16 September 2006

The War on Error

By Liam Carroll

The last week or so has been notable for the number of reflections on the terrible attacks on the twin towers in New York on September 11th. It has also been notable for the number of attempts to assess the 'War on Terror'. It now appears that many of the views and statements that have issued forth from our leaders and commentators over the last few years have turned out to be grossly inaccurate, or just plain wrong. Here are a few examples of inaccuracies that should be remembered in what could be described, perhaps badly, as the War on Error.

One of the most enduring inaccuracies persists in the minds of those you would have hoped would be better informed: the soldiers on the front line in Iraq. Get this: when asked, in a recent survey, to explain their presence in Iraq, 85 per cent of American soldiers said that the "main mission" was "to retaliate for Saddam's role" in the September 11 attacks. Where did they get that idea from? Interestingly, a US Senate committee report has just been released, confirming the long understood belief that there was no evidence of formal links between Al Qaeda and the government of Iraq. Before the beginning of the war that is.

Another interesting error, now rapidly being repackaged, is that 'Operation Iraqi Freedom', was part of the War on Terror. Not many people now hold the view that the invasion actually struck much of a blow against terrorism. Indeed the US National Intelligence Council early last year said that Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills". One month before the invasion George Bush had said; "Instead of threatening its neighbours and harbouring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both."

Tony Blair, having finally shrugged off the debate about the never found weapons of mass destruction, is now also trying to move on from the War on Terror. In a speech in Los Angeles recently he said, "We are fighting a war, but not just against terrorism, but about how the world should govern itself, in the 21st century, about global values". Instead of mentioning the War on Terror, he used a new phrase to describe the threat to "our values" and it came in the form of "the arc of extremism". This recalls George Bush’s 'axis of evil' which was made up of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Iran is of course still part of the arc/axis, but North Korea, once a worthy member of the 'axis of evil' doesn't make the 'arc of extremism'. To make the arc of extremism, you have to be Islamic.

The "arc of extremism", Tony Blair explains "is what I call reactionary Islam", and the way to fight it, apparently, is "to empower moderate, mainstream Islam to defeat reactionary Islam". One wonders though if it really is up to 'moderate Islam' to win this struggle, and whether or not it isn't actually 'moderate Anglo-Saxons' that have a larger role to play. Assessing the nature of reality is not, after all, so easy and can of course be disastrously wrong, as Christopher Hitchen's early appraisal, in 2001 demonstrates: when talking of the capture of Kabul in Afghanistan, the first stage in the War on Terror he wrote, "It was also obvious that defeat was impossible. The Taliban will soon be history". That was five years ago.

The real world is surely more complex than the sound bites about global struggles and recipes to defeat them suggest. One of the main architects of the War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld, was once widely ridiculed for one of his statements about the nature of the struggle. Personally I think it was one of the more sensible and truly honest moments in a long list of appalling predictions and gross inaccuracies: "We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know". If the statements of our leaders and commentators are anything to go by, there are indeed many more unknowns than they appear to have known about. A little less 'knowing' and a little more understanding, might represent a step forward in what could be called, probably inaccurately, The War on Error.