Fighting terror with Middle Earth rhetoric

February 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, US National Intelligence Director John Negroponte announced al-Qaeda leaders are “rebuilding their strength” in Pakistan. He was not suggesting that Osama Bin Laden has been spied lifting dumbbells to Eye of the Tiger. He was referring, rather, to al-Qaeda’s cultivation of connections with “affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe”. What exactly they’re telling the affiliates Negroponte couldn’t say.

Deprived of the Afghan training camps developed before September 11,what can al-Qaeda figureheads offer to would-be terrorists from Somalia to Britain? To enjoy anything more than the most tenuous, occasional contact, these fugitive militants must be in possession of a secret satellite network, or a secret Internet. Sensibly, neither the US nor UK deny that tenuous, occasional contact is probably all there is. Less sensibly, they continue to believe that dismantling this loose infrastructure with military force is the way to win the War on Terror.

Negroponte’s statement marks a general trend: politicians are moving away from referring to terrorists by name, preferring instead to present terrorism as a nameless, faceless force for evil. President Bush’s State of the Union address last week was true to form, abounding in references to “the terrorists” and “the enemy”. To which of the plethora of groups, individuals and states lumped under these headings Bush was specifically referring is anyone’s guess.

In al-Qaeda, judging from the press conferences and speeches, we have a real-life Sauron. We are presented with an image of a dark corrupting force linking every potential terrorist across the globe. To destroy it, we are told, is to destroy the problem.

This logic was applied when the US recently justified bombing raids in Somalia by claiming local Islamic militants were working for al-Qaeda. It is unlikely these militants could have carried weapons or instructions all the way from Pakistan, so what work exactly were they doing? Blair and Bush believe they have the answer: the militants were spreading an “ideology”, that same faceless dark force by another name. The ideology is, according to Bush, “Islamic Fascism.” The historical comparison is crude. If Islamic Fascism really is the goal, al-Qaeda might be expected to target Islamic states with fully or partially democratic governments (such as Iran, Syria and Pakistan). An ideology that happens to be anti-Israeli and anti-Western is not inherently Fascist.

A more pertinent question is this: can an ideology be fought? An ideology is not Sauron. Cut off the followers from their figurehead and the edifice won’t collapse like a house of cards. The reverse is likely: followers of an ideology revere martyrs more than living figureheads. When martyrs are created by a bombing raid, their brutal deaths at the hands of the enemy suddenly appear to justify the cause for which they fought.

The US has resurrected the Cold War policy of containment. The aim then was to fight Communist insurgencies wherever they occurred; the aim now is to fight Islamic insurgencies by the same rules. But the US never managed to kill off Communism and experienced a spectacular failure in Vietnam along the way. It may have prevented the USSR from dominating the global balance of power, but terrorists are not playing the same game. They want their cause to endure. And with every new intervention, the cause becomes more indestructible.

The so-called battle of ideologies is set to end in failure. To win, the West must convert moderate Islamic opinion. This is impossible by military means. Are the orchestrators of the War on Terror unaware of the problem? It’s more likely, surely, that the notion of Islamic Fascism has been invented to justify what is ultimately a flawed strategy. The US uses the flimsiest of excuses to justify ineffective military action, because the alternative is to admit that military action may fail to stop terrorism. And, with five years of foreign policy and one election campaign based on the promise that it will, such failure is too much for Bush to contemplate.

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Entry filed under: Varsity.

When the language of death disguises reality Nick Cohen — What’s Left?

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