Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

6 January 2009

England should side with the Palestinians: the possibilities for an English foreign policy

The dividing lines seem clear: conservatives (small ‘c’) and the British establishment broadly support Israel’s actions in attempting to eradicate Hamas as a military force in Gaza, taking their cue from the pro-Israeli US position; socialists and British Muslims back the Palestinians and even Hamas, to a variable extent; the liberal intelligentsia sympathises with the Gazan Palestinians while also conceding that, maybe, Israel has little choice other than to act as it is doing – a position based on the firm conviction that the continuing existence of a separate Jewish state of Israel is sacrosanct.

But what should English foreign policy be in the matter? Clearly, this is a paradoxical question, as there is no such thing, formally, as English foreign policy. As we know, foreign policy is a reserved matter, so that even if there were a devolved English government along the lines of those that presently exist in the other nations of the UK, that government would not have an official position on the events in Gaza or any other foreign-policy matter. That didn’t stop the Scottish First Minister’s pro-Palestinian assessment of the events from appearing on the Scottish Government’s website on 3 January, however: “The Israeli Government’s response to the security situation is totally disproportionate, and appears to be a general punishment of the people of Gaza”.

I actually agree with Alex Salmond: I think the readiness of the Israeli government to kill and injure so many innocent Palestinian civilians partakes of their general oppression of and enmity towards the Palestinian people, and their fundamental denial of the concept of a dignified, self-determining nation of Palestine. Only thinking of the situation in these terms can make sense of how the Israelis think it can possibly be justified to slaughter so many people in pursuit of their security objectives: they see their security and the defence of their own civilians as so paramount that the loss of Palestinian lives simply does not weigh in the balance. But beyond the demeaning trade-offs between the number of casualties on either side (how can you set a limit on the number of (Palestinian) human lives lost that is ‘acceptable’ or ‘proportionate’ to the aim of preventing other (Israeli) lives from being lost?), this attitude is comprehensible only when set against what is ultimately at stake: defence of Israel’s right to exist as an exclusively Jewish state is predicated on the denial of the existence of Palestine and, as a corollary (if necessary), on the destruction of the existence of Palestinians.

Note that I referred to ‘Palestine’ and not a ‘Palestinian state’. The point of the distinction is that the heart of the conflict between Israel and Hamas concerns whether the territory currently occupied by the state of Israel should remain a Jewish state or should become a new nation state of Palestine. Hamas and its anti-Israeli backers throughout the Muslim world – particularly, Iran – want to create a new Islamic state of Palestine, replacing the present state of Israel. Hence, the Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s infamous declaration that he wished to wipe Israel off the map, while chillingly evoking nuclear annihilation to Western ears, probably refers mainly to this aspiration to replace the state of Israel with an Islamic Republic of Palestine. By attempting to neutralise Hamas as any sort of military force in Gaza, the Israelis are trying to deal a mortal blow to general Palestinian aspirations towards the creation of such a nation of Palestine. The Israelis are aiming to negate any concept that they should be negotiating with Hamas ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president, as they doubtless suspect that he would have tried to cajole them into talks with an organisation they regard as a mortal enemy. Hence, if Hamas are taken out of the equation before President Obama can find his feet in foreign affairs, then only negotiations with the ‘moderate’ Fatah organisation leading towards the establishment of a two-state solution will be left on the table: a Palestinian state, separate from the Jewish state of Israel, and occupying a much-reduced territory to that of the Palestine that lives on in the hearts and dreams of the battered Palestinian people.

It’s easy to see why English people should naturally be inclined to side with the Palestinians. As I stated in a previous post, our aspirations towards the establishment of a distinct English nation, freed from subordination and assimilation to the UK state, are analogous to those of the Palestinians, even though the situation is clearly hugely different in other ways. We also share our patron saint St George with Palestine: the patron saint of suppressed nations, as I call him. The very fact that Palestine has a patron saint should tell us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about much more than a fight for control of territory between Judaism and Islam, or between the West and Islam, for that matter. In a blog post on the subject today, Cranmer rightly reminds us that there is – or at least, was – a sizeable and ancient Palestinian Christian community, which is being persecuted and driven away from its ancestral homeland as much by Islamic hardliners as by Israel. And yet, Cranmer still persists in characterising the present conflict as just the latest manifestation of a mortal struggle between Judaism and Islam. Clearly, this is fundamental; and Cranmer does emphasise the way the religious conflict is wrapped up in beliefs about land ownership. However, more fundamental still is the struggle for nationhood: the fight to keep alive the idea and hope of a nation of Palestine that once occupied the territory now occupied by Israel. Hamas has hi-jacked those aspirations in the service of its own extremist Islamic agenda. But the Palestine to which the majority of Palestinians still aspire is not, I would suggest, a monolithic, Iranian-style Muslim state; but one in which there would be tolerance and protection of non-Muslim minorities, including the ancient Christian community.

