By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 10/01/07):
Say what you like about George Bush, but no one can accuse him of following the crowd. When everyone from the American electorate to the US military brass, along with a rare consensus of world opinion, cries out with one voice to say “enough” of the war in Iraq, Bush heads in the opposite direction – and decides to escalate. When his army chiefs complain of desperate overstretch in the war on terror, he takes that as his cue to open up another front. And that’s just this week.
On Sunday night the US military launched an air strike – not on Iraq or Afghanistan, but on southern Somalia. Some reports last night claimed that the bombing has continued ever since. If you didn’t know that Somalia was on the enemies’ list – if you’re finding it hard, what with Syria and Iran and North Korea, to keep track of Washington’s foes, don’t blame yourself. These days the axis of evil is expanding faster than the European Union, with a couple of new members added every January.
Not that we should mock. At first blush, the Somalia raid (or raids) looks like just the kind of action that a global war on terror should entail, had it not been diverted by the unrelated nonsense about WMD and Iraq. After all, the Americans say they aimed their fire on Sunday at al-Qaida bigwigs, thought to be responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Zapping bad guys like them is exactly what the war on terror was supposed to be about.
But Sunday’s operation carried serious risks. There is the propaganda coup – with the jihadist enemy represented by the US, once again, bombing a Muslim country. If the Americans have bungled, and civilians have been killed, then the recruiting impact for al-Qaida and others will be even greater. And the precedents suggest such raids from the sky are horribly inaccurate. This time last year a US Predator drone thought it had Osama bin-Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in its sights when it hit a Pakistani compound near the Afghan border. The attack killed a reported 17 people, including six women and six children – but not Zawahiri. Africa hands I spoke to yesterday were doubtful the Americans had done any better this time: their chief target, al-Qaida’s top man in east Africa, is said to be a master of disguise and constantly on the move. (And, if they really did have him in their grasp, wouldn’t it have been better to capture him and find out what he knows?)
It hardly helps appearances that Washington’s partner in this adventure is the government of mainly Christian Ethiopia. For this was not just a simple police operation, but part of a wider US intrusion into a messy, complicated conflict.
A fortnight ago the Ethiopians entered Somalia to topple the Islamist forces who had just taken Mogadishu. Americans dislike that Islamist movement, fearing it has the makings of an African Taliban, so they backed the Ethiopians to take it out. According to Patrick Smith, the editor of Africa Confidential, the war on terror is fast becoming a cold war for the 21st century, with the US finding proxy allies to fight proxy enemies in faraway places.
Of course, Bush himself doesn’t see it that way. He doubtless hoped that a neat, self-contained air strike in Africa could remind Americans of the bit of the war on terror they like – hunting down the baddies – just before they hear some news they don’t. For tonight, President Bush will go on television and tell his fellow Americans that he is preparing to send upwards of 20,000 more troops into the graveyard that is Iraq. His people are calling it a surge. Anyone on nodding terms with the English language would call it escalation.
It’s a neat twist on democratic accountability. In last November’s midterm elections, Americans sent a message as clearly as they could, short of hiring a plane to spell it out in skywriting above Pennsylvania Avenue: we want this war to end. Bush promised he had heard them – and is promptly doing the very opposite. One New York Times editorial wondered if he had even watched the 2006 election night results or whether he had just curled up in front of a videotaped repeat of the Republican victories of 2002.
The Republicans have form in this area, of course. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected on a promise to end the war in Vietnam: instead, it intensified until another 55,000 US troops were dead, along with an estimated 2 million south-east Asians. But Bush’s showing of his middle finger feels more brazen, if only because it is not only the American public he is ignoring, but people you would think he might respect.
Only weeks have past since the Iraq Study Group, led by his father’s consigliere, James Baker, recommended a face-saving extrication from Iraq. That plan is now binned. So too are the senior military leaders who counselled against sending more troops to fight a losing war. General George Casey will no longer be in charge, while General John Abizaid has been relieved of his post running Central Command, or Centcom. Both men opposed the “surge”, calling instead for a gradual US withdrawal. The Arabic-speaking Abizaid had the audacity to say as much publicly: “The Baghdad situation requires more Iraqi troops,” not more Americans, he said.
So now we know what the much-vaunted new Bush strategy for Iraq amounts to: throw more gasoline on the fire. It’s conceivable that Bush is, in fact, planning an eventual withdrawal, but hoping that one last push will give him something he can call victory as a finale. Psychologists spot similar behaviour in compulsive gamblers who, when in trouble, increase their bets, hoping for a win that will allow them to leave the table with dignity. They have a word for such thinking: delusional.
And where do we Britons fit into this downward slide from purgatory into hell? Tony Blair is still on the old script. In an essay in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, he says we are not winning the war on terror “because we are not being bold enough … in fighting for the values we believe in”. Elsewhere, though, optimists see signs that we are gradually inching away from the calamity: they note Gordon Brown, our presumptive next prime minister, condemning the execution of Saddam Hussein as “deplorable.” Perhaps that was a pointer to better things to come. But there is something lame about the current convention which allows our politicians to criticise discrete aspects of this war – the 2003 disbandment of the Iraqi army, the reconstruction effort, the conduct and filming of Saddam’s death (though not the punishment itself) – while requiring them to stay silent on the crime of the invasion itself.
I know, I know, what else could Brown say, given that he voted for the war and sat next to Blair through it all rather than resigning in protest? But once he’s in No 10 he will have to do better than stating the obvious about the barbarism of life in today’s Baghdad. He will have to make a clean break from this most terrible chapter in British and American foreign policy and set out a new, radical strategy for the war against jihadism, one that understands that you don’t catch the terrorist fish by machine-gunning them from the sky, but by draining the sea of grievance in which they swim. That work will be long and slow and require enormous political brainpower. And it is the polar opposite of everything George Bush stands for.