of issues - geo-political as well as economic - that might condition our relationship with it.
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