Published on Monday, July 24, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
The West's Moral Erosion Has Undermined the War on Terror
It is essential for the US and its allies to abide by the same rules they seek to impose on others. This principle is being flouted
by Max Hastings
Morality in foreign policy is often subjective. The US administration is confident that it represents the forces of democracy and freedom, and thus feels free to do whatever it judges best to promote these fine things. Israel perceives Palestinians and Arabs as committed to its destruction, justifying any action taken against them. Some in the Muslim world see no prospect of frustrating western cultural, economic, and military dominance on western terms of engagement, and so choose other methods - such as suicide-bombing - that better suit their weakness.
Many Americans and Israelis believe that virtue is anyway unimportant, that the Arab world - and indeed the world at large - chiefly respects the successful use of power. Yet the weakness of this argument is laid bare in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. The US, Israel, and their backers - prominently including Tony Blair, if not the British people - are perceived both as behaving immorally and using force ineffectually.
In a recent article for the International Institute for Strategic Studies journal, Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the School of Public Policy at Singapore University, analyzed the precipitous decline of perceived western legitimacy. His principal argument was that it is essential for the US and its allies to be seen to abide by the same rules that they seek to impose on others. He proposed a recasting of the post-1945 Truman consensus, within which most nations acknowledged that the US sought to exercise its might for the welfare of all. Urging the US to renew its commitment to making the UN a real force, Mahbubani acknowledged the justice of giving large powers large voices through the security council. He argued, however, that its members' special influence must be matched by a special sense of responsibility, which is today perceived as lacking.
The world is unimpressed, he said, by US attempts to limit the rising power of China. Osama bin Laden has "successfully delegitimized American power in the eyes of hundreds of millions of Muslims ... One of the key factors in the growing delegitimization ... is [US] indifference to its impact and to how it is perceived in the eyes of the 6 billion people in the rest of the world." The principle of political and economic even-handedness is key, and is being flouted.
Most of the above seems undeniable by any reasonable person. It is hard to overstate the practical consequences of the west's moral erosion. The 2001 Afghan invasion commanded widespread international support. Yet, in Afghanistan today, most NATO members are fulfilling their commitments to help stabilise the country in the most half-hearted fashion. American behavior elsewhere has diminished willingness to assist American purposes anywhere. This is mistaken, but unsurprising. The British contingent is striving its hardest in Helmand province, but the leakage of moral authority from Iraq has impacted on the perceived legitimacy of military action in Afghanistan. British soldiers on the ground pay the price, as ever, for their political masters' misjudgments.
Last Tuesday the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, delivered a shamefully complacent speech about Britain's proud record in upholding international law, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We in the United Kingdom," he said, "take great care to ensure that we comply with the rule of law ... We take legitimacy very seriously." Operationally, on the battlefield, this is true. But it seems astonishing that any member of a government that has joined with the US in inflicting frightful damage on western legitimacy should dare to speak in such terms. Goldsmith added: "International law cannot be a substitute for morality or political judgment." True enough. Blair, with the help of his attorney, has driven a coach and horses through all three.
Morality alone cannot make an international order work. Few of us, however, want to be represented by governments that are perceived by most of the human race as pursuing policies which have no moral basis at all.
Hezbollah is a profoundly unpleasant and violent movement, which has inflicted as much grief upon the people of Lebanon as the Israelis. But as long as Israel continues to deny justice to the Palestinians, Hezbollah's actions will be deemed by many to possess more legitimacy than its own. Higher standards are expected from a sovereign state than a terrorist organisation.
It is understandable that George Bush should have endorsed the current Israeli campaign, for no more can be expected from him. It is almost incomprehensible, however, that Blair should also have done so, save in the context of the prime minister's wider loss of radio contact with Planet Earth. Israeli actions fail the pragmatic as well as the moral test. There is no possibility that they will suppress terrorist resistance to their polity. An Israeli academic chided me this week: "You columnists witter about proportionality - you should consider what the Israeli public demands from its government."
This recalled to me the wise observation of that most brilliant of British strategists Professor Sir Michael Howard in the aftermath of 9/11. "We have just got to hope," he said, "that whatever retaliatory action the Bush government undertakes to satisfy its own people for the twin towers does the least possible damage to the struggle against terrorism."
The defeat of terrorism is best achieved through an unglamorous cocktail of politics, diplomacy, intelligence, bribery, police work, and special forces operations. Above all, a successful campaign offers the society from which the terrorists are drawn a just political dispensation. Contrary to widespread belief, the British did not defeat the 1950s Malayan insurgency by brilliant soldiering, but by shrewd politicking, which included a promise to quit the country. Northern Ireland today may not be a satisfactory place, but it owes its relative tranquillity to politics and economics rather than to 30 years of counter-terrorist campaigning.
Israel's attempts to quell opponents by the use of superior force may briefly appease its own public opinion, but contribute nothing to the nation's lasting security - indeed the reverse. Bush deserves some sort of award from the erratic and incompetent leaders of Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, to name but three, because the force most helpful to sustaining them in power is the raucous hostility of the US.
It is extraordinary to behold the loud, small people who direct US policy-making today, and contrast them with the towering figures who dominated in the late 1940s. Can Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld come from the same country that produced Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, and George Marshall? There was nothing limp-wristed about the latter. They forged the policy of containment of the Soviet Union and urged Truman to fight in Korea. Yet all were repositories of deep wisdom and generosity of spirit. When I once applauded their memories to Ray Seitz, then US ambassador in London, he dryly reminded me that none achieved elective office.
The point is well made. But they wielded influence in a fashion that determined US policy, in an era when western command of the moral high ground was hardly disputed in any civilised society. Somehow, though surely not under the current US president or British prime minister, this is what we must regain.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006