Correlli Barnett: The Terrorists Are Winning

Roundup: Historians' Take

Correlli Barnett, writing in the Spectator (Dec. 13, 2003):

Last month, the sixth since President Bush proclaimed ‘Mission Accomplished' in Iraq, proved the worst so far in terms of American and ‘coalition' body bags: 81 in all. November was also marked by the bombing of a residential quarter in Riyadh, and by the four Istanbul car-bombs. In ironic contrast, this was the month dignified with President Bush's state visit to Britain, complete with his and Blair's defiant rhetoric about defeating ‘global terror'. All in all, now is surely a good time coolly to re-assess the state of play in this so-called ‘war on terrorism'.

First of all, we have to clear our minds of moralising political cant and media clichés. Thus it is misleading to talk of a ‘war on terrorism', let alone a ‘war on global terrorism'. ‘Terrorism' is a phenomenon, just as is war in the conventional sense. But you cannot in logic wage war against a phenomenon, only against a specific enemy. It is therefore as meaningless to speak of ‘a war on terrorism' as it would be to speak of a ‘war on war'. Today, then, America is combating not ‘terrorism' but a specific terrorist network, al-Qa'eda.

What's more, terrorist campaigns, whether conducted by al-Qa'eda, the IRA or ETA, are not at all irrational expressions of hatred, let alone manifestations of ‘evil' to be denounced from political pulpits, but instead are entirely rational in purpose and conduct. To adapt a well-known dictum of Clausewitz about conventional war, terrorism of any brand is a continuation of politics by other means. Al-Qa'eda's own political aim has been proclaimed by Osama bin Laden: to expel American military forces, bases and business corporations from Arab or Islamic soil, along with ‘corrupt' Western cultural influences. Furthermore, to adapt a second of Clausewitz's dicta about conventional war, terrorism is an act of violence intended to impose the terrorists' political will on their enemy.

The question for us today is this: which side is at present imposing its will on the enemy — the United States or al-Qa'eda? Which side enjoys the initiative? Objective strategic analysis can return only one answer: it is al-Qa'eda. ...

The truth is that the two military occupations (and especially that of Iraq) have simply opened up long American flanks vulnerable to increasing guerrilla attack: a classic case of strategic overextension. In Iraq, moreover, Washington has brought about the linkage between al-Qa'eda and Saddam's men which, despite Washington's claims at the time, never existed before the war. Major American combat divisions — airborne, armoured and infantry — are now tied down in Iraq in peace-enforcement operations, for which they have not been trained and wherein they are clearly floundering (viz, the random blasting of firepower in all directions when ambushed in Samarra the other week). These field divisions are of course no longer available for deployment elsewhere in the world. Result: the army of the world's single hyperpower is now seriously overstretched in terms of personnel, with reservists and National Guardsmen having to be posted to Iraq.

What is more, al-Qa'eda also holds the psychological initiative. By its acts of terror, it provokes fresh outbursts of grief and anger in the West (cf. the reaction to the Istanbul attacks) and a political response of windy rhetoric (cf. Blair and Bush at their joint press conference in London). But grief, anger and windy rhetoric are poor guides to shrewd strategy, as the ‘coalition' entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq already go to demonstrate. As also demonstrated by these entanglements, an equally poor guide to strategy is the romantic vision of ‘neocon' ideologues in Washington like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz who want to revolutionise the entire Middle East, even the whole world, into ‘democracies'.

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