By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 25/09/06):
The Labour party has so much to make itself unhappy about in Manchester this week that only the demonstrators outside the hall will give Iraq, Afghanistan, George Bush and the “war on terror” the attention they deserve. Yet there is little doubt that when the history of this government is written, the collapse of confidence in Tony Blair will be attributed principally to his foreign policy.Most people care not about the consequences of this for the prime minister, but about those for the rest of us. By far the worst is that we are committed to a confrontation with radical Islam, in which the British and American peoples, never mind the rest of the world, find it hard to believe the leaders of “our side”.
They have deceived the public so often, misread events so grievously, adopted so many mistaken policies. Thus, when they tell us that it is necessary to accept a loss of civil liberties to fight terrorism, to sustain a Nato force in Afghanistan, to continue the struggle in Iraq, or even to stop carrying toothpaste in airline hand baggage, even if some of these propositions are true, it is hard to accept the credentials of those making the judgments.
It is remarkable that John Reid, for instance, dares to express an opinion about the weather, far less national security policy, after suggesting as defence secretary that British troops might be able to return from Afghanistan “without firing a single shot”. The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, has been a threadbare figure since he asserted the legality of the Iraq invasion. Yet we are today invited to accept his views about, for instance, the validity of wiretap evidence in courts.
This is serious, because al-Qaida indeed represents a deadly threat. Bush and Blair’s deceits about WMD have made the abbreviation the plaything of satirists. Yet we shall be lucky to get through the next 10 years without weapons of mass destruction being used somewhere in the world, quite likely against us.
A dismaying number of people cherish such bitterness towards Bush and Blair for Iraq, Afghanistan and now Lebanon that they want US and British forces abroad to be seen to be defeated. This seems sorely mistaken. Whatever the follies of the past, it cannot be in the interests of the Iraqi or Afghan peoples, or of the world, for Islamic extremists to prevail. It appears unlikely that democracy will get a real chance in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but it is not ignoble to cling to some small hope that it might.
It seems important to separate our alienation from Bush-Blair and the basics at issue with the Muslim world. We need to build bridges to moderate Islam. We must also resist the fanatics with a confidence in our own cause which is presently lacking. The west cannot negotiate with fundamentalists whose real enemy is the modern age. Their victory would be a tragedy especially for women, but also for all Muslims who aspire to share the prosperity and opportunities of the 21st century.
It is Bush’s achievement to have made Osama bin Laden a hero in the most unlikely places. I recently heard a Malaysian academic describe a conversation with a young Thai whom he met selling Bin Laden T-shirts in Bangkok, and indeed wearing one himself.
The stallholder cheerfully admitted that he scarcely knew who Bin Laden was. He recognised him only as the enemy of George Bush, who was the ally of the (pre-coup) Thai government, which the young man hated. In many parts of the world where America is bitterly unpopular, Bin Laden is perceived as “my enemy’s enemy” and thus “my friend” – or even “my co-belligerent”.
It becomes more dismaying when some Europeans fall prey to this sentiment. Where a generation or two ago images of Che, Fidel or Mao adorned the walls of some leftists, today there is a vogue for Bin Laden. So little confidence do some people feel in the virtues of their own societies that they are willing to suppose Bin Laden might be, well, a bit right. They say: when Bush and Blair have occupied Iraq and endorsed Israel’s excesses towards the Palestinians, who can blame a young Muslim for turning to al-Qaida?
This is not merely flabby thinking, but intensely dangerous. We have to keep rehearsing certain mantras: al-Qaida massacred nearly 3,000 innocents on September 11 before the west invaded Afghanistan, never mind Iraq. Nobody outside the White House and Downing Street doubts that Bush and Blair’s actions have vastly worsened relations with the Muslim world, as some of us predicted that they would. But nothing can justify terrorism.
Osama bin Laden preaches jihad for its own sake. He does not pretend that any concession by the west can lead to peace. He argues, as did Adolf Hitler, that making war is an end in itself. He and his followers aspire to kill people in thousands. Bin Laden’s policy, if it can be dignified as such, makes George Bush’s denunciation of him as an “Islamic fascist” one of the few valid observations to have emerged from the White House since 9/11.
It seems right for the rest of us to apologise for certain of the deeds of our governments, but we can go only so far. Some moderate Muslims in Britain and elsewhere appear to suggest that democracy is betraying them when the US and British governments ignore their strongly held views about Lebanon and Iraq.
Yet no minority can expect to exercise a veto on the actions of elected national governments. Disaffected Muslims in Europe must sooner or later acknowledge that if they choose to belong to our societies, they must live with their imperfections as the rest of us do, restricting dissent to the ballot box.
There is little hope of rebuilding the trust of either Muslims or non-Muslims in the foreign and security policies of the American and British governments under their present national leaders. Americans, of course, have never doubted the justice of their own cause. In the US, the collapse of confidence in Bush represents a public judgment on his competence, not his purposes. But many thoughtful decision makers in Washington understand that America can never make its will prevail abroad without a degree of international consent and support, which Bush has forfeited and which need to be regained.
We must somehow survive the last months of Tony Blair’s premiership, and the more alarming two years left to George Bush. Thereafter, among the foremost responsibilities of their successors will be to restore faith that the west deserves to win the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism, as it certainly does.
There is no reason for Blair’s successor to quarrel with the US administration. It has become essential, however, to recreate an international perception that this country has a mind of its own. We are engaged in a struggle with fanatics whose vision is brutal, primitive and nihilistic. They will be defeated only when the west’s counter-vision is perceived by reasonable people as just and unselfish. Under Bush and Blair it is not, and never will be.