The end of the ‘War on Terror’?

Was a speech in Paris and a charming smile from Condoleezza Rice really all it took to win over Europe?

For those of us who have long realised that nothing, nothing that GW Bush can ever say will convince his critics that his administration is engaged in a multi-faceted strategy of democratic ‘region change’, the past few days have been confirmation that the president’s personality and style have been a major block on winning over sceptics in Europe. (Unlike blockheaded enemies of spreading democracy, sceptics can be won over)

The Rice speech was clearly designed to win minds as well as hearts. She pressed all the right buttons for progressive Europeans – linking the promotion of democracy in the Middle East with the victories for liberty gained in Europe 15 years ago. The breaching of the Berlin Wall and the ending of oppression in Poland were segued nicely with reminders of the recent victories in Afghanistan and Iraq and also, smartly, Ukraine.

Less attention has been paid to the answers she gave to student questions in Paris. She dealt with the question of US support to non-democratic regimes in the Arab world:

Let’s talk about the Arab people. The Arab people deserve a better future than is currently in front of them. This is a part of the world in which the status quo is not going to be acceptable.

You have large populations that are not receiving proper education. As the report to the United Nations by Arab intellectuals noted, you have 22 countries that have a GDP that is not the size of Spain. This is just not acceptable for a culture — the Arab cultures — that were, in many ways, part of the cradle of civilization. How can this be?

And so the freedom deficit, the absence of freedom, has had very dramatic, negative effects in this part of the world. And unfortunately, we in the West, for too long, turned a blind eye to that freedom deficit.

When the President spoke at Whitehall in London, he talked about 60 years of trying to buy stability at the expense of freedom, and getting neither. And what we have gotten instead, is a level of hopelessness that has produced an ideology of hatred so virulent, so thorough, that people flew airplanes into American buildings on a fine September morning; blew up a train station in Madrid; people in another part of the world from another tradition, but the same ideology of hatred, that took helpless children hostage in Russia. This can’t be the future of the Middle East.

And so both our security and our moral conscience tell us that this is a part of the world that can no longer be isolated from the prosperity and human dignity that freedom brings. And so it is not what President Bush defends; and certainly, I want to be very clear.

As I said earlier, this is not an issue of military power. This is an issue of the power of ideas, of the power of being able to support people in those societies who are just tired of being denied their freedom.

And so this is a great goal, not just for the United States, but for all of us who are fortunate enough to live on the right side of freedom because in each and every case, for all of us, somebody cared enough about human dignity and human liberty to make a stand in our past. Our ancestors did.

And that’s why we all enjoy the liberty and freedom that we do. And sometime in the past, others stood up for us so that we could defeat tyranny and we could live in freedom. And we simply have to do the same thing for the people of the Middle East who are seeking a different future.

One of the few British liberals who takes this talk seriously is Timothy Garton-Ash ,who represents the best of the sceptics. He takes it seriously because he is genuinely interested in expanding democracy unlike those on the ‘status quo left’.

In the Guardian today he responds to Rice’s speech by proving all the right buttons were pressed and then gets to the meat:So the emphasis has shifted from a short-term war on terror to a longer-term war on tyranny. The post-9/11 analogy was with the second world war; the second-term analogy is with the cold war. That bust of Winston Churchill remains in the Oval Office, but now it’s less the Churchill of 1940 than the Churchill of the 1946 Fulton speech, a defining moment of the cold war. Dr Rice, whose earlier life as an academic was focused on the cold war, often makes comparisons with the formative years of the late 1940s. In other words, we are talking about a long-term strategy to foster peaceful change in the undemocratic societies of the wider Middle East over the next two decades, comparable to the evolution encouraged in Soviet-ruled Europe by a mixture of containment and detente. An evolution that threw up a Gorbachev.

