The world has every right to feel angry. Not just with the perpetrators of
the Saturday night massacre in Bali, but with the governments who vowed to wage
a "war on terror" which would make attacks like it less likely.
Of course, no one is accusing our leaders of having a chance to prevent this
act of mass murder and deliberately failing to take it. (No one, that is, except
the conspiracy obsessives of radical Islamism, already spreading the word that
Saturday's bombers were US agents, seeking to justify and intervention.)
But there is much western governments promised to do after 9/11 which would
at least have obstructed the path of the men who plotted evil last weekend. Washington
called it a "war on terror" and, with remarkably little resistance, most of the
world's people either signed up for it or acquiesced in it. Prevention of horrors
like Saturday's was the new strategy's primary purpose. Yet all too little of
that "war" effort has actually materialized.
This new global gameplan was meant to have two core elements at least according
to its British advocates. First would be a ruthless, unblinking pursuit of al-Qaida.
In the pained weeks that followed the attacks on New York and Washington, citizens
in the US and beyond imagined the full force of the state - its army, police and
the complete battery of its secret services - deployed against the new enemy.
Nothing would be allowed to distract from this goal. If that meant unholy alliances,
so be it. If that meant temporarily shelving other foreign policy interests, OK:
hunting down Osama bin Laden and his henchmen was to be the sole priority.
On this view, Afghanistan was merely the beginning. Uprooting the al-Qaida
bases that had mushroomed there was necessary, but hardly sufficient. The whole
terrifying point about al-Qaida was that it was not located in one targetable
territory, neatly confined to one set of borders. Instead it had spread like a
vapor to as many as 50 countries, with up to 100,000 militants ready for action.
Bombing a few camps would hardly reach this enemy at all.
The only way to fight this new fire was with new fire. Since al-Qaida's methods
were not those of a conventional army, the response would have to be equally unconventional.
The military analyst Martin van Creveld had warned a decade earlier of "asymmetric
war" and now the world understood what he meant. He urged armies to put aside
their ships and rockets, and take on the enemy on its own terrain. The soldiers
of al-Qaida did not march in columns on battlefields but wore jeans, rented apartments
and posed as students in Hamburg, Brixton and Florida. To win, our soldiers would
have to learn a new language of combat.
Last weekend's atrocity has only underlined the tricky, slippery nature of
the new enemy. No one is even sure if Bali was an al-Qaida operation or, for that
matter, whether such thing as an "al-Qaida operation" even exists. The Indonesian
government says it was, noting the expertise required to trigger a series of simultaneous
explosions - a know how only al-Qaida could possess. Others are doubtful, insisting
that Bin Laden's men tend to prefer military, political or culturally iconic targets.
It is the homegrown Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah which hits nightclubs and similar
symbols of "western decadence".
Even if it was the Jemaah group, there might still be an al-Qaida link. It
could be subtle, with al-Qaida acting as an inspiration rather than as direct
command. This is one more reason why al-Qaida represents such a formidable foe:
it is not an organization in the western sense at all. It may just be an animating
idea, spreading fast throughout the Islamic world.
Which brings us to the second prong of the war on terror many of us thought
we signed up to a year ago. This held that if al-Qaida was truly to be defeated,
killing or arresting its activists would not do the trick: lopping off a head
today would only make another grow tomorrow. Every counter-terrorist struggle
in the world, from Algiers to Belfast, had taught the same lesson: in the end,
there can be no military victory over an enemy which enjoys even a limited degree
of popular support. Instead, there has to be political action. Not an attempt
to compromise with the killers - Bin-Laden is hardly demanding roundtable talks
- but to win over the constituency that offers them tacit backing: to drain the
sea in which they swim.
Taken together, these two elements amounted to a strategy that was tough on
terror, tough on the causes of terror. The west would pursue Al-Qaida operatives,
even as it moved to address the grievances which made too many in the Muslim world
rally to Bin-Laden's flag.
That meant, among other things, a new alternative energy strategy, aimed eventually
at weaning the west off oil. No longer would the US and others need to manipulate
the Middle East just to safeguard their petrol supply. They could let the peoples
of the Arab world choose their own governments for once. The US would move its
troops out of Saudi Arabia, healing one of the sores Bin-Laden most likes to inflame:
the presence of "infidels" on holy Muslim soil. And Washington would pick up where
Clinton left off, devoting serious political muscle to the Israeli-Palestinian
peace process. Genuine movement in that area would instantly rob the Islamists
of one of their greatest recruiting pitches.
Who knows what impact all that might have had? We certainly don't, because
it has hardly been tried. Nor has the military component of the war on terror
fared much better. Bin-Laden was allowed to vanish, along with the Taliban leader
Mullah Omar, who escaped the wrath of the mightiest army in the world on board
a clapped-out motorbike. The jump-suited captives at Camp X-Ray appear too low-level
to have much useful to say. Nor do the US intelligence agencies inspire much confidence:
they remain at war with each other while their political masters tend to hear
only what they want to hear.
None of this is a surprise. For the prosecutors of the war on terror - who
promised to focus like a laser beam - have let their eye wander. Like the rulers
of Orwell's 1984, our leaders have urged us to switch our hatred overnight not
from Eastasia to Eurasia but from al-Qaida to Baghdad. Now we are to believe Saddam
is the urgent, number one priority.
Bali has proved why that is a woeful error. A war on Iraq will win yet more
backing for jihadism in the Muslim world, apparently concerning all Bin Laden's
most lurid predictions of a clash of west against Islam. A prolonged US occupation
of Iraq will be the greatest provocation yet. But it will also be a distraction
from the struggle we were all urged to join a year ago. Bali has proved what Clinton
argued a fortnight ago: that radical Islamism remains the "most pressing" threat
in the world today. Clinton gets that. The only question is, does Tony Blair?
And if he does, is he telling George W Bush?
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002