Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Don't mention the war...

I almost feel dirty for rebutting this idiocy. Hillary Benn is trying to stop people using the term 'War on Terror'.

The whole concept of making a decision to remove a term from common usage disturbs me. First, it betrays a complete failure to prioritise properly. Call the war on terror what you like. The Labour party should be thinking about how we win it and the idea the name is in any way central to that is an admission of a lack of serious ideas. Second, it is very Orwellian. Worried that your popularity has been hurt by the poor conduct of a war. There's a simple solution. Stop talking about it, diminish its existence and you can pretend those failures are far less important.

"Downing Street distanced itself yesterday from an attack by Hilary Benn on theBush administration's strategy for the "war on terror", in which he claimed military force alone would not defeat al-Qa'ida."

Of course military force alone won't defeat Al Qaeda. How many wars have been won by military force alone?

Even those wars fought againt well defined enemies and with the objective of unconditional surrender, such as the World Wars, are not entirely military. Diplomacy is important. Rallying your population such that your country does not drop out is important. Industrial capacity is, historically, more important than military brilliance.

In most counter-insurgency wars such as Malaya the importance of non-military actions to winning the war increases. Hearts and minds, the broader political struggle, is often the crucial battlefield with military action focussed on enabling this process to take place.

The Cold War was an ideological struggle as much as anything. Does that mean the term 'war' was innapropriate in that case as well?

Of course, the modern usage of the term 'war' doesn't necessarily imply any military struggle at all. We have a 'war on poverty', 'war on drugs' and 'price wars'. The headline in the Telegraph article I cited the other day when discussing the Euro was "Super-euro may spark a currency war while French battle the ECB". Does this mean that the French are planning on sending special forces to assassinate Mr. Trichet? Does this mean we'll see an ECB militia fighting French troops in the streets of Brussels? Probably not.

"The International Development Secretary called, during a visit to New York, for the strategy to be redirected at winning the trust and support of communities where the terrorists prospered. He said he would not use the phrase "war on terror" - a favourite expression of President George Bush - because it helped to unite fragmented terrorist groups under one banner."

There's little sign that 'terrorists' in general are uniting under one banner. The LTTE in Sri Lanka and Al Qaeda still have little to do with each other. Of course, we have seen the IRA and the FARC working together in Columbia but neither is traditionally labelled as a target of the War on Terror. If the problem were really that the 'War on Terror' united terrorists we would expect a general unity between terrorists which clearly isn't forming.

If our enemies do seek to unite why does Benn think they will rely upon our rhetoric? Al Qaeda has its own language of the Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb which is far more convenient to its objectives as it describes a united Islam against the rest. The War on Terror, by contrast, could only ever unite terrorists under one banner. It is a far less effective tool to recruit the greater body of the malcontented who you seek to turn into terrorists.

"Mr Benn risked a diplomatic rift by lecturing the White House about the need to develop a more intelligent response to the challenges posed by terrorism. He said relying entirely on "hard power" - military force or economic measures - would not work. What was needed, he said, was "soft power" - listening and finding common ground on values and ideas."

There is a good case that there does need to be a change in how the War on Terror is conducted but it is important to be rather careful about what you mean when you say "listening and finding common ground on values and ideas". Who are we finding common ground with? Do they want to find common ground with us? Benn is probably referring to non-terrorist Muslims but this can hardly act as a substitute for action against terrorists, can it? It would have to be a complement unless one wishes to just take whatever the terrorists throw at us.

"Mr Benn said: "In the UK, we do not use the phrase 'war on terror' because we can't win by military means alone and because this isn't us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives. It is the vast majority of the people in the world ... against a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common apart from their identification with others who share their distorted view of the world. By letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength." He said later: "Words do count and that is why, since this is not something we can overcome by military means alone, we need to find other ways of describing what the challenge is.""

Again, the idea that 'war' must mean a purely military project.

Any action taken by terrorists or against them will make them feel a part of something bigger. 9/11 must have made Al Qaeda members feel a part of something rather epic. Being hunted through Tora Bora by the coalition militaries might have given them a similar feeling although they might not have enjoyed it in that case. Terrorists are a part of something rather big when they kill scores of people. We're not going to convince them otherwise by controlling our language.

Hillary Benn's intervention is supposed to be a call for subtlety and nuance. Instead, it betrays a complete lack of serious thinking.

1 comment:

Ruthie said...

I can't imagine that Islamic radicals give a damn what we call the war against them. I doubt they're really getting excited about their unity.

In a piece on NPR, Dinesh D'Souza made a sort of similar point for completely different reasons: his problem was with the word "terror," not the word "war." He says we shouldn't call it a "war on terror" because it isn't a war on "terrorism" any more than WW2 was a war on "kamikazism." Terrorism is just a tactic employed by the enemy. He argues we should call it what it is, a war on Islamic fascism or Islamic radicalism.

It's actually a very interesting speech... it was a call-in show. It's kind of long, but well worth listening to. If you're interested, you can listen to it here.

Don't be put off by the title of the piece, it's not a diatribe against liberals.