Thursday, 14 December 2006

Iraq, the media and the war on terror

Matthew d’Ancona, editor of the Spectator, gave a speech yesterday at Policy Exchange at which he launched a pamphlet entitled Confessions of a Hawkish Hack – the media and the war on terror. He was also interviewed by the New Statesman’s Martin Bright. In what was a generally thoughtful and at times pessimistic discussion, perhaps the most interesting feature was that both the right-wing Mr. d’Ancona and the left-wing Mr. Bright admitted that that they might yet be proved wrong regarding their positions (respectively pro- and anti-) on the “War on Terror” and the Iraq War.

Those of you who now dismiss everything that supporters of the war have to say as though their every utterance is forever tainted should look away now, for this discussion is not for you. It is about you, however, for one of Mr. d’Ancona’s main themes was that one tragedy of the Iraq War is that it has undermined –perhaps destroyed – our society’s ability to engage in much-needed debate about the war between Islamic fundamentalism and Western values.

Mr. d’Ancona’s argued that Tony Blair’s decision to publish the Iraq Dossier both confused intelligence (the art of assessment, interpretation and educated guesswork) with spin (the art of presenting maybes as definites) and made the justification of the war rest on the existence of WMD, rather than Saddam Hussein’s violation of 12 years of Security Council resolutions. “Iraq” had now become shorthand for everything that is wrong with the New Labour project, and for its ultimate failure.

The result was that the much more important debate about how we confront Islamists bent on establishing a global Caliphate (an attitude that some American’s have taken to describing, quite accurately, as “Islamo-fascism”) is now framed in simplistic terms that paint everything as black and white and uses one single battle as a yardstick for the wider debate.

The question one is asked as a matter of course is “Where did you stand on Iraq?”, and how one answers is taken as indicative of where one stands on everything else, and whether one’s judgement is worthy of consideration. Mr. d’Ancona did not use the simile, but it would be like judging one’s position on the liberation of Europe by asking whether one supported the Battle of Arnhem.

Mr. d’Ancona’s fear is that we may be losing a war that many of us refuse to accept exists. While he recognises that “War on Terror” is a vague and unsatisfactory term, he questions what alternative President Bush could have used after 9/11: to name Islam even in context would have stoked the crusade fallacy Bin Laden would have us believe; to refer to it as merely a crime would not have satisfied the horror felt around the world. The enemy certainly views it as a war, and its plans span generations.

“This is the cold sweat war” in which the terrorist first spreads fear and then discord; we fight amongst ourselves, both between and within democracies. Meanwhile governments face the pressure to appear constantly new, constantly interesting, so that priorities become lost in “the quest for the daily mandate”. Governments have become subject to a form of ADHD, constantly flitting from one policy area to the next, frantically legislating and politicking, and journalists are party to it; they demand hyperactivity because it feeds their thirst for rolling-news.

The West is suffering from its own consumer culture (there d’Ancona would agree with both the domestic left and the Islamic far-right). If we don’t like a product we take it back and throw it away. This is liberating where MP3 players and mobile phones are concerned. With political parties it is harmful, and in foreign policy it is disastrous. Politics in general and foreign affairs in particular require strategic thinking; a sense of what we want at the finish and how we will get there. The key to strategy is that we stick to it even when faced with tactical setbacks; Tobruk didn’t make us abandon the North Africa Campaign.

Too many in the West now think that once the “Two madmen” that led us into Iraq have left office we will be able to put the sordid chapter of their folie à deux behind us and return to the norm of peace. This is wrong. “Modern conflicts are not trials of strength but of will”. This war, with a strain of Islam that teaches that the West is decadent and must be overthrown and which trains our own citizens to be its foot-soldiers, will grind on long after Blair and Bush are gone. The question is, do we have the patience we need to save our civilisation?

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