Fighting terror: "muscular" Cameron versus "nuanced" Obama

America's new counter-terrorist strategy points is better, more confident alternative to the UK's 'P

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On Wednesday, the Obama administration launched its new counter-terrorism strategy - the first published revision since the Bush presidency. It did so from a position of strength, having finally tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden. Recent polls show rising approval of Obama's handling of terrorism, boosting his overall ratings and helping him hold the generals to the deal he struck in late 2009, to start bringing troops home from Afghanistan in big numbers.

The new strategy contains a fairly detailed discussion of the Arab Spring, arguing for applying "targeted force on Al Qaida at a time when its ideology is under extreme pressure" from events in North Africa and the Middle East. By contrast, Britain's revised Prevent strategy published three weeks ago, mentions these events only once - in a footnote, saying with characteristic bureaucratic obtuseness that it's too early to say what the effects will be. The British system has probably been too busy thrashing around on the argument which has divided our politicians, counter-terrorist officials and experts over the last year - the argument about whether the real enemy is terrorism, violent extremism, or extremism more widely.

That question was supposedly resolved in the Prevent strategy, which committed the Government to broadening out its counter-terrorist efforts to include non-violent extremists, defined as people and organisations who disagree with our "core values", including democracy, equality before the law, and universal human rights. David Cameron had flagged this shift in his Munich speech, when he explicitly criticised the previous governmentfor focusing too narrowly on terrorism and violent extremism, and failing to be sufficiently 'muscular' in standing up for our values.

The most interesting thing about the new US strategy from a British perspective is that it essentially takes the diametrically opposite path. President Obama's foreword asserts that "we must define who we are fighting with precision and clarity", and the strategy states that "by ensuring that counter-terrorist policies and tools are narrowly tailored, and applied to achieve specific, concrete security gains, the US will optimise its security and protect the liberties of its citizens."

At the time the Prevent strategy was published I criticised it for being sloppily written and not properly thought through - as well as representing a fundamental wrong turn. It fails to make clear whether the Government believes in tackling non-violent extremism as a matter of principle, or because it thinks this will reduce the risk of terrorism. (I noted that either or both are legitimate - if arguable - positions, but the Government needs to be much clearer which is driving policy in which area, as they can have quite different implications.) The instruction to universities and those who oversee internet provision in any "public institution" to intervene directly against groups or individuals who "do not share our core values" is both confusing and dangerous. The wording slides between asking universities to monitor and take action against people or groups involved with terrorism - which academics may tolerate - and asking them to monitor and take action against groups who disagree with our "core values" - which they surely cannot. It slides between talking about blocking online content which is "unlawful" - which is a matter of fact, and relatively uncontroversial - and blocking online content which is "harmful" - which is a matter of judgment, and highly controversial.

There are very specific risks here for freedom of speech and thought, on campus and online, which need to be addressed urgently. The deeper question is whether Britain is going in the wrong direction on the fundamental question of how we win the argument for our values - as well as whether it makes sense to go in the opposite direction to the US, given how closely the two countries work together.

Cameron was praised by the likes of Matthew d'Ancona for characterising the struggle against the ideology behind terrorism as a "new Cold War". The analogy was hardly new - Gordon Brown was using it five years ago - but more important than who got there first, is which of the two has understood the analogy in the right way. When Brown invoked it, he remembered how:

It was fought not only with weapons and intelligence but through newspapers, journals, culture, the arts, literature. It was fought not just through governments but through foundations, trusts, civil society and civic organisations. We talked of a cultural Cold War - a war of ideas and values - and one which the best ideas and values eventually triumphed. And it is by power of argument, by debate and by dialogue that we will, in the long term, expose and defeat this threat.

The new US strategy emphasises a similarly positive approach, relying on the power of American values to win arguments and attract admirers, rather than the negative approach of attacking, or trying to silence, those who hold different values. The key, the strategy says, is winning the positive argument, engaging with and discrediting the ideology of Al Qaida and its supporters and adherents, limiting its resonance by addressing the grievances it feeds off - and avoiding doing anything that will discredit ourselves and undermine our values in the eyes of others.