And including Jews? Well, there’s the nub of the question. Is the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state the only way to protect the Jewish people that live there from a terrifying new Holocaust or dispersion as the vengeance and hatred of the Palestinian people and the Arab world in general is wreaked upon it? This nightmare vision is what ensures that the West continues to back Israel, as we never want to allow another mass persecution and extermination of the Jews to happen again. But is a two-state solution really the only one that could guarantee the Jewish people’s security, while fulfilling – in part, at least – the Palestinian people’s aspirations towards nationhood? The English experience and, as I would say, the natural empathy we should feel towards the Palestinians, could suggest the outlines of a different way out of the impasse. After all, it was Britain that laid the foundations for the present morass by sanctioning the creation of a state of Israel without a corresponding Palestinian homeland while it was administering the territory in the wake of the Second World War. So perhaps England, as distinct from Britain, is in a unique position to atone for the failings of Britain and find a way through.

What if, instead of a two-state solution, England were to propose and push for a two-nation / one-state solution: an integrated, single, federal state covering the present territory of Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories. The new Israel and Palestine would be divided into distinct self-administering nations, with re-negotiated land borders – e.g. the whole of the West Bank being incorporated into Palestine. Meanwhile, the city of Jerusalem could have a separate status as an international ‘free city’, rather like those of medieval Europe or, indeed, a devolved city-county like London. Effectively, then, Israel-Palestine would be divided into two nations plus a non-national city – Israel, Palestine and Jerusalem respectively – with governmental responsibilities being apportioned between the central state and the nations in rather the same way that they are presently between the UK state and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (a structure that should also be extended to England, of course). The new state of Israel-Palestine would have to be secular – neither Jewish, Islamic nor Christian – so as to ensure equal rights and protection for all faith communities. The non-denominational, international city of Jerusalem could become a shining beacon and symbol of the peaceful cohabitation of the three great faiths for which it has such a privileged and precious status. If necessary, Jerusalem could become some sort of international protectorate, with its security being assured by a rotating international force made up from traditionally Christian and Muslim nations alongside those with other, non-Abrahamic faiths. And the fact that there would be a single state would mean that Palestinians could consider the whole of Israel-Palestine as their ‘country’, even if only a part of it were technically their nation. They would be free to live and work throughout the territory; as, indeed, would Jews be in the new nation of Palestine. This would make good some of the humiliation of the Palestinian people and make them feel that not only their nation but their land had been restored to them – although part of the agreement might have to be that all individual disputes over land ownership were formally ended.

‘It would never work’, I hear my readers say. Well, the present situation isn’t exactly working, either; and the single- and even dual-state solutions that have been advanced so far have not come to fruition. The above single-state / dual-nation solution is attempt to reconcile the conflicting claims of Jewish security and Palestinian nationhood. And it’s reconciliation that is so desperately needed; not bombs.

In any case, my main point is not this particular proposal in isolation. This is merely an example – but hopefully, an intriguing one – of what a distinctive English foreign policy might look like. We wouldn’t have to be hide-bound to the legacy of British foreign policy stretching back over decades and centuries; and we wouldn’t need to slavishly toe the American line. We could go with our instincts, our sympathies and our flair for pragmatic compromise. And just think; if England were able to mediate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just think how this could improve our relations with the Islamic world, and with the Muslim communities in our midst!

The possibilities, as they say, are endless. But it might require an independent English foreign policy, and indeed English independence per se, to bring them about. But the example I’ve just given is one where thinking outside the British box might enable England to play a wonderful role in international relations to which our genius for practical solutions and, perhaps, our Christian heritage suit us well.

