A War We Cannot Win

A War We Cannot Win

If bin Laden is destroyed, his shadowy armies will grow, rather than wither away.


October 8

"The bombing begins," screams today's headline of the normally restrained Guardian. "Battle Joined" echoes the equally cautious Herald Tribune, quoting George W. Bush. But with whom is it joined? And how will it end? How about with Osama bin Laden in chains, looking more serene and Christ-like than ever, arranged before a tribune of his vanquishers with Johnnie Cochran to defend him? The fees won't be a problem, that's for sure.

Or how about with a bin Laden blown to smithereens by one of those clever bombs we keep reading about that kill terrorists in caves but don't break the crockery? Or is there a solution I haven't thought of that will prevent us from turning our arch-enemy into an arch-martyr in the eyes of those for whom he is already semi-divine?

Yet we must punish him. We must bring him to justice. Like any sane person, I see no other way. Send in the food and medicines, provide the aid, sweep up the starving refugees, maimed orphans and body parts–sorry, "collateral damage"–but bin Laden and his awful men, we have no choice, must be hunted down.

But unfortunately what America longs for at this moment, even above retribution, is more friends and fewer enemies. And what America is storing up for herself, and so are we Brits, is yet more enemies; because after all the bribes, threats and promises that have patched together the rickety coalition, we cannot prevent another suicide bomber being born each time a misdirected missile wipes out an innocent village, and nobody can tell us how to dodge this devil's cycle of despair, hatred and–yet again–revenge.

The stylized television footage and photographs of bin Laden suggest a man of homoerotic narcissism, and maybe we can draw a grain of hope from that. Posing with a Kalashnikov, attending a wedding or consulting a sacred text, he radiates with every self-adoring gesture an actor's awareness of the lens. He has height, beauty, grace, intelligence and magnetism, all great attributes unless you're the world's hottest fugitive and on the run, in which case they're liabilities hard to disguise. But greater than all of them, to my jaded eye, is his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight. And just possibly this trait will be his downfall, seducing him into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed, scripted and acted to death by Osama bin Laden himself.

By the accepted rules of terrorist engagement, of course, the war is long lost. By us. What victory can we possibly achieve that matches the defeats we have already suffered, let alone the defeats that lie ahead? Terror is theater, a soft-spoken Palestinian firebrand told me in Beirut in 1982. He was talking about the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, but he might as well have been talking about the twin towers and the Pentagon. The late Bakunin, evangelist of anarchism, liked to speak of the propaganda of the Act. It's hard to imagine more theatrical, more potent acts of propaganda than these.

Now Bakunin in his grave and bin Laden in his cave must be rubbing their hands in glee as we embark on the very process that terrorists of their stamp so relish: as we hastily double up our police and intelligence forces and award them greater powers, as we put basic civil rights on hold and curtail press freedom, impose news blackpoints and secret censorship, spy on ourselves and, at our worst, violate mosques and hound luckless citizens in our streets because we are afraid of the color of their skin.

All the fears that we share–"Dare I fly?" "Ought I to tell the police about the weird couple upstairs?" "Would it be safer not to drive down Whitehall this morning?" "Is my child safely back from school?" "Have my life's savings plummeted?"–are precisely the fears our attackers want us to have.

Until September 11, the United States was only too happy to plug away at Vladimir Putin about his butchery in Chechnya. Russia's abuse of human rights in the North Caucasus, he was told–we are speaking of wholesale torture, and murder amounting to genocide, it was generally agreed–was an obstruction to closer relations with NATO and the United States. There were even voices–mine was one–that suggested Putin join Milosevic in The Hague; let's do them both together. Well, goodbye to all that. In the making of the great new coalition, Putin will look a saint by comparison with some of his bedfellows.

Does anyone remember anymore the outcry against the perceived economic colonialism of the G8? Against the plundering of the Third World by uncontrollable multinational companies? Prague, Seattle and Genoa presented us with disturbing scenes of broken heads, broken glass, mob violence and police brutality. Tony Blair was deeply shocked. Yet the debate was a valid one, until it was drowned in a wave of patriotic sentiment, deftly exploited by corporate America.

Drag up Kyoto these days and you risk the charge of being anti-American. It's as if we have entered a new, Orwellian world where our personal reliability as comrades in the struggle is measured by the degree to which we invoke the past to explain the present. Suggesting there is a historical context for the recent atrocities is by implication to make excuses for them. Anyone who is with us doesn't do that. Anyone who does, is against us.

