By David Clark, a former Labour government adviser (THE GUARDIAN, 15/08/07):
Now that the government has disowned the idea of a war on terror, there is a chance that western policy can be rescued from the quicksands of Iraq and provided with a strategy capable of defeating jihadism. The attempt to meet this diffuse and stateless threat primarily with weapons and concepts devised for interstate warfare has been a costly error. It has led to a massive diversion of resources from the task of dealing with those responsible for 9/11; it has provided our enemies with additional recruits, new grievances to exploit and an ideal theatre of operations; and it has caused the unnecessary loss of innocent life on a truly staggering scale.
Against this background, Gordon Brown’s plan to tackle Islamist extremism by winning the battle for Muslim hearts and minds is hugely ambitious. But it is also essential. We cannot hope to defeat terrorism without the willing cooperation of the communities in which it flourishes. Ambivalence works asymmetrically to our disadvantage. It is enough for people to look the other way for terrorists to find a safe haven. Those aiming to defeat them need the support and goodwill of people willing to isolate the extremists and challenge their ideas at a grassroots level. The challenge is how to build that support after five years in which repeated policy blunders have widened the divide between mainstream Muslims and the west.
It is said that Brown has been strongly influenced by the example of the cultural and intellectual campaigns fought by the west during the cold war, and in particular the account of them given by Frances Stonor Saunders in her book Who Paid the Piper?; hopefully Brown’s approach will prove to be more nuanced than that because the book is actually a warning about the perils of trying to advance democratic ideals through state-sponsored programmes, especially ones that deploy covert means.
In the first two decades of the cold war, the CIA and MI6 set up numerous publications and front organisations, such as Encounter and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, as instruments of political warfare. These attracted heavyweight intellectual backing before their intelligence links were exposed in the late 60s, and many of those involved were left feeling compromised and cynical. Should intellectual and cultural life be manipulated in the interests of the secret state? Wasn’t that the Soviet way? Instead of clarifying the ideological divide, these methods blurred it.
Another reason for questioning the appropriateness of the cultural cold war model is the failure it encountered in precisely those parts of the world where the west now needs to succeed. While the intellectual battle against communism was won relatively easily in Europe, thanks largely to the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising, it was lost in places where the struggle to overcome colonialism was of more pressing concern. It is worth recalling that the Soviet Union continued to gain ground in Africa and Asia even as it was collapsing at home. Developing countries that didn’t join the Soviet camp often adopted a form of non-alignment that leaned heavily in its direction.
By acting as inheritor of the European colonial tradition, the US led many sincere democrats to conclude that its values were a sham. Whatever claim to moral leadership it may have had was squandered by the habit of overthrowing elected governments and imposing dictatorships in the name of freedom. It is true that American strategists delivered their heaviest blow to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but only thanks to the Frankenstein creation of jihadism. With hindsight, it wasn’t exactly freedom’s finest hour.
Similar mistakes have been made in the discredited war on terror. Our selective concern for the sanctity of UN security council resolutions, the ease with which we have discarded human rights and embraced torture and extraordinary rendition, the rogues’ gallery of tyrants we now treat as indispensable allies – these and other foreign policy errors have done far more to undermine our position in the Muslim world than Osama bin Laden ever will.
The consequences of this have been dire. Two years ago the Pew Research Centre analysed the sources of popular support for terrorism across a sample of six Muslim countries. It found little connection with poverty and a surprisingly small one with Islamic fundamentalism. By far the strongest correlation was with those who felt that America opposed democracy in their country. Contrary to common myth, al-Qaida thrives not because Muslims hate our values, but because we are seen to have been false to them.
The conclusion that flows from this is that a campaign for hearts and minds cannot be won simply by asserting the superiority of democratic values. Without real policy change our efforts will be dismissed as so much humbug and spin. Disengaging from Iraq is undoubtedly the most important step, but it is far from being the only one. We need to face up to the fact that our relationship with Saudi Arabia and other despotic regimes has become a strategic liability. There must be a timetable for an independent Palestinian state and a willingness to twist Israeli arms to get it. Washington needs to be pressed to close Guantánamo Bay and bring terrorists to justice using legitimate methods. The government should also think twice before extending periods of detention without trial in conditions other than those of grave national emergency.
Critics point out that Bin Laden and his followers are unlikely to be impressed by measures of this kind. That may be true, but a campaign for hearts and minds isn’t aimed at them. It is designed to reach mainstream Muslims who look at the behaviour of al-Qaida and the west and see, if not moral equivalence, then certainly insufficient moral differentiation – it is here that the fight against terrorism will be won or lost.
Gordon Brown is right to view the fight against terrorism primarily as a battle of ideas. But he must also understand that we cannot win it unless we start by living up to our own high moral claims. All too often we have fallen woefully short of them. In thinking through what needs to be done, the lesson of the cold war is therefore mostly one of mistakes to be avoided. This time we not only need to talk the language of freedom, we need to show that we mean it.