23 December 2007

Saint Tony becomes a Catholic: a conversion of heart and mind?

Commenting on Tony Blair’s reception into the Catholic Church on Friday, the Vatican is reported to have stated that the decision by someone as authoritative as Tony Blair to join the Church can “only arouse joy and respect”.

Speaking as a Roman Catholic myself, I have to say that while I respect the former PM’s decision, it doesn’t fill me with joy. I’m with Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP and Catholic convert, who wonders whether Mr Blair has now changed his mind over the many decisions he took and supported that ran contrary to Church teaching and advice.

Mr Blair is a profoundly ambiguous figure from a moral perspective: hero or villain; morally courageous or moral coward? The decision over which he faced the biggest moral dilemma – and over which he has been most condemned – is of course that of taking the UK into the US-led war in Iraq. What I’m concerned about is that Tony Blair’s acceptance into the Catholic Church could lend the impression, especially in the Middle East, that the Church endorses that decision. In fact, almost every senior figure in the Church, including the late Pope John Paul II, spoke out against the war and affirmed that it did not meet the criteria for a Just War.

Tony Blair is known to have prayed over his decision back in 2003. While this fact, or at least the public admission of it, provoked a combination of shock, derision and outrage on the part of many non-religious people in the UK, this behaviour is the minimum that would be expected of Christians contemplating doing something that would inevitably result in the loss of many thousands of innocent lives. Even so, Mr Blair went ahead with the war, ignoring the personal advice against doing so he’s known to have received from the late Pope along with the consensus in the worldwide Catholic Church and the opinion of most senior Anglicans.

Moral courage or moral cowardice? Probably a bit of both. Who knows, really, what motivated Mr Blair’s decision? Judgement is mine, says the Lord. All I can say is that, in my opinion, informed by my own Catholic faith, it was a profoundly wrong choice, both morally and strategically. It was not a Just War; it did result in the needless loss of hundreds of thousands of lives; it has destabilised Iraq and the whole Middle East; it undermined the political consensus and moral authority behind the USA and Britain in the ‘war on terror’; and it has increased support for so-called Islamist terrorism.

Elsewhere, I’ve expressed the hope that there may have been nobler, hidden reasons for Tony Blair’s backing for the USA in Iraq, such as the need to be ‘in’ with George Bush in order to exercise influence over his choices and steer him away from even more disastrous courses of action. Also, I wondered whether Mr Blair’s new role of Middle East peace envoy had been taken on partly out of a wish to make reparation for the damage to the whole region and the escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which the Iraq War has been responsible. Mr Blair is a highly intelligent man, and his decision to become a Catholic demonstrates he’s also a man who is finally having the courage of his convictions. He must know that it’s the divisions in Israel-Palestine that are the ultimate source of Islamically inspired terrorism; and that bringing peace in the Holy Land, rather than bringing war to the Middle East, is the only way to defeat the terrorists.

Blessed are the peacemakers. The proof of Tony Blair’s religious conversion will be if he can show that he is one.

29 July 2007

What Is Britain Doing In Afghanistan?

Most people in Britain probably don’t have a very clear idea about what British forces are doing in Afghanistan – apart from the obvious: fighting fierce battles with the Taliban on a daily basis and incurring casualties. Probably, not many people really care that much about Afghanistan, either. They do care about the safety of our troops and might vaguely buy into the proposition that the work they are doing out there is of vital importance to national security. But the war in Afghanistan is not very high up in their list of political priorities – not even in the top ten for the great majority, I suspect.

With a sigh, we say to ourselves that at least the government must know what they’re doing and we have to trust them. I, too, would like to believe that the government has a plan. But if they do, they haven’t made it their business to communicate it in plain English.

OK, so we all know we’re fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda (the two seem to have merged into one in media discourse); and that we mustn’t allow them to get back into power in Afghanistan or continue to build a power base across the border in Pakistan and so risk destabilising that country. But do we really think we can defeat the Taliban militarily? Let’s remember: these are essentially the same guys who saw off the might of the Red Army. They’re hardened, skilled fighters; well equipped; about as highly motivated as they come; they know the impenetrable terrain like a taxi driver knows the Knowledge; and they have a dense network of logistical and manpower support composed of a ragtag alliance of local warlords, drug producers (whom they doubtless protect and derive revenue from) and Islamic hardliners, whether of local origin or coming to them from all over the world via Pakistan.

