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The debate over the thwarted terrorist plot to blow up aircraft between London and the US is again exposing faultlines in western policy over the war on terror. The conflict in Lebanon and the west’s fraught diplomacy to resolve it has done much the same. If they deepen, these divisions will have serious consequences.
There are those who believe Islamist terror is the result of misguided and failed western policies. These people cite the war in Iraq, failure to solve the Palestinian problem and now the conflict in Lebanon as motivating factors behind Muslim radicalism and rage. More specifically, an open letter, signed by three British Muslim MPs, three peers and 38 community groups in the wake of the UK terrorist plot blames the government’s foreign policy for the root causes of the problem. This is nothing new. Three years ago a European Commission poll found 59 per cent of respondents across Europe believed Israel was the number one threat to world peace; 53 per cent saw the US as the main culprit.
Then there are those, notably George W. Bush and Tony Blair, who argue that Islamist fundamentalism is a global, totalitarian ideology and that to compromise western values or to negotiate in anyway with the terrorists is out of the question. The US has been guilty of hubris, serious miscalculations and, at times, outright incompetence, to be sure. But Mr Bush’s overall view of the Middle East remains a principled and correct one.
First, to dispel the notion that Bush administration policies are to blame for terrorism: the terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic passenger aircraft is reminiscent of an attempt by al-Qaeda to explode flights over the Pacific in 1995. Two years before that, Islamist terrorists made the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in New York.
These things were happening back in the heady days of the Oslo talks, when there seemed to be a real chance for peace in the Middle East, and a popular US president named Bill Clinton had sent American troops to stop the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia. It is worth noting that Americans and Europeans fought twice in the 1990s against Serb Christians in the Balkans to save Muslim lives, in a region with no oil, far from the state of Israel. Before Mr Clinton, George H.W. Bush had sent Americans to feed starving Muslims in Somalia. Again, no oil, no Israel. But none of this seemed to diminish the bloodlust of the Islamist extremists.
In truth, Osama bin Laden was always more interested in “reclaiming” Andalusia from Spain than he was in the Palestinian cause or the plight of Muslims elsewhere. Al-Qaeda and its accomplices kill far more Muslims in Iraq today than they do British and US soldiers. These men have their own vision and Iraq for them is nothing but an excuse. Indonesia opposed the Iraq war, but having done so, the world’s most populous Muslim state has not saved itself from terror. Germany, another prominent critic of the US-led invasion, keeps foiling terror plots on its territory.
Mr Bush is right, as is Mr Blair, to see the current conflict in Lebanon as part of the wider war on terror. Hizbollah concedes that its goal is not simply to establish a Palestinian state or, as some believe, to recover a disputed
territory known as Shebaa Farms. Hizbollah wants to annihilate Israel, a step in a much broader campaign. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, says: “Israel is merely a battalion of the American army.” Underscoring the point, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently described Hizbollah as the Muslim world’s “front-line against the west”.
For this reason, the emerging cease-fire in Lebanon may turn out to be a disaster, producing the worst of all possible policy outcomes. Hizbollah has not been disarmed. This will embolden the extremists. It will allow Iran, Hizbollah’s chief sponsor, to claim
victory. Once again, America’s image has taken a blow. There is good reason to believe the west has missed an opportunity to push through critical changes. Lebanese opinion, especially among non-Shia Muslims, was initially critical of Hizbollah. Other regional governments – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – openly criticised Iran’s proxy. How different this ceasefire would have looked had Israel been willing from the beginning to send in the ground troops necessary to crush Hizbollah’s forces.
Now with a badly weakened hand, the US and Europe will get back to the business of trying to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The transatlantic fissures and ham-fisted diplomacy we have seen over Lebanon hardly inspire confidence. The west – particularly Europe and the US – must develop a more vigorous, concerted strategy to combat Islamist terror. The first step: understanding that the west is not to blame for the root causes.
The writer is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin and regular contributor to Die Welt, the Germany daily newspaper