Brown struggled to put his own version of this strategy into practice, and we will have to wait and see how the Obama administration fares. Some will observe that they need to do better in particular at avoiding undermining themselves: most notoriously in the continuing Guantanamo saga, but also in their response to the Wikileaks episode (they would have benefited from reading the section of the new strategy headed 'Balancing Security and Transparency'). But the strategy is the right one, and it contrasts favourably with Cameron's Munich speech, with its unfortunate echoes -"we need to wake up to what is happening in our own countries" - of the McCarthyite paranoia and conspiracy theories which are a less proud part of the Cold War story.

Cameron likes to sum up his new approach as 'muscular liberalism', but the Munich speech shaded from muscular into macho, and the Prevent strategy verges on the ham-fisted. Obama's alternative points us to a better alternative: confident rather than muscular, more nuanced - but also more open and more positive - and in the end more likely to succeed.

Matt Cavanagh is Associate Director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

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Let's talk about Daniel Hannan, Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler

The downside of Godwin's Law.

One of the enduring mysteries about Daniel Hannan is why he deletes so many of his tweets. The other is why, when he deletes so many, he leaves so many other absolutely clunkingly braindead observations on the internet for all to see. It's like he isn't ashamed of them. It's like he doesn't even know.

Anyway – one advantage of these lapses in Hannan's online hygiene is that it allows me to find out about particular highlights weeks after the event. So it was that Twitter user @eurosluggard tipped me off to this absolute gem from 31 January.

It's worth actually expanding every individual image there, just so we can really revel in the fact that Hannan chose to tweet so many lovely memes showing senior politicians as Nazis. (I'd embed the tweet, but I’m frightened the bugger would delete it.)

And, my personal favourite:

This is quite ludicrous enough in itself. That both the left, and online debate in general, are a bit quick to call people Nazis is not in dispute (Godwin coined his Law for a reason). That Daniel Hannan chose to highlight this by tweeting a picture showing the man who led his party for 11 years dressed as a Nazi is, nonetheless, objectively hilarious, and not in the way he presumably intended.

However – to really understand the full insanity of this tweet you have to scroll back a bit. Here's the tweet that kicked the whole thing off:

Which is some rather spectacular point-missing in action. Nobody, best I can tell, is talking about banning President Trump from the UK altogether (in stark contrast to his administration's policies, which genuinely would ban certain countries' citizens from the US). The argument was actually about whether he should get a full state visit with all the bells and whistles and posh dinners and the Queen.

Declining to lay out the red carpet for someone is not the same as preventing their visit altogether. This is the same sleight of hand that happens when the Brendan O’Neills of this world conflate "no platform-ing" with "the erosion of free speech". Nobody has so far offered me a $250,000 book deal, but sadly, I don't think this is because I am being deliberately censored.

Whether Hannan is being consciously duplicitous, or is merely a bit thick, is, as ever, an open question. At any rate, other Twitter users decided to point out that he was being a little bit cheeky.

 

And that's where we came in:

There's another sleight of hand here – another elision between two related, but distinct, concepts. Can you see it?

It's this: he's leapt from gerenic accusations of fascism to the specific one that Donald Trump is like Hitler. But Hitler wasn't the entirety of Nazism, which was in turn only one form of fascism. Something can be fascistic without necessarily looking anything like Naziism.

Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. But some of his policies, and much of his rhetoric – the rallies, the demonisation of outsiders, the attacks on the media, the swing to protectionism, "Make America Great Again" – contain enough echoes of fascism to, at the very least, make "Is Donald Trump a facist?" a question worth discussing.

Consequently it’s being discussed, rather a lot, by the American media. Hannan’s tweet implies that it is only silly hysterical lefties that could possibly be concerned with such matters.

There's another elision at work in Hannan's tweet. Comparisons between Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler are quite obviously ridiculous. So are those involving Mitt Romney, and John McCain, and David Cameron: none of them was a fascist, or anything like.

Donald Trump, though, might be. By placing him in that company, Daniel Hannan is implying that he is just another centre-right politician, being unfairly demonised by the left. He isn't.

I don't believe for a moment he's done this deliberately: Daniel Hannan is many things, but a fascist he is not. But in his heartfelt belief that everything must be the fault of the left, he's ended up implying that all liberal criticism of Donald Trump as an extremist is illegitimate.

There is a real downside to the tendency for online political debate to leap to words like fascist, as expressed in Godwin's Law: it deprives us of the language to describe the rise to power of something that genuinely looks like right-wing extremism. But just because we often cry wolf, that doesn't mean there's never a wolf at the door.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.