by Philip Bobbitt
Monday, August 14, 2006
The Evening Standard
On September 11th, 2001 at about half past eight AM, I was on an American Airlines flight out of JFK, bound for London. There were only half a dozen flights that morning, leaving between 8 and 8:30 from the East Coast with full loads of jet fuel. Four of these were seized by al Qaeda terrorists; two others were not.
Next week, I will board an American Airlines jet at Heathrow bound for New York. It's a trip I've made most summers for twenty five years. But for the action of the security services, it seems I might have had a second chance to be murdered by terrorists.
Much has happened in the intervening five years: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; the renunciation of nuclear weapons by Libya and their ever more ardent pursuit by Iran. Al Qaeda has been gravely weakened: most of its senior operational leadership and hundreds of its members have been arrested or killed; its two leaders are in hiding, unable to direct their forces by electronic communications; where once funds could be wired around the world, now couriers with cash must risk travel in person; several plots have been foiled; the homicidal al Zarqawi has been dispatched. Still, the network is able to mount threats, like the one this week, relying on persons it trained in its camps.
This most recent terrorist plot, involving British nationals, has prompted some to raise these questions.
Isn't this incident and the underground bombings last summer all Tony Blair's fault? If Blair hadn't collaborated with the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, who would have bothered this benign island?
Afghanistan: does it really matter if al Qaeda were able to train another 20,000 men, some British? But for the UK interventions, they would probably have been busy elsewhere, in the US, India, Indonesia or Nigeria. Surely not here.
Iraq: suppose Saddam Hussein were still in power? Sanctions could have been continued, at least for a while, even though they seem to have added a great deal of suffering to that already imposed by Saddam. Or, suppose sanctions were lifted; and Saddam, with the $10 billion he skimmed off the Oil-for-Food program, actually bought the components for nuclear weapons he was offered by the same consortium that was to have armed Libya. So what? He wasn't going to attack the UK. Suppose this led to nuclear proliferation in the region–to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt, to the emirates—so what? Or suppose proliferation to those states didn't take place, and he again seized Kuwait, there then being little anyone could do to a nuclear armed Iraq. What difference would it make to the UK?
In the last five years terrorists linked by the al Qaeda network have mounted attacks in many states. Some of these states supported US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq; some did not. Some have a larger percentage of Muslims in their populations than the UK; some do not. These attacks occurred, not simply because the terrorists were angry but because they hoped that an attack would bring about favourable government action driven by panicking publics. The question isn't why terrorists are picking on Britain; there are many angry groups with an agenda (and it need not be an international one). The real question is: why haven't worse things happened?
The principal reason is that it is now more difficult for al Qaeda to mount spectacular operations. Much of the reason for this has to do with intelligence cooperation among the states of the Atlantic Alliance and among their allies, as we saw this week. Would it be wise for the UK to trade this sort of protection for the hope that, without it, no one would wish to harm it? Even states whose politicians delight in bedeviling the US publicly have eagerly cooperated at the working level of intelligence operations. They perceive a common danger, but they also share a sense that it would be folly to forego the help of your friends in the hope of propitiating your enemies.
If there is one lesson of the Long War of the 20th century—the war that defeated fascism and communism—it is that standing together the democracies are practically invincible, but that standing apart, they can be picked off, one by one.
The "post Cold War age" is not the post war age. Indeed the dangers to civilians steadily mount each year even though terrorists have not yet acquired biological or nuclear weapons. My judgment is that global, networked terrorism and biological and nuclear proliferation to predator states like Saddam Hussein's Iraq—to say nothing of the conjunction of these threats–is best dealt with as soon as possible. That means we will be less safe, in the short run, than we would be if we ignored these matters. Only a person paralyzed by fear, however, closes his door to the room that is on fire and waits in another part of the house.
I find something slightly contemptible about the wish to "separate ourselves from our unpopular pal," as a writer for the Evening Standard put it last week, in order to appease Islamicist terrorists. Is this really a mature (or for that matter honourable) way to conceive of the historic cooperation between the US and the UK that has been of such benefit to Britain and to Europe in the 20th century?
Shouldn't Britain, however, at least distance itself from the US? George W. Bush has made America so grossly despised in so many quarters that it hardly seems prudent to associate with a government that runs secret prisons, detains aliens without trial, and practices interrogation techniques of such violence that, when they were used by the UK in Northern Ireland, they were condemned as amounting to torture.
I do not think that a close Anglo-American alliance implies agreement with all the policies of the ally. Even citizenship in the US doesn't mean that. The US and the UK have taken the lead and have been joined by many states, including all the members of NATO and Japan, in challenging a very great danger that will mount inexorably if it is not checked. Yes, the UK might be safe for a while, if it repudiated Blair's policy of close cooperation with the US. Such a repudiation would bring satisfaction, even rapture, in some quarters. But if the UK distanced itself from its unpopular friend and were struck again—as it will be someday—where would it hide then?
Philip Bobbitt is the author of the forthcoming "Wars Against Terror".