I don’t think our under-equipped and under-manned forces, however brave and well trained they are, will be able to bust that sort of operation. The Americans certainly won’t. Besides which, looking at it from a historical angle (would that our leaders did so more often!), no one to my knowledge has a) ever actually won a guerilla war, which is what this has become, or b) ever successfully invaded and imposed their will on Afghanistan – not in thousands of years of empires that have come and gone, including the British one.

So one word that could be used to describe what the British are doing in Afghanistan is folly: we’re fighting a war we can’t win and which, moreover, the government probably realises we can’t win. One military or political authority on these matters – I can’t remember who it was now – hit the headlines a few days ago with the claim that we may need to remain in Afghanistan for 40 years or so to achieve our objectives. In my book, that’s code for saying we can’t win. Otherwise, what on earth is such a proposition based on? Why 40 years? Why not make a plan for two years, or a plan a, b and c, plus a worst-case scenario, so at least we know roughly when we can expect to get out, whether ‘victorious’ or not?

The obvious inference is there is no such plan; that no one has the vaguest idea when we’ll be able to extricate ourselves from the stalemate we appear to have got ourselves into. There’s just the ill-defined hope that eventually, over time, the Islamist cause will burn out and be revealed as a failed ideological project, in just the same way that Soviet Communism eventually had to admit that it was non-viable and imploded. That’s where the 40-years idea comes from: on the analogy with the 40 years it took us to ‘win’ the Cold War.

This reminds me of our dear old friend Sir Alan West, the UK Security Minister (see blog of 10 July), who estimated earlier this month that the fight against terrorism in this country could take 15 years. What was that based on? A wet finger held up in the wind? A calculation that we could use the skills gained in the struggle against Northern Irish terrorism, plus our greater ability to isolate Islamic terrorist groups (in part through the willingness of other British people, Muslims or not, to ‘snitch’ on them), to ensure that we could, say, halve the time it took for us to defeat the IRA? And does all this rest on a plan of some kind?

Did Tony Blair have a plan when he sent our troops into Afghanistan? Perhaps a hidden one he was keeping close to his chest? On the face of it, Afghanistan could be written off as one of the prime examples of Tony Blair’s tragic hubris and folly: the man who thought he could do no wrong and who chose to use force to bring about justice and freedom, and found instead that it brought about the opposite of what he intended. Perhaps even the tragedy of a basically good man trapped in a situation of violence which he thinks he can control and direct by going along with it to a limited extent – but then finds he can’t stop the runaway train.

Whatever the hidden wellsprings of the Afghan tragedy within Tony Blair’s ‘heart and mind’ (idealism, Christian hope, megalomania, hubris), the decision to send British forces on this mission and the thinking about their continuing – perhaps indefinite – presence there could certainly be said to exemplify the folly of Britology. The concept of the British mission in Afghanistan involves the idea that Britain is a ‘great power’: a world power, indeed, that has the capability and, by that token, almost the duty and calling to stand up and be counted, and to take a lead in the fight against those who would destroy ‘our values’, ‘our civilisation’ and ‘our way of life’. This notion was expressed by Tony Blair on numerous occasions when he was PM. It was recently re-stated by Jack Straw, Blair’s erstwhile ally and now in charge of formulating GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] constitutional reforms. In a BBC Radio Four interview, defending the integrity of the United Kingdom against those who wish to see more independence for its constituent countries, Jack Straw again argued that we should not forget that the UK is a great power at the international level, which should not be compromised by breaking it up.

Well, clearly, we do have a duty (every nation has a duty) to defend all that is good, true, civilised, sacred and human, wherever we are in a position to do so. But is Britain really a ‘great power’ that should or can do this in Afghanistan – even supposing that that’s what we’re really doing there? In fact, we’re not even a significant regional power. The reason why Afghanistan is strategically important is that it’s sandwiched between three of the real superpowers of the 21st century, all of which have an interest in what happens there: Russia, China and India. In addition, it neighbours Iran, which appears to have – or has been represented as having – ambitions of its own to be a regional (nuclear) superpower.

