Is the long war already lost?

Of all the arguments used against critics of the bombing of Afghanistan, the most derisory is that they support Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist gang. It is doubtful that anybody in Britain, beyond a tiny Muslim fringe, feels the remotest sympathy with Bin Laden or the Taliban. Between their peculiar brand of Islam and western liberal democracy, there is no contest at all. Communism had many deluded admirers in the west; fundamentalist Islam has almost none, and, unlike Lenin and Mao, its spokesmen do not even bother to appeal to western sensibilities with talk of liberation movements and workers' paradises. Nobody is likely to dance down London streets chanting "Os, Os, Os Bin Laden" as they once chanted "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh". This ought to be self-evident; but the intolerance of the war supporters in Britain and the US towards those who urge caution requires it to be stated explicitly and repeatedly.

The real objection to the assault on Afghanistan is that it is a mug's game, an overly blunt instrument in a conflict that needs to be fought largely with brains and cunning. As so often before, it puts the Americans on the wrong side of the moral argument, firing missiles and dropping explosives from a safe distance, risking civilian lives (such as those of the four UN security guards in Kabul), rather than those of their own professional soldiers on the ground. Afghanistan has pitifully few airfields, roads or power supplies; "surgical strikes" eliminate even these. Effective food supplies become impossible to deliver, as the terrified population flees the cities and communications are disrupted. Moreover, the growing flood of refugees is all too likely to destabilise further the shaky regime in Pakistan and plunge that country into civil strife.

The US and British governments have repeatedly stated that the war against terrorism is a long game, that the removal of Bin Laden cannot be the end. Despite what Tony Blair said in Brighton, the coalition that will count against terrorism is not a military one (America has enough firepower to do the fighting on its own) or even a humanitarian one, but one that involves exchanges of intelligence, co-operation between police forces, and co-ordinated action by banks and financial watchdogs to choke off terrorist funding. That coalition must be built to last. The first priority is for the US and Britain to put their own houses in order, so that American intelligence agencies do not ignore warnings from the Sudan, and the City of London ceases to be a haven for billions of pounds of terrorist money. Then a coalition can realistically be formed. But it requires patience and care, not the kind of military action that will only inflame Muslim opinion, and cause Arab rulers to look over their shoulders at rising tension in the streets. President Bush may succeed in devastating terrorist training camps or even in killing Bin Laden, but he is in danger of losing his long war almost before it has started.

Or do the Americans think they can do everything with bombs and missiles? Having suffered brute force themselves on such a scale, have they now decided that brute force is the best answer; that diplomacy and coalition-building merely tie the hands of the mightiest power on the planet (preventing it from marching on Baghdad at the end of the Gulf war, for example); that, if countries do not voluntarily accede to US demands, they will be deemed "failed states" and duly subjugated? It is not only John Pilger, from the left, who dares use the word "imperialism" (see page 12). Read the comment page of the Financial Times and see an article by its commentator, Martin Wolf, headlined "The need for a new imperialism", arguing for "a transformation in our approach to national sovereignty". And below it, see an article by two senior fellows of the influential Brookings Institution in Washington, warning that war may need to be extended to Iran, Iraq and Syria and that the US must be willing to destroy ruling regimes.

The chilling possibility raised by the attacks on Afghanistan is that the voices in Washington that called for a more internationalist approach in American foreign policy have already lost. Apart from briefly mentioning its right to self-defence under the UN charter, the US has sought no legal cover for its present actions, and the UN has had no role at all. The US has shown no interest in ideas for an international tribunal to try Bin Laden. It still refuses to sign a biological warfare protocol or to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty. Worst of all, as Mark Thomas reveals on page 9, the administration, within the past three weeks, has actively supported legislation designed to strangle the International Criminal Court.

Since 11 September, Tony Blair has impressed the world with the way he has combined firmness against terrorism with a vision for a better global order. Since President Bush, like an elderly aunt, does not travel, Mr Blair has crossed the globe to build a coalition. But on present American form, that coalition, if it exists at all, is perilously fragile.

Dangerous idiots (continued)

After NS contributors were described by the Daily Telegraph as "useful idiots" (because we counselled caution in the war on terrorism), we promised to keep you informed of "dangerous idiots" on the other side. This week's prize must go to Sir John Keegan, the Telegraph's defence editor. "Westerners fight face to face, in stand-up battle," he wrote on 8 October, "and go on until one side or the other gives in . . . Orientals, by contrast, shrink from pitched battle . . . preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit . . . This war belongs within the much older conflict between settled, creative productive westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals." Against this class of nonsense - and, if you believe any of it, you had best read Edward Said on page 20 - Robert Harris, a well-known thriller writer who has a Telegraph column, comes a distant second. But he deserves a mention for his lament that "my generation" (born after the Second World War) had never been "tested" and this was its chance.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A nation in panic