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Fri, 21 Nov 2003

The void stares also

I try to stay off the topic of politics and the middle east, I really do. It's not good for my blood pressure, it irritates a large proportion of my readers, and it doesn't achieve anything. But yesterday's bombings in Istanbul demand comment ...

I really don't like George W. Bush. In fact, when I see him on television I have to change channel before the urge to put my boot through the screen becomes irresistable. (I haven't felt such a visceral anger at a politician since Margaret Thatcher was laying around her with an axe in the 80's.)

However, there are some issues I agree with him about.

Item number one on the list is that Al Qaida blowing people up is Wrong, and should be stopped. Item number two on the list is that it is not acceptable to stop Al Qaida blowing things up by giving in to all their demands, which in maximalist form would amount to surrendering the whole of western civilization to a barbarous mediaevalist fundamentalism. And third on the list is that Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party was a vile and repugnant dictatorship (and North Korea doesn't look too good, either).

So why did I go on an anti-George W. Bush march on Tuesday, and why do I want to put a foot through the TV screen whenever I see his face?

The devil is in the details.

Bush's response to the 9/11 disaster was grossly inappropriate on every level. He started with a huge international outpouring of goodwill -- an unprecedented discontinuity in the diplomatic firmament which a cannier politician could have parlayed into a widespread international campaign against the causes of terrorism, Instead, the response of his administration varied from a polite "no thanks, we don't need your help" to biting the extended hand. Iran was offering to help back in September 2001, for example. The UK sent its largest military deployment since the second world war, and got clobbered with trade sanctions by return of post. And that's just for starters; rather than going after the root causes of the disease (of Middle Eastern terrorism, that is), the Bush administration decided first to tackle one of the symptoms (Afghanistan), then to go and beat up the neighbour (Iraq) who had nothing to do with the problem in the first place. We can take it as read at this point that there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posing a threat to the west; I believe there's also an extreme shortage of reliable evidence pointing to any connection between the late Iraqi government and Al Qaida (who, it should be noted, hated everything Ba'athism stands for).

The Iraq invasion was foredoomed to be a disaster. Since March, the US and allied forces have succeeded in killing more Iraqi civilians than the blood-drenched dictatorship's thirty-year batting average. They've destroyed infrastructure, increased unemployment from 30% to 70%, and committed war crimes (collective punishment, attacks on civilians, detention without cause, and the planned sale of state assets in a flat violation of the Geneva Conventions). And some of us haven't forgotten who made the monster in the first place. (Yes, that is Donald Rumself shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, in an episode he'd probably prefer to see swept under the carpet these days.)

Back home, they've done their best to destroy what was left of a proud tradition of civil rights -- already damaged badly by the succession of wars that shaped the agonizing history of the 20th century. I'm not the best person to discuss what has happened to civil liberties in the USA, but I would like to note at this point that I'm no enemy of the US: I seriously considered emigrating in the early 1990's. Now I'm very glad indeed that I didn't; I have an uneasy feeling that I would have been in the position of a Polish Jew emigrating to Germany in the late 1920's.

And now we come full circle, back to Al Qaida. They're still murdering people. They've turnned the US occupation of Iraq into a recruiting stand! What went wrong?

Basil Liddell-Hart described the two biggest mistakes a Great Power could make, historically, in his two rules: "never start a land war in Asia, and never start a war on two fronts". Afghanistan is the classic "land war in Asia" mistake. There are no frontiers; unless the US forces are able to sweep through the North-West Province of Pakistan with fire and the sword they will be unable to touch the Taliban in their heartland. (Not that the Taliban, however odious they may be, are the roots of the Al Qaida problem; they actually discussed handing Osama bin Laden over in early 2001, an offer which the US State Department screwed up by insisting on adding conditions that the Taliban couldn't agree to.) Afghanistan is a very dangerous place to get bogged down in militarily, as the Soviets, and before them the British discovered to their cost. But it's not the tap-root of Middle Eastern terrorism; Afghans don't come pouring out of the mountain country in their countless hordes to strap on suicide belts. Rather, the angry young men gravitated to Afghanistan as a refuge and a place to meet their own kind and form common cause. The Jihad got its start there in the 1980's, with CIA backing for the religious factions of the Mujaheddin fighting against the Soviet occupiers.

As for Iraq ...

Iraq is the "war on two fronts" error writ large. Rather than going after the causes of terror (again, how many times do I have to repeat this? Keep your eye on the ball!) Bush seems to have hared off after the man who he believes tried to have his daddy assassinated in 1993. (Saddam is a sore loser -- so would you be, if your friends like that nice Don Rumsfeld turned around and declared war on you in 1991.) I'll leave the postmortem on how the neoconservative faction hijacked the war to the US foreign policy wonks, and the grandiose PNAC conspiracy theories likewise. The point is, Iraq wasn't a source of Middle Eastern terrorism. But it is, now. The anger and despair coming out of the occupation is a motor driving large numbers of angry young men throughout the Middle East closer and closer to the point at which they feel like doing something a lot more serious than merely kicking the TV set. Something that they feel will shake us in the west to our core, by demonstrating the depth of their rage.

Israel. Palestine. Suicide bombings. And now, Turkey. The question that always occurs to me when I see the aftermath of another hideous explosion on TV is, "what kind of anger is it that drives a person to do this kind of thing -- to themselves, as well as to their enemies?" It's easy for us, in our capacity as potential targets, to write suicide bombers off as unfeeling monsters. But I think that's a mistake. They're clearly angry about something. And it's typically something personal. Orwell painted a grim dystopian future in 1984: "picture a boot stamping on an unprotected face, forever". These people aren't lying down; they see what they're doing as kicking back. And I don't see any good coming of it, because the harsh fact of the matter is both sides are equally wrong.

Declaring a war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 was good politics for George W. Bush. But it's a misleading metaphor; because war is terrorism by other means, just as terrorism has become an extension of diplomacy by the weak against the strong, to fold, spindle and mutilate Von Clauswitz's famous dictum. If a war against terrorism is to be successful it must be fought in peoples' hearts and minds, with unusual weapons like trust and respect, and a willingness to negotiate with the moderates before our intransigence turns them into desperate extremists.

Insisting that a war on terrorism is a literal war, involving bombers and tanks, is foolish in the extreme. Handing them a victory on a plate -- by surrendering our civil liberties on the altar of security -- is insane. Killing terrorists generates more anger among the communities the terrorists are drawn from, and anger breeds more violence. But negotiation works. It worked in Northern Ireland, where the depths of religious bigotry rival anything to be found in the Middle East. And it can work in the Israel/Palestine mess, if negotiations can be arranged and both sides are willing to back down from their maximalist positions. I doubt negotiation has any chance of working with Osama bin Laden or his closest followers, but as the Ha'aretz interview above suggests, even suicide bombers aren't completely beyond hope.

But back to Bush. George speaks of a clear-cut conflict between good and evil, right and wrong. He's sure it's a war, and he's sure that good will prevail. Well, I agree with him about that, too -- but I'm not sure which side he's on. He's too enthusiastic about splitting the universe into clear-cut categories; and he seems to lack the ability to negotiate or compromise in pursuit of his goals. It seems to me that a talent for convincing yourself that your enemies are evil, and that you are therefore justified in using any means against them, is itself one of the most clear-cut forms of evil. As Neitzsche put it, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." Bush has plenty of monsters to fight -- he's surrounded by them. And the effects are clearly visible.

[ Discuss Bush ]

posted at: 12:08 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


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