By Rami G. Khouri
The author is Editor-at-Large for The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
The terror attack in London last week is especially troubling because of three political dimensions, above and beyond the moral depravity of the criminal act. The first is the anticipated political response of the United Kingdom, the United States and other governments and societies that now define and lead the “global war on terror”. The second is the frustrating, helpless, feeling among entire populations who sense that such attacks have moved from the realm of the occasional to that of the routine, with little seemingly that can be done to prevent them. The third is a widespread sense of moral and political detachment in much of the Arab-Asian-Islamic world, where perfunctory condemnations of such deeds are overwhelmed by the anticipation of where and when the next attack will come, even though it is likely to come in the Arab-Islamic world more than in the Western world.
These three dimensions are related to one another, so any policy that hopes to reduce or stop such terror attacks must address all three simultaneously, i.e., why are targets in specific countries being hit and what do the terrorists hope to achieve? What can be done to stop this, militarily, politically and in other fields? What is the balance in an effective counterterrorism strategy between foreign policies by Western governments and domestic policies by Arab-Asian governments and societies?
Tony Blair and the British people have an opportunity now to do that which George Bush failed to do after Sept. 11: diagnose the phenomenon of international criminal terrorism factually and correctly; identify its underlying motives and goals accurately; devise appropriate policies that can hope to reduce or even stop it; and implement an integrated, global strategic response to this menace. Blair and his European partners should learn from the American mistakes, and respond to terror with a comprehensive, rational, realistic and multi-sectoral strategy that would make us all — Americans, Arabs, Europeans, Asians — active participants in a true worldwide war against terror and its causes. The alternative is for us all to remain the helpless, befuddled, angry spectators and victims that we have become.
The initial response from American and British leaders has been understandable emotional, but dangerously political, because it risks playing right into the hands of the terrorists and their goal of provoking a long-term war between civilisations. The three predominant responses we have seen from the UK and US leaderships and others in their societies in recent days have been the stiff upper lip syndrome of getting on with life despite the terror, a determination to take the fight to the enemy in Iraq and elsewhere, and a refusal to allow the terrorists to threaten or destroy Western civilisation and its freedom-based life values.
These three responses, though understandable psychologically, are a misguided catastrophe in global strategic terms because they will expand rather than reduce the terror problem, if we are to judge by the results of the policies since Sept. 11. Simply repeating views on the criminality and immorality of the terrorists, the grit of the British, and the determination of Americans and Britons to maintain their values and way of life is the basis for a failed policy.
It is safe to assume that some of the new generation of global terrorists have been inspired to their ghastly deeds by the recent Iraqi policies of the American and British governments, among others. Washington's heavy focus on largely unilateral military moves in Afghanistan and Iraq has generated an entire new cohort of terrorists, some of whom have now joined forces with Iraqis who are inspired by their own nationalism to fight foreign troops in their country.
The American- and British-led, Iraq-based counterterrorism strategy of recent years has achieved our collective worst nightmare: it has prompted an alliance, or at least a loose, “ad hoc” coalition of Islamist jihadist terrorists, common criminals, genuine Iraqi and other Arab nationalists, and ordinary Arab and Asian citizens whose sense of indignity at their treatment by their own and foreign governments has pushed them over the edge of understandable anger into using terror as a desperate response.
The question I ask myself over and over again, as I travel throughout the Middle East and the West, is simple but critical: what happened in the course of the last several decades to give birth to waves of terrorists from the Arab-Asian region, targeting both their own societies and the West? Why has Arab-Asian society not done very much to delegitimise these killers and run them out of town? If we still do not — and, amazingly, we do not — have a consensus analysis of how and why ordinary citizens slowly become terrorists, we will not be able to implement a successful counterterrorism strategy. Instead, we have terror in London, and widespread expectations of other attacks to follow.
The key issue, it seems to me, is whether the West and this region focus on the relatively small group of terrorists, or try instead to respond to the legitimate needs, grievances and aspirations of the hundreds of millions of Arabs and Asians who are the enabling environment from which the terrorists emerge. Yes, a very small number of crazed Islamist fanatics really do want to kill Crusaders, apostates and infidels simply because these Arab and Asian criminals feel threatened by Western values. Yet the overwhelming majority of Arabs, Asians, Muslims and Middle Easterners reject such terrorist tactics, motivations and goals.
The criminality of the terrorists since Sept. 11 has generated, in return, a peculiar combination of militarism and emotionalism from the United States, without a supporting foundation of rationalism or realism that positively engages the hundreds of millions of decent, ordinary citizens in the Arab-Asian world.
Terrorists can only be contained and put out of business when their own society delegitimises and rejects them, which requires a more balanced combination of police and political actions, and punitive and preventive measures. Bush ignored this basic fact after Sept. 11 and chose the road of a counterproductive military strategy, based on faulty analysis, in turn built on incomplete diagnosis. Blair now must make a similar decision on how to respond to the London attacks. Let us hope that he acts more intelligently and rationally than Bush. The Arab-Asian-Islamic world, in particular, is anxious to join a genuine war against terror and the many demeaning forces that make it happen.