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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.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Let's begin with two question: one from Anand V in Bhopal, India asks: How could such a massive operation go unnoticed by the mammoth intelligence agencies in USA?

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?


Daniel Plesch:

They are very easy questions to ask and I am sure that everyone in the American Government is trying their best to answer them right now. It is, I think, inconceivable that there aren't some messages in the American Government warning of these attacks. But the trick is to differentiate the warning that's real from the countless hoaxes and other warnings that come in every day of the week. But there is also the case that the United States, having such poor relations with so much of the world, has in a sense, begun to cut itself off. I am sure that people who would perhaps in the past have sent information aren't doing so. That is no excuse and one should not confuse reasons with excuses.

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.


Newshost:

But when the dust settles there is going to be a huge post-mortem isn't there? Is it going to mean that heads roll in the top echelons of American intelligence?


Daniel Plesch:

I think that there will be some people already who are looking very hard at what they could have done better. While we have even yet to begin counting how many people have died in this horror, I think it's a little early to start calling the blame. The people who are there will be doing their very best to work this out.


Newshost:

The next question comes from Kathy Gates in London, UK who asks: Do you think it is likely that Britain will be targeted because Britain supports the US?


George Joffee:

I think there are two parts to that question: the first is whether Britain does in fact support the United States and the second is that if it does, what then will be the consequences as far as Britain is concerned, given what happened yesterday.

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.


Newshost:

As a follow on to that, James in France asks: How conceivable is it that if the identified perpetrators of this attack are directly associated with a military regime such as the Taleban, or in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, the United States (and her allies) may actually invade a country to overthrow the regime?


George Joffee:

I think that the last attempt at invading a country to overthrow or to punish a regime of course was the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and although that was, in the short-term, successful, all those concerned learned the dangers of either not completing the job or of setting yourself too ambitious targets; namely in this case, the destruction of the regime in question and also European countries certainly, but also the United States, have learnt the danger of actually intervening too directly in the Balkans where Nato now has at least one, if not two, protectorates that will be on its hands for many years to come.

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.


Daniel Plesch:

I think that for almost 30 years, American military policy has been governed by something called the Vietnam syndrome - we don't want to get into another quagmire of endless warfare and piling up casualty figures. We are in a horrific new situation now where America has suffered, on its own territory, more dead than at any time since the Civil War and probably more civilian dead than at any time in its history.

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.


Newshost:

Elaine Green, South Africa Is this the beginning of World War III?


George Joffee:

Well, let us hope not. We never thought that what has just happened would happen. But I would say people do not realise that the nuclear arsenals of Russia and America remain ready to launch at a few seconds notice and this fact that the world still lives on the edge of the nuclear precipice is something that as we look at what has happened to us in the last few days, which is that something which we would only think of as a movie or a novel, has become reality. We should look at other threats which are discussed in conferences - maybe the subject of books - and act to prevent them before they come and get us. My answer to the question would be let us remove the possibility by ensuring that we have an immediate stand down of nuclear forces. But of course a political chain reaction leading in the direction of World War III would mean that in some way Russia or China were found to have been directly involved and that at this point is regarded as totally and completely unlikely.


Newshost:

The problem at the moment, for the United States, is that they don't know who the enemy is and with that mind Kristin Hulaas Sunde in London, UK asks: George Bush is talking in terms of "revenge", and there is no doubt that the US is planning a response to this incredible attack. But what shape is it likely to take, and at whom/where will it be directed, particularly as long as no one has claimed responsibility?


George Joffee:

First of all that depends on whether the United States decides it's a state or whether indeed it decides that it's a group within a state - maybe with the support of the state, maybe not. Also it depends too - and here I take up Daniel's point about the many other nationalities who also will have been affected by what occurred in New York yesterday. It depends too, to some extent on whether or not there's support within Europe for participation in any attack of any kind.

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.


Newshost:

I just wonder how much Washington will be listening to perhaps the slightly cooler heads in Europe who will be saying - just be careful, remember what happened after the embassy bombings in East Africa and the retaliation that America took then.


Daniel Plesch:

I think that there will be cool heads in Washington as well as in Europe. From the American perspective of course, they see themselves as taking all the burden of international security. That other countries sit on their hands when it comes to someone like Saddam Hussein and leave it to the Americans to do the unpopular heavy lifting and as a result the Americans end up getting the blame. That's the way it is seen in Washington and we shouldn't forget that, I think.

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.


Newshost:

Donald McLeman, London, UK asks: However barbaric this action, it must be realised that the world has experience of dealing with the practical ramifications of catastrophe - but surely this must be a warning to prepare for those situations where there would be less hope of recovery, namely nuclear or biological incidents?


Daniel Plesch:

Well I quite agree and I think one of the areas that should be looked at is the question of renewable energy sources. If we in Western Europe, for example, really invested in renewable energy and in the United States, then we would not have very much need of Gulf oil. If we removed our reliance upon Gulf oil, over for example a ten year period of strategic investment, in solar power, hydrogen powered cars and wind energy. But if we removed our reliance upon Gulf oil then the whole political dynamic of our relationship with the Arab world would change dramatically and we have it in our power to do that.


George Joffee:

I think there are two points. Of course if we didn't rely on Gulf oil we wouldn't have to pay attention to the Gulf oil producers. The fact is though Gulf oil produces things other than just energy, it is quite important in terms of a very large part of the chemical industry for a start. Secondly, today the role played by natural gas in terms of generating energy is increasingly important and the world is being tied together by a network of pipelines to transport natural gas around quite apart from oil. So although that would be desirable to remove dependence on oil, both as an energy source and for other reasons, I think it is rather unlikely that it will occur.

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.


Newshost:

We have a question about airline security. It comes from Santosh Mullapalli, Moscow, Russia who asks: In the wake of yesterdays hijacking of four aircraft, I feel that in future each aircraft should have two to three trained security guards accompanying each flight and that would result in increased safety. Is that realistic?


Daniel Plesch:

What is clear that we will see particularly inside the United States a transformation in airline security. At the moment it is, or has been, very lax indeed and in general in American public places people enjoy a freedom of access which is part of freedom and democracy which is greater than you find even in European countries. So I think there will be a massive review and tightening. Whether it results in this particular proposal, I think remains to be seen.


George Joffee:

Could I point out that some airlines already do this and have done it for many, many years and they have certainly seen a reduction in attempts at hijacking as a result. So it is not an untried solution at all.


Newshost:

But all airlines will now obviously be thinking about how to increase security.


George Joffee:

I think they will but there are other issues too. Simply isolating the cockpit from the cabin is a very simple move and that would it virtually impossible to hijack a plane in the way in which it occurred yesterday - that used to be the case and for some reason it lapsed.

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