One way of looking at it is that we’re doing Russia’s and India’s job for them: both countries are engaged in struggles with Islamic insurgents within their own borders (in Chechenia and Kashmir); both therefore have a clear interest in the suppression of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; but neither country can really intervene directly – Russia because it has already experienced its own ‘Vietnam’ in Afghanistan, and India because of its troubled relations with Pakistan. And everyone wants to keep China out of the frame. China pursues a clearly self-interested, non-ethical foreign policy; and it would not have been beyond the bounds of possibility that it would have tried to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with whatever regime was in power in Afghanistan if there was an economic interest in doing so. It must have been part of the mix of strategic thinking (at least, I like to think there are strategists in the US State Department that think along these lines) to get into Afghanistan before the Chinese got a toehold there, in terms of economic-development and social projects, and supporting personnel.

But what advantage do we Britons get out of our presence and sacrifices in Afghanistan? Isn’t it about time we pursued a somewhat more self-interested foreign policy, or at least did not put ourselves – and our soldiers – out on a limb for our ‘international partners’, some of whom don’t appear to be that appreciative? It’s far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan has brought any significant benefits for us in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamically inspired terrorism, both in the region and at home. Arguably, the opposite: we’ve pushed Al-Qaeda into the mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they seem to be able to operate with impunity; and our intervention has provided grist to the mill for the terrorist recruiters, who point to it as yet another sign that we’re engaged in a persecutory ‘crusade’ against Islam.

Primarily, of course, the Afghan escapade is a US-led project. But from recent media coverage in Britain, you could be forgiven for not being aware of this. It’s always the British role, British ‘contacts’ with the Taliban and British casualties we hear about, hardly ever those of the US. It’s as if the Afghan War is being positioned as a / the British war, just as the Iraq War and consequent insurgency has been positioned as predominantly a US affair that the British have just gone along with and supported. Is this because, yet again, we’re providing ‘cover’ for the Americans in Afghanistan: concealing the extent of their continuing presence there and, more particularly, in the border territory with Pakistan? The Americans were reported this week to have been pushing to be allowed to take a more leading (and overt) role in the military efforts to attack Islamist strongholds on the Pakistani side of the border. So while us brave Brits have been taking the hit in Helmand (three more soldiers killed in the last three days), have we just been distracting attention from all that the Americans have been busily getting on with?

And there’s another reason why it’s been useful for the media to try to depict Afghanistan as ‘our war’ – apart from the fact that they couldn’t get away with this in relation to Iraq. This is that it allows emotional support for our forces’ presence in Afghanistan to be built up by playing on the whole British thing referred to above: our young lads, with all the skill and bravery of the British Army, nobly defending our way of life from its enemies – taking the fight to the terrorists, indeed – and in some cases, sacrificing their lives in the cause.

Caught a bit of the latest episode of the ITV series Guarding the Queen last week. This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Coldstream Guards, who are the regiment responsible for guarding the royal residences. Last week’s programme saw them getting ready and departing for a tour of duty in Afghanistan: young soldiers talking about their excitement at setting off for the “adventure” [sic] of serving in one of the most dangerous war zones on the planet; regiment commander speaking of the inevitable fatalities but asserting that we’re not just fighting our enemies at home, but the nation is also being defended thousands of miles away in places like Afghanistan; embarking soldiers being exhorted by their commanding officer to give no quarter to the enemy when they’re out there and to “give them hell” [verbatim].

OK, so this is fighting talk intended to help his men be psyched up and ready for the tough fighting that awaits them. However, on national TV, this is not the kind of language to reassure Muslims that we’re not anti-Islam, e.g. that we don’t in fact want to cast all Muslims into hell. Some people in the Muslim world think we mean such statements literally. Equally, it seems rather tasteless for the programme to have played along with the idea that the war in Afghanistan was some sort of exciting Boys’ Own adventure awaiting our brave young men. War is not an adventure; it’s horrific. No doubt those lads will experience the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush of armed combat, which is a life they’ve chosen, after all. But they’ll also encounter something of the hell their commander was urging them to give their enemies.

In fairness to the programme, the next instalment promises to show the reality of the regiment’s tour in Afghanistan; and from the excerpts they showed, there’ll be some men returning home in a box. But one can’t help thinking that this is basically war propaganda and part of an unspoken army recruitment drive. This is because if the powers that be are imagining that we could be staying in Afghanistan (and Iraq?) indefinitely, we’re going to need a steady supply of new recruits to replace those lost in the fighting, and to build up the overall personnel levels to overcome the serious over-stretching of human and material resources that the Army Chief of Staff was talking about last week.

