What sort of war do we find ourselves fighting and, more than eight years after the destruction of the World Trade Center, who is winning? Like Norm, I commend a couple of columns from today's papers. First up it's Matt d'Ancona (late of this parish of course) in the Sunday Telegraph who writes:
[T]here are two competing narratives in the West. The first is frightening, difficult and poses a host of deeply unwelcome questions. According to this version of events, we face a global struggle against a new mutation of militant Islamism ready to use all and any means at its disposal, bonded by anti-semitism, hatred of America and a desire to enforce sharia law and to restore the Caliphate. This network plots globally and kills locally. The merit of this is that it happens to be true.
The second narrative dismisses the whole notion of the "war on terror" as an aberration of the Bush-Blair era. According to this version of events, Islamist terror is mostly the consequence of "Western foreign policy" (for example, the Iraq War was directly responsible for 7/7). With Bush and Blair gone, and al-Qaeda supposedly scattered to the winds, it follows that the winding up of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will bring the whole sorry chapter to an end, and we can all get on with life as normal. The only flaw in this comforting narrative is that it happens to be complete nonsense.
There's a good deal to this, for sure. But d'Ancona asks us to believe that the choice is simple and between "robust" and "appeasing" policies, between hawkishness and dovery. Would that it were so simple! And why, in any case, are these the only attitudes, the only options available to western governments? Mightn't there be a third way, chosen not because it represents the best accomodation between the poles presented by d'Ancona but because it's a more realistic and, in the end, effective approach to a complicated, layered, conflict that is both a kind of war and a kind of police action?
That is, this is neither a wholly hot war, nor as familiar to us as the rules of engagement that we knew during the Cold War. Neither hot nor cold, it's lukewarm. That is: occasionally hot but with lengthy cooling off periods.
The threat, then, is real and easily exagerrated. It will endure for years while also usually being, on a day to day basis, more of an inconvenience than an existential crisis.
In other words, it's also a grinding, attritional struggle in which victory is defined more by not losing than by any obvious victories of the sort that lend themselves to celebration.
Which brings one to Jason Burke's piece in the Observer today in which he points out that:
For, even in the worst of the chaos, various trends were heading in a more positive direction. Key among them was public opinion in the Islamic world.
There was a riptide running against the wave of violence. As each successive bomb had gone off, tens of millions of people had turned away from such atrocious acts. This did not mean that they were no longer angry at America, Israel, the west or all the other subjects of their grievances. It did not mean that they accepted the western model of globalisation. But it did mean that they no longer saw the tactics of al-Qaida as a legitimate way to resolve problems. One of the best examples was Jordan where, before the bombing of hotels in the capital Amman of November 2005, polls showed nearly two-thirds of locals had confidence in Osama bin Laden "to do the right thing in world affairs". After the blasts, the level dropped to 24%.
In Turkey, only 3% backed bin Laden by 2005, down from 15% three years earlier. The same phenomenon could be seen in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While the violence and its victims remained abstract, it could be supported. When it meant your policemen, your soldiers, your neighours killed and your economy ruined, that was very different.
[...] Al-Qaida has lost many of its key leaders and has achieved few of its core aims. The complex phenomenon that is contemporary Islamic militancy remains as disunited as ever, there has been no general uprising of the Islamic masses, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate hardly looks imminent, nor has the west been weakened in the way that was hoped.
This is no kind of call for complacency, not least because as we see in Yemen and perhaps in West Africa the virus of Islamic extremism can easily pass from one country to another. Nonetheless, combatting it is, in general terms, a matter of containment while also targetting, specifically, the leadership of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
But as Dick Cheney warned eight years ago there will be few battlefield victories and, in the end, the task is akin to fighting a forest fire: protecting homes and property while also letting the fire burn itself out in less harmful, damaging areas. Because in the end all the smirking about how the Obama administration prefers not to talk* about a "War on Terror" obscures the fact that this contest is, in the end, a matter of determining which side gives up first. The race is not to crush the opposition but to exhaust them.
All terrorist movements are different, but just as the IRA and the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof group were defeated by the security services and their own exhaustion so it's possible that, even allowing for the extra complexity and international and religious dimensions of this conflict, something similar may eventually happen to radical Islamist extremism.
That's the theory then. But it demands patience, perseverance, a certain stoical fortitude and an ability to keep matters in some perspective. This will not always be easy and a lukewarm war is necessarily neither one thing nor the other. This is neither satisfying nor the stuff that makes for rousing campaign speeches or trenchant commentary. But it may, I hazard, be where we are and will remain for many years yet.
*Though, as Yglesias reminds us, the newish administration does call this a war. And why wouldn't it given that its foreign policy hands are almost all experienced Washington hands drawn from the hawkish wing of the Democratic party?