America and Britain have invaded two countries suspected of harbouring and encouraging terrorism, and effected regime change in both, killing many thousands of people in the process. The extent to which their actions have disrupted terrorist operations and thus prevented a number of attacks (and perhaps worse ones) is unknowable. But the Riyadh bombings make it clear that terrorism is alive and well. The opponents of war in Afghanistan and Iraq were asked: what would you do instead? The question should now be turned on the supporters of war: what will you do next? Overwhelming military force was presented as the only possible answer to terrorism. But the targets are running out. Is the US now to invade Saudi Arabia, home to many of Osama Bin Laden's gang, and the source of much terrorist funding, including some from members of the Saudi ruling family?
It will be argued that nobody ever pretended the fight against terrorism could be won instantly and that it was better to take the fight to the terrorists, to deny them stable bases and friendly governments, and to remove regimes that will not even go through the motions of co-operating in anti-terrorist operations. This is essentially the same approach that Israel has employed in the Middle East for 25 years. It has not worked for Israel; nor will it for America.
It will not work because American bombs, missiles and bullets do the terrorists' propaganda work for them; US power, which has generally advanced stealthily if ruthlessly in the past, has become visibly aggressive and imperialist. It is almost platitudinous to observe that this increases the hatred and rage that enable terrorists to recruit, but it bears repeating because war supporters raise the red herring of appeasement. To bow to a series of explicit and unjustified demands is indeed appeasement. It was the right word for the British approach to Hitler in the 1930s and it would have been the right word if the British had withdrawn from Northern Ireland in direct response to the IRA bombing campaign.
But al-Qaeda itself makes no demands and has no programme; it simply does not have a negotiable agenda, and to talk of appeasement is to make what philosophers call a category error. Al-Qaeda wishes to weaken and disrupt western society and to humiliate the infidel. Its foot soldiers, the suicide bombers, have no personal ambitions almost by definition. The sensible response is to cool their anger. The US fires it up. Worse, America has created a climate across the Muslim world, and within many Muslim communities in the west, where people who would never themselves become terrorists, or even express support, may offer shelter or refuse to assist the security forces in hunting terrorists down - as happened with the Catholic communities in Ireland. Advocates of war complacently point out that the Arab street has not risen; but an outright insurrection was never the real threat.
To concentrate on overthrowing unfriendly regimes in just two countries was to misunderstand the nature of al-Qaeda. The group has no need of territory or of state support; arguably, it is better off without them. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies says in a newly published report: "The counter-terrorism effort perversely impelled an already decentralised and elusive transnational network to become even harder to identify and neutralise." Al-Qaeda has become a fleet-footed, "virtual" network, capable of exploiting local grievances and conditions; Britain and America, meantime, have become the opposite - quasi-colonial powers struggling to rule newly acquired territory. Their attention, as the international institute points out, is thus diverted from other sources of instability that al-Qaeda could exploit: Kashmir and sub-Saharan Africa, for example.
The nation state's equivalent of al-Qaeda's nimbleness ought to be its intelligence services, using espionage, bribery and subversion. These weapons, exercised in the street and the souk, would be more effective than bombs dropped from 10,000 feet. The lesson of Vietnam was not invalidated by either Iraq or Afghanistan. Regimes were overthrown, to be sure, but the war is still being lost in the Cairo slums - to say nothing of the north London bedsits - just as it was in the Vietnam jungles. Meanwhile, western intelligence services were diverted into doomed attempts to convince us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Whatever the west now does, there will be more bombs and more blood. That has been true since 11 September 2001. The only question has been whether America can agree with its allies a coherent strategy that promises an eventual end. So far, there is no sign of either agreement or coherence.
All puffed up
A vicar from Surrey has invented an inflatable church, complete with blow-up organ, altar, pulpit, pews and stained-glass windows, which can be used anywhere to hold an instant service for 60 people. You may think this a pointless invention, as the country is not exactly short of half-empty churches. But we should not underestimate the modern desire for instant access: inflatable polling stations, placed outside people's front doors, may be the answer to low electoral turnout and political apathy. Better still - and one is surprised that Demos has not thought of it - would be an inflatable House of Commons, allowing MPs and their deliberations excitingly to be available in streets throughout the land. And no doubt the Prime Minister, as he travels the world putting it to rights, could use an inflatable cabinet, avoiding the inconvenience of returning to London to perform a brief and now largely meaningless ritual.