By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 28/09/06):
Here in Washington, five years after George Bush launched his “global war on terror” in response to the 9/11 attacks, I sense one of those subtle subterranean movements that may presage a significant shift in American foreign policy. You detect such a movement in private conversations with senior officials, in hints and half-finished sentences; in what they don’t say as much as what they do, or what they don’t object to when you say it; in body language and facial expressions – in all those registers of communication that you do not get through the internet, television or mobile phone, in fact through anything except the irreplaceable experience of two humans talking face to face. And because it’s so subtle and subterranean, barely acknowledged in public speeches, let alone in acts of public policy, you also know it may never happen. Something comes up, a key argument in the Oval Office swings the other way, and this is the shift that never was.
None the less, here’s what I think I see. It’s not just an increasingly clear acknowledgement that the United States faces more jihadist terrorists than it did five years ago and that, under the American-led occupation, Iraq has become their training ground, rallying cry and “cause celebre” – to quote the secret April 2006 national intelligence estimate partially leaked to national papers at the weekend and partially declassified by the Bush administration on Tuesday evening. Since Tuesday, that’s official. What you can find on the website of the director of national intelligence www.dni.gov is a consolidated “key judgment” of 16 US intelligence agencies. The political interpretation of that judgment is still furiously disputed, especially as the congressional midterm elections are just 40 days away, but it would be very hard, now, to deny the basic finding. It confirms what most journalists and independent analysts, and many military officers on the ground, have been reporting for months, if not years.
What I’m picking up goes deeper. It’s a growing sense not merely that the “war on terror” cannot be won by military means alone – the Bush administration has always acknowledged that, at least in principle – but that it has, in these first five years, relied too much on guns and soldiers, and made too little of the other instruments at its disposal. Robert Hutchings, who for two years, from early 2003 to early 2005, was the chairman of the national intelligence council responsible for pulling together those national intelligence estimates, puts it in a nutshell. The US has, he says, “over-militarised” the struggle against terrorism. Sitting within the restored walls of the Pentagon, that curiously old-fashioned citadel of American military might, with its linoleum-floored corridors and 1950s feel, a senior official tells me that the key to successful “counter-insurgency” operations is 80% politics and only 20% military, “perhaps less than 20%”. There has been, he goes on, a perception – a misperception, he swiftly adds – that Washington has been fighting this war “one-dimensionally”, over-emphasising the military.
And that’s in the Pentagon. Across the Potomac, in the state department, the talk is all of a multi-dimensional, generational struggle, combining classical diplomacy and the use of economic power with new ways of promoting democracy in the Islamic world. The analogies are with the cold war, not any hot one. Of course some still like it hot – particularly some in the office of vice president Dick Cheney – but their number and their influence has diminished as Iraq has gone from bad to worse.
The test case, everyone agrees, is now Iran, not Iraq. What a difference one letter makes – one letter and five years. Iraq policy today is about damage limitation. As Ned Lamont, the fresh-faced Senate hopeful who defeated the pro-Iraq-war Joseph Lieberman in the Democratic primaries in Connecticut, recently observed, “we now have a lot of lousy choices”. The partially declassified national intelligence estimate concluded that “the Iraq conflict has become the [the, note, not just a] ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” It went on: “Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.” The former judgment is based on facts, the latter on informed speculation, but the speculation is plausible enough. The trouble is that most likely scenarios leave jihadists perceiving themselves to have succeeded. And a country torn apart.
With Iran, the great winner from the Iraq war, the US stands at a different kind of crossroads. As this column goes to press, we do not know if the chief Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, has the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini (who, we should never forget, is Iran’s real president), to commence negotiations about its nuclear programme based on the suspension of uranium enrichment. If he says yes, we will have the extraordinary spectacle of the US secretary of state sitting down in all due form to negotiate with the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran – something that has not happened, ever, in the 27 years since the Islamic revolution. If he says no, the US will be urging Russia, China and us Europeans down the path of UN-authorised sanctions.
Yet beyond this immediate choice is a much larger question: will President Bush be ready to leave the White House with Iran still possibly edging crab-like towards secretly developing a nuclear weapon? Is he prepared to bomb Iran to prevent it, or at least to slow it down? We know that the Pentagon has contingency plans for bombing suspected nuclear sites, with the air force saying they could do it and the army crying out that it’s their soldiers on the ground who will have to cope with Iranian-made retaliation in Iraq and elsewhere. In detailed surveillance and planning, the spooks and special forces are apparently down to the level of plotting individual air vents, seeping hot air or traces of radioactivity from possible hidden facilities (or maybe just boiler rooms – or decoys). We also know that the Pentagon’s war-gaming of the consequences of bombing Iran ends with a bloody nose for the US, and that virtually all the political advice inside the US government is against it.
But in the end, one man will decide: Bush. And here’s where we come back to that subterranean shift in attitudes towards the use of military force as the best means to win the “war on terror”. Has it reached him? Will it reach him? His defiant and still militaristic rhetoric around the fifth anniversary of 9/11 suggests not. But rhetoric is one thing, reality another.
At this pivotal moment, we who live in the rest of the world, beyond the Washington beltway, also face a choice. We can watch like spectators in the cinema, as a real-life Terminator 4 unfolds before our eyes, and then walk home, at once titivatingly appalled and self-huggingly reassured in the certainty of our own moral superiority – until, that is, we are blown up by a jihadist bomb. Or we can try to reinforce the nascent shift in Washington by ourselves helping to develop better ways than guns and missiles of dealing with a militant Iran, the awful consequences of the misbegotten Iraq war, home-grown terrorist cells and the other real dangers that threaten us even more directly than they do the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.