This approach represents a significant development not just in American policy but also in Dr Rice’s own thinking. Four years ago she entered the White House as national security adviser on an intellectual ticket of “realism”, emphasising military power and the hard-nosed pursuit of national interests

My first thought is that Garton-Ash is missing the point – the regional regime change strategy was never only about military force or about a short-term battle in a particular arena. Many of those close to the Bush administration have talked about the long-haul and a strategy of supporting reform and revolution as well as taking Fallujah. Bush himself said that the ill-named ‘war on terror’ could never be won in a conventional sense but the media chose to read that comment as an admission of futility rather than a reflection of the complexity of a struggle that must be fought on many fronts and which will probably never have a spectacularly defining moment such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But Garton-Ash does have an important point with his cold war analogy. In the heat of war — in Afghanistan and in Iraq, in the threats to Syria and Iran, the Bush administration has talked the language of conflict and of battle. Not always, as Rice points out Bush’s speech in Westminster was a clear statement of the longer term democratisation project in the Middle East, but the tone of the past three years has been that of aggression and determination against forces in the Middle East – the reactionary elites and the reactionary Islamists.

What Rice skillfully managed to do was to present the same goals in terms of a struggle with and for pro-democracy forces in the region. Of course, when you are on the side of democrats and progressive it means you are logically against the reactionaries. There is no contradiction but the difference in emphasis does matter.

Garton-Ash’s cold war analogy works because just as some hawks in the cold war chose to focus all their attention on the Communist leaderships, others saw the battle more in terms of supporting the dissidents and those who were the natural allies of the democratic camp.

The danger of an over-emphasis on fighting reactionary elites more than supporting their natural opponents is that you miss chances to forge real alliances and that can make you are blind to opportunities. It can lead, as we saw in the cold war, to those natural allies feeling isolated, neglected and eventually alienated. Unlike in the cold war however there is a real danger in such a strategy, that the allies of change may look elsewhere for friends in their struggle against corrupt rulers. If the democratic world isn’t going to help them perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood, a reactionary anti-elite force in many countries, will.

So the distinction is important in terms of strategy and Rice’s position in Paris was closer, in tone and content, to the Paul Berman approach than the Rumsfeld rhetoric. She is presenting the case for a multilateral and multi-faceted approach to a revoltionary struggle for liberal democracy.

But lets not pretend that rhetoric and pressing buttons doesn’t matter – it does. The view that the current struggle is purely about the US imposing its will and might has been strengthened by much of the rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’ and that has helped to foster the fears and nervousness and indeed the outright opposition of many in Europe to the aims of the US in the Middle East. Not only the gaffes about ‘crusades’ but the emphasis on talking tough of “making America safe” of defending “our way of life”, while playing well on the home front, have done little to convince public opinion in the wider democratic world that the US is seeking to initiate a historic movement towards freedom in the Middle East. In short there has been too much fear and not enough hope.

And it also counts who the messenger is. Did Rumsfeld’s taunts about ‘Old Europe’ actually help in trying to get progressives in the EU to think about what role they could play in the democratisation project? Of course not. Would Dick Cheney have been able to sit down with Muslim students in Paris and present an argument that not only would be taken seriously but would actually be applauded? I think not. And Bush will find out on his next visit that he can’t reach the parts that Condi can.

Bush could however learn something from Rice’s trip and it is this – drop the rhetoric of a ‘war on terror’ and talk the talk of the struggle for democracy and the need to support those in the Middle East who are on the side of liberty. And even better – forget the Rumsfeld approach to emphasising the differences between Europe and the US and give us the Rice stuff – the commonality of our values and our histories and the need for Europe to be a part of the struggle.

It won’t be enough to convince many in Europe but it just might change the conversation, force those who are in the status quo, the sceptical and the moderately hostile camps, to deal not with easily mocking ‘A War on Terror’ but with explaining exactly what it is about spreading democracy they oppose?

If the debate can become one centred around differences over strategy in achieving agreed goals (which is what the discussions Garton Ash seeks out always prompt) then that would be a huge step forward.