All the same, that commander’s fighting talk about wiping out the enemy – which reminded me of the Royal Irish Regiment commander Tim Collins’ similar blood-thirsty call to arms ahead of the Iraq War – did make me wonder whether the Taliban are a fitting object for such homicidal zeal, albeit in a supposedly noble cause. Do we the British really have such a quarrel with the Taliban that we should seek to utterly exterminate them, or at least rhetorically posture that that’s what we’re about? Obviously, we don’t like them; and there’s much not to like. Equally, if they’re attacking us to the death, we have a right to kill them in self-defence. But do we really want to destroy them completely?

If we do want to exterminate the Taliban, two questions follow: 1) is it morally right to seek this objective, and 2) do we actually plan to achieve it, as opposed to merely wanting to do so? If that’s really what we’re at, maybe the logic would indeed require some US-style – but more effectively implemented – scorched-earth policy, employing massive resources and fire power to really have a good go at them once and for all, with all the consequent risk of loss of innocent lives and wanton destruction. Because with the current level of resourcing, it is indeed hard to envisage an end to the cycle that’s started to set in: our boys get the Taliban on the run; but then they haven’t got the resources to chase them into their strongholds and finish them off; so not surprisingly, a short while later, the Taliban have regrouped and are said to be ‘resurgent’. (I don’t in fact advocate this scorched-earth policy; but the current tactics don’t appear to be getting anywhere – so the logic would be either to do enough to give oneself a chance of winning (futile in Afghanistan, in my view, for the reasons indicated earlier) or get out.)

But, so the argument goes, the main enemy we’re after is Al-Qaeda not the Taliban – except that the two have become almost synonymous in Afghanistan, as was observed above. But was that always the primary objective? If so, it appears not to have been well served by US and British intervention in Afghanistan. But was the main goal not regime change, in any case; and the hunt for those responsible for 9/11 provided a perfect pretext, just as the removal of WMD provided such a flawed pretext for going into Iraq?

I say this based on a view about the Americans’ guiding strategic vision, if indeed they have one. What they seem to have been trying to prevent is a sort of nightmare Domino Effect (funny how these Cold War throw-backs keep surfacing), whereby one state after another stretching from Pakistan right through to Saudi Arabia would fall to (Al-Qaeda-backed) Islamists. And two of these countries potentially would have nuclear arsenals: Pakistan, which already does, and Iran. If Al-Qaeda got their hands on these weapons, there’d be no telling what kind of damage they might do. So the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were mainly intended to establish buffer states – Western-style democracies – between Iran and Pakistan, on one side, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Iran would thereby be isolated and, who knows, she could be made to bow to US pressure over her nuclear programme and democratic reforms; and Al-Qaeda would be robbed of its power base in the region.

Except, of course, pretty much the opposite has happened. Afghanistan and Iraq have been destabilised, and American intervention has created an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to increase their influence in those countries: joining their efforts with those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and working alongside Sunni insurgents in Iraq to have a go at the Americans and their allies, and make a serious bid for power, which would have been inconceivable under Saddam.

The nightmare vision that the Americans seem to have been motivated to prevent, if I’m right, illustrates the conceptual bankruptcy that informs Western thinking about the ‘Islamist’ threat and / or the War on Terror. Even if all of the five countries I mentioned had been allowed to remain, or to move further in the direction of becoming, fundamentalist Islamic states, they would all have had quite a different character and understanding of Islam; and it’s by no means certain they would all have been natural allies of Al-Qaeda. The Iranians are (Shi’ite) fundamentalists, but they don’t share Al-Qaeda’s Sunni-based jihadism nor Saudi-style fundamentalism. And the extent to which the different strands of radical Islamic belief are not natural bed-fellows is demonstrated by the civil war in Iraq, setting Shi’ites against Sunnis. It might have been far smarter for the Americans to have cultivated improved relations with both Iran and Iraq (a former ally), for instance by getting some real momentum behind peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. After all, it’s not unprecedented for the West to maintain expedient friendships with Islamic regimes we find objectionable from a political and religious point of view; cf. Saudi Arabia itself and the less than perfectly democratic, two-faced regime of President Musharraf in Pakistan. That way, Afghanistan would really have been isolated, and co-ordinated international efforts could have been mounted to restrict the flow of money, personnel and logistical support to the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

