The day that nobody would take charge

Terror in America - In the hours after the hijackings, the Bush administration seemed to de

Perhaps it was the devilish cleverness of Tuesday's concerted attacks which so took America by surprise. A couple of miles across the river from me, palls of smoke rose all day from the wreckage left after American Airlines flight 77 sliced through the Pentagon; instead of the skies above being full of commercial planes and helicopters, the stillness was broken only by the occasional clattering military helicopter or F-16 thundering overhead. The birds, apparently surprised by unaccustomed freedom, were in full song; walk down leafy 31st Street and there, at its corner with M, you would see a US army armoured personnel carrier dramatically waiting for some unknown, unspecified enemy. America was at war - but it did not yet quite know why, or with whom.

But by the end of that first day, America had lost its innocence; its inner insouciance that its lands were inviolate from foreign attack gone for ever. More than 30,000 died in one day's battle in the civil war, and 2,400 were killed in the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. But that was all in faraway Hawaii, and half a century before America became the world's unchallenged superpower. Throughout Tuesday, there was a slow, steady moan of stunned surprise that gradually metamorphosed into roars of outrage and anger. Twelve hours after flights UA175 and AA11 were steered into the two 110-story World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan, the nation began to realise that thousands of Americans lay dead beneath rubble in New York and Washington, and that a) they were impotent to do anything about it, and b) the weapons of living people used so diabolically might just as well have been missiles launched from overseas.

Thus the impossible had happened. America had become like other countries Americans watched on the news. The 43rd president, facing his first real test after eight months in office, seemed like a rabbit caught in headlights, such was his fear and incomprehension over what had happened: some dusty cold war manual over what to do in a national emergency was brought out, and Bush was whisked on Air Force One (flanked by two close-escort F-15s and one F-16) from Sarasota, Florida (where he had been reading books to schoolchildren), to a US air force base in Shreveport, Louisiana, to an underground nuclear bunker command post at Offutt in Nebraska, before doing what he should have done immediately: head straight back to Washington to address the nation. Only then, after a day in which the Bush administration seemed to have deserted the country, did the people hear what they so desperately wanted to hear from their president: "Our military's powerful, and it's prepared." And the US, he said, "will make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbour them".

In the meantime, the television stations had moved the country up several gears of hysteria as they always do; their job is to create a sense of threat, but this time they needed no manufactured ingredients. Weeping parents were summoned to bring frightened children home from school; one usually sane mother I know announced that as Washington clearly faced imminent nuclear attack, she would drive her family to Rehoboth Beach on the eastern seashore. A DC radio station announced that it had just seen a passenger plane roaring out on an unauthorised take-off at Washington's Reagan National Airport. And still the birds kept singing, less than a mile from the White House where the US military had been ordered to go on full-scale "Delta" alert.

What makes an attack of this kind so incomprehensible and unbearable to Americans is an unwavering belief that, in the words of Bush on Tuesday night, the country "was targeted because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world". The US is a force only for good in the world; Americans simply can't make a connection between their country's Middle East policies, say, and ardent, even murderous, opposition to those policies in other parts of the world. Few here can grasp that suicide bombers genuinely believe in the rightness of a jihad, and are willing to martyr themselves to subvert America's burgeoning domination.

Thus - until last Tuesday - America was a place dreamily set apart, a mighty fortress of strength unsullied by the grubby realities other countries in the rest of the world have to face. Geographically, it was protected on either side by two of the worlds' great oceans; militarily, it was unchallengeable. And yet all that went by the board when four fuel-laden passenger planes were hijacked on Tuesday, and no number of trillion-dollar Star Wars policies would have made the slightest difference. Mighty America was foiled by a small number of determined martyrs, careless even to leave flight-training manuals in Arabic behind in Boston.

By Tuesday night the anger and the demand for bloodlust was palpable. A teenage boy visiting my home announced he was willing to go down to hunt and kill those behind the strikes; by Wednesday morning, polls showed that 80 per cent of the country was willing to go to war. But with whom? And at whom would those waiting $1m-a-time Cruise missiles be aimed? The country's media collectively decided that Osama Bin Laden was responsible, and Bush's declared willingness to pursue "those who harbour" the terrorists seemed to give the green light for US - and "allied" forces (we can bet our bottom dollar that Britain will play a symbolic role, magnified beyond all reality by the British media) - to pound the already wretchedly deprived people of Afghanistan.

Inside Washington power circles, the finger-pointing, too, had already begun. The unimpressive performance of the Bush administration was the first subject of whispers that were only sotto voce in the circumstances; not a single representative of the government appeared live before the people on television until the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, materialised, more than nine hours after the first plane struck.

Bush made it known at least three times that he had been in consultation with Dick Cheney - as though he was the man in charge - but Cheney never appeared. Only the secretary of state, Colin Powell, stranded in Latin America, looked sufficiently unfazed and in control of himself to take charge. It took Karen Hughes, perhaps Bush's closest adviser, to appear before the cameras in the middle of the afternoon; compared with a president apparently taking orders from his manual-reading secret service men, she looked positively presidential. By contrast, meanwhile, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki were constantly willing to put their heads above the parapets and before the cameras amid the rubble of New York.

That initial stunned grief seemed almost palpably to deepen as the monstrousness of such deliberate violence sunk in, gradually giving way to anger and outrage; the next stage, and Bush's great test, will inevitably come when rampant aggression takes over. It will be days, if not weeks, before all the bodies are cleared and the funerals held - and, during that period, demands for Bush to take decisive action will only intensify. The problem for US intelligence is that it knows next to nothing about Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts; it once had the capacity to eavesdrop on his sophisticated network of communications, but has now totally lost that.

In the intelligence community, this failure in itself is already becoming a subject of furious (again, sotte voce) finger-pointing. Bin Laden may well be being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan; he equally well may not be. US intelligence still has little idea who Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted of attempting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and now spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, actually is: he may be a disciple of Osama Bin Laden, but not even his nationality or real name are actually known despite lots of probing. Whether US intelligence is actually able to supply the Bush administration with the kind of information it now needs, therefore, is - at the very least - an open question.

It will certainly assuage the mounting American bloodlust if Kabul and "suspected mountain hideaways" of Osama Bin Laden are now subjected to unprecedented aerial poundings from the US (and, yes, its "allies") - but without good and sure-footed intelligence, the result will only be to inflict more terrible agony on one of the world's poorest countries by its richest. The real test of George W Bush's character therefore now comes: will he take the easy path by ordering dramatic military action without the intelligence needed to plan or justify it, or will he be able to restrain himself in the face of increasingly insistent demands just to make fearsome retaliatory strikes against someone, somewhere? It has all been bad enough so far, but it could yet become even worse.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror