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US is more nearly right
Samuel Brittan: Financial Times 01/08/02

The characteristic American view of the world since September 11 is, although uncomfortable, a good deal closer to the truth than the European Union one.

Since September 11, millions of words have appeared on the related issues of international terrorism, the growing divergence between the United States and Europe, the Arab Israeli conflict, the political aspects of globalisation, the notion of a just war and other such topics. To have read them all would be incompatible with sleeping and eating, let alone doing anything else; and to condense one's reactions into a single column utterly impossible. Readers must therefore excuse some simplifications.
The personification of countries has always been one of my pet bugbears. Still more so of continents. Just as "society" is composed of individuals - as Lady Thatcher incurred so much odium by reminding us - so are nations and continents. There are as many American points of view on foreign policy as there are US citizens who think about such matters. The widely respected American Journal, Foreign Policy is full of articles closer to "European" than to official US attitudes.

Nevertheless, the views somewhat crudely expressed by the Bush Administration since September 11 seem to me more nearly correct than the appeasing and temporising alternatives enunciated in in European Union circles. One cannot choose one's allies. There are probably not many subjects on which I would agree with George W Bush or Donald Rumsfeld - above all Bush's self confessed incomprehension that there are people who have no religion. But they are nevertheless closer to the truth than European or East Coast American intellectuals whom it would be more convivial to meet at dinner.

The key "American" doctrines which so annoy the European establishment seem to me three. First, the US is at war with international terrorism. As Philip Bobitt, who, so far from being a Republican, worked for the Clinton Administration and is a nephew of Lyndon Johnson, wrote in the Financial Times on July 13, "Al-Qaeda is a virtual state". It has a "standing army, a treasury, a consistent souurce of revenue, a civil service and an intelligence corps: it even runs a rudimentary welfare programme for its fighters and their relatives and associates." It declared war on the US in 1995; and, as at the time of Pearl Harbour, the US faces "death and destruction on a scale associated with war - unlike states that terrorism has menaced in the past."

Two. Controlling and dimishing the revenue stream to Bin Laden's network emphasises the case for international cooperation and consensus building. But if European allies will not or cannot co-operate, the US will go it alone with a "coalition of the willing".

Three, the proliferation of nuclear military capacity, and still more the newer kinds of less expensive means of biological warfare in the hands of rogue states, is so dangerous that pre-emptive strikes can be justified.

The US now needs to publish with a minimum of delay the evidence on Saddam Hussein's activities and intentions; and the forthcoming National Security Council documents on the rules of engagement of this new doctrine need to be as clear as possible. The most severe criticism, however, of the Bush strategy is the lack of an energy policy to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

On the other side is a characteristic, although not universally held, European view that terrorism must be tackled in its supposed roots in poverty and oppression and/or in the Arab Israeli conflict. In the words of a controversial article by Robert Kagan in Policy Review, "many officials and politicians in Europe worry more about how the US might mishandle the problems in Iraq...than they worry about Iraq itself." See for instance any recent article by a retired British general.

Kagan unkindly points out that European legalism is based not on virtue but on weakness. Following the end of the Cold War, European defence budgets fell below 2 per cent of GDP, while US defence spending remained at 3 per cent. Europeans "lack the wherewithal to introduce and sustain a fighting force in hostile territory, even in Europe." They now "hope to rein in US power without wielding power themselves." In other words the EU is as unimpressive on the diplomatic and miltary front as it is on the economic one.

An article by A B Krueger and Jane Maleckova in the June 24 issue of the New Republic provides the latest evidence "that there is little direct connection between poverty, education and participaion in or support for terrorism." Indeed terrorists are more likely to come from better off families with a relatively high level of education. There may however be indirect connections. Many Middle Eastern states have more graduates than their economies can accommodate. In addition, the more pro-western states such as Saudi Arabia tend to be feudal dictatorships which give no outlet to such people's political ambitions, although they support religious foundations that promote terrorism abroad. The moral is that the West should stop arming such regimes. If economic aid is given, it should be for its own sake rather than from a wishful belief that it will stop Al-Qaeda.

As for Palestine, there are all too many regional conflicts in which both sides have an unending list of seemingly irrefutable debating points: Israel versus Arabs; India versus Pakistan; Greece versus Turkey; Tamils versus mainstream Sri Lankans and so on. Nothing is more pathetic than the stage armies of rival partisans of each side in western countries. There was a Cambridge-based letter in The Times (July 24) many of whose signatories were former economists or economic officials in previous British governments, who have as much detailed knowledge of the Middle East as I have. Their key sentence was "We believe that the welfare and self respect of the Palestinians are as important as the welfare and self respect of the Israelis." They could with equal justice have said the reverse.

The most sensible response to these intractable disputes is to keep one's distance, try to cauterise them so they do not become a systemic threat to peace and, if possible, intervene very cautiously to dampen down the worst atrocities.

I find myself somewhat surprised to be so much on the Bush side. I call myself a neo-pacifist because I do not believe in dying either for forms of governments or to have rulers of one ethnic or national origin rather than another. The choice between living under the Kaiser and living under Lloyd George was not worth the millions of deaths in the trenches, as Lloyd George himself came to appreciate. And I was old enough to have been opposed to the Vietnam war, as well as to the Falklands War, and was dubious about the Gulf one.

"Neo" because if our very lives and the right to exist are threatened, as my family's were by the Nazis in World War Two, and as the whole Western World is threatened by Al-Qaeda and by rogue states, then I believe in fighting back with every available resource. The new wave of Islamist militancy is a self-confessed threat to the values, not merely of the United States, but of the European Enlightened: to the preference to life over death, to peace, rationality, science and the humane treatment of our fellow men not to speak of our fellow women. It is a reassertion of blind cruel faith over reason.

One does not have to be a scholar of Islam to say this. Evil men can find what they seek in most of the religious or philosophical texts of the world. In the Middle Ages it was the Christian Crusaders who represented intolerance, the murder of those of different faiths - or even different variants of one's own faith - and international pillage in the name of religion. Today the roles are reversed; and I leave it to theologians to decide which side has been truer at which time to the supposedly sacred texts.

Compared with the central issue of the struggle against terroism and rogue states, doubts about the nature and style of the George W. Bush administration, the role of the UN, debates on the definition of terrorism, European quibbling on whether the war on it can ever be won, and even the Palestine conflict are side issues.

* The Shield of Achilles: Penguin, £25

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