Instead, the American thinking bears all the hallmarks of that of the Cold War, as I’ve been remarking. They seem to treat ‘Islamism’ as a single, unified ideology and organised threat in the same way as Soviet communism. In response to this, they believe (or believed, at least, before the Iraqi fiasco) that Western doctrines of freedom, democracy and secular governance could carry the day throughout the region, just as they had done throughout former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But this is totally disastrous when applied to the Muslim Middle East on top of the long, humiliating history of Western support for Israel. It can only heap fuel on the fire of suspicion that the US does want to replace Islam with its own values as the basis for political power in the region, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog – is a plausible description of what the US and the West would really like to happen in the Middle East. This then makes Al-Qaeda seem more credible as a defender of the integrity of Islam in its heartlands, and as the main organisation that is really willing and able to take on the US and its allies, particularly Britain.

If the Americans did start to take over direct responsibility for anti-insurgent operations in Pakistan, one can’t help fearing that this would push that country into the same chaos as Iraq, thereby increasing the threat that Al-Qaeda could gain real influence over the ‘Islamists’ in that country and, who knows, eventually get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury. In this respect, Britain is exercising a much-needed moderating role in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and, reading between the lines, this must have been high on the agenda in last week’s visit of David Miliband – the new British Foreign Secretary and golden boy of British politics – to both countries. This coming week, GB is off to meet the President and to reaffirm the Special Relationship. Up to now, GB has been, as usual, shrewdly reticent about what his plans are for the continuing British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if I’ve read the runes of cultural and media discourse on the subject correctly (Salman Rushdie knighthood as a tactic to consolidate liberal support for the war effort; general effort to enhance emotional endorsement and sympathy for the struggle in Afghanistan), we’re not about to see a substantial change of tack.

But then perhaps it might ultimately be not such a bad thing that we don’t have a policy reversal, at least for the present. Maybe, indeed, the potentially moderating influence we can exercise on the US is the most important reason for us to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least, we can try to stop the Americans f***ing up in Pakistan as they did in Iraq!

And maybe this was the reason for us being part of the show from day one. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the real reason for Tony Blair providing such apparently uncritical support for US action in Afghanistan and Iraq was that he was concerned to prevent the Americans from being totally isolated internationally: without any support from any of their traditional and more newfound allies for their policies, and thereby more vulnerable than ever to the terror threat. One can certainly see how Tony Blair would have thought that the world would be a much more dangerous place if the Americans went ahead with their strategy on their own, without the support of even their closest historical ally; or even if they retreated, partly out of pique, into the kind of 1930s-style isolationism that helped to precipitate the Second World War. Maybe, by staying on the inside, Mr Blair thought this was the only way to prevent an even greater catastrophe from happening, and to avert the disaster of a USA that felt it had no friends in the world and therefore had no alternative but to take all necessary measures on its own.

If this is true – even if just part of the complex and troubling set of motivations for Mr Blair leading British forces into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq – then maybe our ex-PM is more of a Saint Tony than any of us realised at the time. And maybe now his mission to bring peace in Palestine is his way to expiate all the errors committed in those two countries and to concentrate on what he knew all along was the only way that reconciliation could be brought to the Middle East and terrorism could be defeated.

And perhaps this is the most important – and perhaps the only – reason why Britain should be doing what it is in Afghanistan.

8 July 2007

Are Suicide Bombings an Attack On ‘Our Values’?

At the time of the 7/7 bomb attacks, whose grim two-year anniversary was marked yesterday, it was said that these atrocities constituted an attack against ‘our values’ to which we had to show defiance. Similarly, during the recent wave of largely bungled bombings, the last of which – on Glasgow Airport – had a distinctly suicidal component, the terrorism that they exemplified was also characterised as an assault on our values.

Leaving aside for now the issue of what exactly ‘our values’ might be, are suicide bombings primarily intended to destroy them? Or, if that is indeed one of the avowed intentions of the suicide bomber, should we in a sense dignify that intention by building it up as a serious assault on our whole value system and way of life?

