Spring has come late this year, punctuated by news of three horrible, doom-laden terrorist atrocities: the bombing of Shia worshippers in Iraq and Pakistan, the slaughter in Madrid, and the Israeli assassination of the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
In Westminster there is an air of grim expectation. People’s habits are starting to change. I know one media couple who no longer travel together by Tube, a precaution in case they leave their children orphaned. A well-known political correspondent has taken to driving to work, rather than going by train. Bomb scares now routinely delay commuter traffic into town. The looming Easter recess will see the erection of a bullet-proof glass barrier between the Strangers’ Gallery and the Chamber. A 15-foot prison wall is reportedly set to go up around the Commons, replacing the familiar iron railings. Inside, MPs bleakly speculate on where the terrorists might strike. A pub? A football match? A high-street store? Machinegun-toting police patrol the streets of Westminster, braced for carnage.
Curiously, Downing Street feels vindicated by this new air of menace. Tony Blair made this sentiment explicitly clear after Madrid. He insisted that the bombing showed why he has been right to fight what he likes to term his ‘war against terror’. He is polite but witheringly contemptuous about the anti-war party. He likes to accuse it of failing to understand the problem posed by modern terrorism. From time to time Tony Blair makes the derisive claim that opponents of the war deserve comparison with the appeasers of Munich in 1938; that they are well-meaning but naive. By extension he becomes Winston Churchill, the brave war leader, the only man courageous enough to voice the truth.
And Downing Street does indeed calculate that when the bombs do come, the British people will not respond as the Spanish did and turn on their war leaders. It reckons that we are made of better stuff than that, and will face al-Qa’eda with the same stoicism and courage with which we endured IRA attacks for the last few decades. No. 10 may be right. There is a problem, but it is not the morale of the British people. It lies with the increasingly dubious credentials of the government’s own anti-terror proposition: above all Tony Blair’s emphatic claim, spelt out with great clarity in his speech in Sedgefield three weeks ago, that the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror are identical.
Any demonstration that the two are distinct would make a nonsense of the Prime Minister’s case. Hence the importance of this week’s testimony from Richard Clarke, the White House counter-terrorism chief under President Clinton and President Bush. Clarke’s claims are wounding to Bush, even more damaging to Tony Blair. He asserts, and is in a position to know, that the Bush administration was obsessed with regime change in Iraq from the very start. Clarke suggests it saw September 11 as a convenient excuse to topple Saddam, and regarded pursuing al-Qa’eda as little more than a secondary objective.
Clarke’s claims chime easily with Ron Suskind’s book The Price of Loyalty, published earlier this year, in which the former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill remembers how an Iraq invasion was discussed very shortly after Bush arrived in the White House. Clarke makes sense of much that was puzzling about the decision to invade Iraq: the absence of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa’eda; the neglected warning from the Secret Intelligence Service (concealed from the British people till after the war) that an invasion would increase the danger of terrorism; above all the falsehoods spread by the British and American governments about WMD. If Clarke is right, then the so-called war on terror was no more than an excuse for an invasion that the Bush administration was determined to carry out in any case; Tony Blair becomes at best a mug, at worst an accomplice to a massive deceit.
This week the isolated and baffled British Prime Minister went on his travels again. Wednesday found him in Madrid, where he attended a memorial service for the dead and did his best to salvage the remnants of the war coalition. Thursday’s trip to Tripoli had long been planned as a triumphal event. For the neoconservatives Colonel Gaddafi is Exhibit A. Marvellous claims have been made about the efficacious effects of the Iraq invasion upon Gaddafi. They are false: Gaddafi has been treading his path back from isolation for years. Just before the trip, one close prime ministerial aide confided what everyone else knows, that Gaddafi would have come on board whether Iraq had been invaded or not.
The Prime Minister’s whistle-stop tour began in Belfast, where five years ago he secured the Good Friday agreement. This remains the greatest success of his ever more problematic administration. Its key was the belated recognition that terrorism could not be defeated by military means. Instead Tony Blair — and John Major before him — recognised that the terrorists were articulating genuine grievances. They set out to address them in a creative way, and eventually the hard-core of republican terrorists were isolated and left behind.
The paradox of Blair’s war on terror is that he has set about the task in exactly the opposite way. He was never going to be able to win over the hard-core of terrorists. The task was to hunt them down. But at the same time — and Tony Blair showed every sign of recognising this in his early speeches after September 11 — it was essential to eradicate the injustices that have fomented terrorism. Neither Tony Blair nor, especially, George Bush has seriously attempted to make this precarious and easily mocked journey.
They have set about defeating bin Laden as if he were a conventional enemy — a conceptual error of incalculable consequences. It is beginning to become abundantly clear that war on Iraq has done nothing to damage Islamic terrorism: quite the reverse. It has made it more difficult for moderate Muslim leaders to argue the cause of the West, much easier for radical leaders to recruit. Al-Qa’eda, which did not exist in Iraq before the war, flourishes there now, and spy chiefs admit it is gaining ground elsewhere. Osama bin Laden’s project is to draw a giant dividing-line between Islam and the West. Over the last two years, Tony Blair and George Bush have made that task very much easier for him. If they could have devoted the time, money and energy into solving the problems of the Middle East as they did to invading Iraq, the world would not be quite the scary place it is today.
One manifestation of that failure was Monday’s assassination in Gaza. Events are moving fast. It may not be long before the solution to the problem grows too large for national governments. First of all it might be a good idea to ponder once more what we really mean by a ‘war against terrorism’.