The faces of Britain’s rulers on Monday night said it all. They had lost the argument. Sitting in Parliament they looked haggard and wretched. Tony Blair thumped on yet again about Osama bin Laden being a fiend and a monster. Everyone chanted that bombing should be “proportionate, measured, targeted”, knowing that this was beyond their control. Clare Short’s face was a picture of misery. She must now excuse the civilian deaths, the laying of cluster mines, the airborne terror for which she is responsible as a War Cabinet member. How skin-deep is humanity when the guns begin to fire. Whenever Americans start bombing, Britons dive under a blanket of Churchillian waffle.
Britain is not at war at present, any more than it was at war during the IRA bombing of London or after bin Laden’s previous attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. To describe what should be a relentless campaign against criminal terror as war is metaphor abuse. By hurling resources and media attention at some distant theatre, it deflects effort from the domestic front. It also insults those who fought and died in real wars, when territory was threatened and states were at risk.
For the past three weeks, the case against bombing was marshalled in every capital in the world. It was advanced in Washington itself by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Tony Blair’s every waking hour was devoted to it. His round-the-clock diplomacy was to build up the case for “cunning not killing”, not in the Middle East but in Washington. He was sincere but eventually he lost.
We need hardly repeat the argument. For the West to extract bin Laden from his lair before winter is near impossible. While his networks and cash could and should be choked, regional diplomacy should use every conceivable means to get others to extract him. The heat should be put on every ally. All back-channels and bribes should be activated. September 11 had yielded an unprecedented “coalition of the willing” across the Middle East. Give it time to work, not just three weeks. Do not give up when the Taleban are showing some sign of wobbling if not collapsing.
Above all, the argument said, do not bomb. Do not raise expectations of military success. Bombing would not deter a new atrocity, only make it more likely. Bombing would achieve little in a land of hand-to-hand combat. It would kill civilians and risk the security of cross-border platforms for special forces. It would turn hesitant new friends into sullen old enemies.
Round every table the argument raged, with Britain on the side of common sense. But once the bombers were in place, there was a dreadful inevitability to the outcome. As in Iraq, air forces can play all the best overtures to war. They promise to kick butt and whup ass. They would avenge America for the World Trade Centre. They would have the tabloids purring, speech-writers drooling and liberals trapped by their vitals. As for consequence, that was for politicians and wimps.
There is a fond belief in Downing Street that Britain has “influence” in Washington. It does not. Britain has the leverage of a comfort blanket. Now that sophistication has lost out in Washington, Britain must toe the line like an obedient junior. Indeed to prove its loyalty, it must bomb first. So much for influence.
In his desperate speech on Monday, Mr Blair played a cheap card. He depicted opponents of the bombing as being soft on bin Laden and the Taleban. Was he not an opponent himself just a week ago? Like the tongue-tied, fencesitting religious leaders who met him that day in Downing Street, he merely demonstrates Britain’s subservience to America. How can Britain ever hope to join a panEuropean foreign policy on this performance? Those who disagree with Mr Blair are not on the side of bin Laden and the Taleban. They disagree over means, not ends. Britain is now committed to bombing Afghanistan to the next stage of the war, an obscure destination. In comparison, the bombing of Beirut, Tripoli, Baghdad, Mogadishu and Belgrade seem shrewd and calculated. Some pundits are explaining that the bombs will enable a special forces base to be set up to capture bin Laden. How rearranging the rubble of suburban Kabul achieves this is a mystery.
If I were special forces, I would be far more worried if the bombing led to a withdrawal of logistical support by neighbouring states. I would be alarmed at the mission creep which already has the Americans requesting an extended war against other states in the region. I would want no return of the old CNN ritual of whooshing rockets, screaming rioters and wailing women. I would be appalled at Donald Rumsfeld mimicking Moscow’s boast, that we can “forget about exit strategies; we are looking at a sustained engagement”. When American Defence Secretaries ignore exit strategies we can bet the exit will be fast.
The bombing is not military but political. It is revenge, no less ferocious for being postponed. It will probably freeze the Taleban in their hold on power as long as it lasts, as is usual with bombed regimes. Nor is global terror deterred by such onslaughts, least of all the new suicidal terror. Bruce Hoffman of St Andrews University, in his recent and prescient Inside Terrorism, cites the conclusion of a 1996 US government paper, that neither sanctions nor military action had ever had an effect against state-sponsored terrorism, except to be counter-productive. The growth of religious fanaticism and chemical weapons, he said, renders this policy failure extremely dangerous.
In retrospect, the lack of follow-up to the 1993 New York bombing, given the evidence revealed at the trial, was criminal negligence on the part of Western Intelligence. So too was the refusal of later Sudanese help against bin Laden. Yet somehow a thundering blitz of Kabul atones for these mistakes.
For a moment this past month, we saw a new wisdom. Washington seemed to realise that the Muslim world resented its decades of mistreatment. A moment for possible rapprochement was at hand. The horror of September 11 meant that East might join West in one humanitarian cause. When Mr Blair has not been on helium, he too seemed to glimpse that new dawn. He surely cannot see it now.
The past fortnight has been a battle of new guard against old. Those who wanted to concentrate on counter-terrorism, covert operations and “coercive diplomacy” and who protested that bombing would endanger their work, have lost. Those who wanted a reprise of Baghdad and Belgrade, who wanted to play to the gallery with things that go bang on television, have won. The old guard have triumphed. They must now deliver, as must those who kowtowed to them.
The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, must show how his Tomahawks will really help to find bin Laden. He must bond with the bandits of the Northern Alliance as his predecessor, George Robertson, bonded with the Kosovo Liberation Army. Mr Blair must explain how firing missiles at empty hillsides will enhance his world congregation of virtue. Jack Straw must construct a puppet regime in Kabul more secure than that left by the Soviet Union. They must all explain how they will prop up a new regime indefinitely, or risk losing the “war” all over again.
From these people we want no nonsense about precision weapons and surgical strikes. Bombs miss targets. Only infantry can shoot straight. We want no weasel words about “no quarrel with the Afghans”. We want no fake dismay at a surge of anti-American riots, at British contracts cancelled, hostages taken and lives put at risk. This is the course on which the Government is set. When it bombs people, the innocent get hurt and the rest get angry.
Aerial bombardment is never proportionate, measured or targeted. It evolves a logic of its own, an escalation of horror similar to that unleashed by the terrorist. Like all distant and indiscriminate violence, it breeds a violent response. It is The Dumbest Weapon of War.
At present the bombing is likely to increase anti-Western hysteria in the Middle East and dissolve Mr Blair’s coalition. We can only hope that it at least installs “our” villains in Kabul, and one day captures bin Laden. It had better.