In our Western-centric way, we tend to forget that suicide bombings have become one of the tactics of choice in other conflicts: that between Israel and the Palestinians, and the de facto civil war between Muslims in Iraq, for instance. In these cases, the suicide bombing is not obviously intended as an attack on the values of the West per se, although it indirectly expresses opposition to Western policy and actions in the Middle East. Similarly, you could see the suicide assaults on targets in Western countries as intended, on one level, to make a political statement and achieve political objectives, albeit that this dimension does involve an element of opposition to Western values and ideology.

In this respect, the 9/11 and 7/7 incidents were extremely eloquent: in the former instance, an awe-inspiring assault on some of the most potent symbols of Western power and, in particular, the US superpower in the shape of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The fact that such a horrific action gave rise to so much jubilant celebration in many Muslim countries should not lead us to rush into condemnation of Islamic barbarism and blood-thirstiness but should – and perhaps was intended to – give us pause for thought about what the West collectively had done to give rise to such hatred and despair. Not that this exonerates the actions of terrorists. But it certainly made people sit up and start to pay attention to the problem, and in that respect, it was a powerful and successful act of communication.

Similarly, the 7/7 outrages could not have been timed for greater effect. The government, Tony Blair, the media and the official representatives of the city of London were all basking in the self-satisfied glow of Live8, the Gleneagles summit (and its promise to tackle global poverty) and the award of the 2012 Olympics to London the day before. The horror of 7/7 and its aftermath threw all of that into question, as if to say ‘enough with all your fine words; but this is the horror you’ve inflicted in Iraq and Palestine, and what are you going to do about it?’. This at least was one of the messages that seemed to come out of those attacks in the context in which they arose, even if the underlying thinking was twisted. The knee-jerk, indignant reaction to the bombings that they were an assault on ‘our values’ merely served to make us deaf to that message once again.

So what of the recent, mercifully ‘unsuccessful’, attacks? A new Scottish prime minister had just come into office without, as yet, any indication of a change in the policy on Britiish involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so an Iraqi doctor, working over here as part of our liberal, global, tolerant market society, attempts to carry out two massive bombings in London and one in Glasgow, Scotland – the first terror attack in that land. The political intention appears clear: to whip up public demands and personal pressure on GB [Gordon Brown] for a British withdrawal from those two countries. This is more the message from these failed attacks than that they are an assault on our values per se, although the ideological motivation is undeniably also present.

And by the way, isn’t it rather uncanny that London seems to have experienced more than its ‘fair share’ of bungled bombings: the supposedly attempted bombings of 21/7 and now these latest episodes? The 21/7 would-be bombers have claimed that they didn’t actually intend for their bombs to work, that they were just trying to wreak terror without the carnage – achieving the desired communication impact of terrorism minus the bloodshed; martyrdom for the cause without the ultimate martyrdom of death. Is it possible that the latest attacks were also not fully followed through for the same purpose: to provide a warning of what could happen if British policy didn’t change, rather than actually provoking a further wave of support for the British military presence in those countries, which might well have happened had the bombs gone off? Perhaps we should take it as a warning even if it wasn’t actually intended as such.

Ultimately, I’m speculating about the intentions of the suicide bombers, failed or successful. But we need to pay more attention to the message that these incidents are conveying if we really want to do everything to avoid a repetition, and one which this time could have massively deadly effects. The terrorists are wrong in their assumption that their actions can sway the policy decisions of Western governments, i.e. that policies will be amended in direct response to the threat that terrorism poses. However, they are correct in thinking that their attacks have a huge impact on our hearts and minds. The extremely cleverly conceived and executed attacks of 9/11; the brilliantly timed and co-ordinated bombings of 7/7; and the possibly calculated botched attacks of 21/7 and last week speak powerfully to our emotions and our imaginations. And this is perhaps the only language the terrorist feels is left to the people in whose name he misguidedly carries out his atrocities.

It shouldn’t have to take shared suffering and a common experience of suicide bombings to that of the Palestinian and Iraqi people for us to show compassion towards them and listen to their despair. We may not believe that we are directly responsible for the suffering in those lands; but we do have a duty and the opportunity to do something about it.

If only for own protection.

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