Ten years ago, I was making an idealistic bore of myself by telling anyone who would listen that, with the cold war behind us, we were missing a never-to-be-repeated chance to transform the global community. Where was the new Marshall Plan? I pleaded. Why weren't young men and women from the American Peace Corps, Voluntary Service Overseas and their Continental European equivalents pouring into the former Soviet Union in their thousands? Where was the world-class statesman and man of the hour with the voice and vision to define for us the real, if unglamorous, enemies of mankind: poverty, famine, slavery, tyranny, drugs, bush-fire wars, racial and religious intolerance, greed?

Now, overnight, thanks to bin Laden and his lieutenants, all our leaders are world-class statesmen, proclaiming their voices and visions in distant airports while they feather their electoral nests.

There has been unfortunate talk, and not only from Signor Berlusconi, of a crusade. Crusade, of course, implies a delicious ignorance of history. Was Berlusconi really proposing to set free the holy places of Christendom and smite the heathen? Was Bush? And am I out of order in recalling that we actually lost the Crusades? But all is well: Signor Berlusconi was misquoted and the presidential reference is no longer operative.

Meanwhile, Blair's new role as America's fearless spokesman continues apace. Blair speaks well because Bush speaks badly. Seen from abroad, Blair in this partnership is the inspired elder statesman with an unassailable domestic power base, whereas Bush–dare one say it these days?–was barely elected at all.

But what exactly does Blair, the elder statesman, represent? Both men at this moment are riding high in their respective approval ratings, but both are aware, if they know their history books, that riding high on Day One of a perilous overseas military operation doesn't guarantee you victory on Election Day. How many American body bags can Bush sustain without losing popular support? After the horrors of the twin towers and the Pentagon, the American people may want revenge, but they're on a very short fuse about shedding more American blood.

Blair–with the whole Western world to tell him so, except for a few sour voices back home–is America's eloquent White Knight, the fearless, trusty champion of that ever-delicate child of the mid-Atlantic, the Special Relationship. Whether that will win Blair favor with his electorate is another matter, because he was elected to save the country from decay, and not from Osama bin Laden. The Britain he is leading to war is a monument to sixty years of administrative incompetence. Our health, education and transport systems are on the rocks. The fashionable phrase these days describes them as "Third World," but there are places in the Third World that are far better off than Britain.

The Britain Blair governs is blighted by institutionalized racism, white male dominance, chaotically administered police forces, a constipated judicial system, obscene private wealth and shameful and unnecessary public poverty. At the time of his re-election, which was characterized by a dismal turnout, Blair acknowledged these ills and humbly admitted that he was on notice to put them right. So when you catch the noble throb in his voice as he leads us reluctantly to war, and your heart lifts to his undoubted flourishes of rhetoric, it's worth remembering that he may also be warning you, sotto voce, that his mission to mankind is so important that you will have to wait another year for your urgent medical operation and a lot longer before you can ride in a safe and punctual train. I am not sure that this is the stuff of electoral victory three years from now. Watching Blair, and listening to him, I can't resist the impression that he is in a bit of a dream, walking his own dangerous plank.

Did I say war? Has either Blair or Bush, I wonder, ever seen a child blown to bits, or witnessed the effect of a single cluster bomb dropped on an unprotected refugee camp? It isn't necessarily a qualification for generalship to have seen such dreadful things, and I don't wish either of them the experience. But it scares me all the same when I watch uncut, political faces shining with the light of combat, and hear preppy political voices steeling my heart for battle.

And please, Mr. Bush–on my knees, Mr. Blair–keep God out of this. To imagine that God fights wars is to credit Him with the worst follies of mankind. God, if we know anything about Him, which I don't profess to, prefers effective food drops, dedicated medical teams, comfort and good tents for the homeless and bereaved, and, without strings, a decent acceptance of our past sins and a readiness to put them right. He prefers us less greedy, less arrogant, less evangelical and less dismissive of life's losers.

It's not a new world order, not yet, and it's not God's war. It's a horrible, necessary, humiliating police action to redress the failure of our intelligence services and our blind political stupidity in arming and exploiting Islamic fanatics to fight the Soviet invader, then abandoning them to a devastated, leaderless country. As a result, it's our miserable duty to seek out and punish a bunch of modern-medieval religious zealots who will gain mythic stature from the very death we propose to dish out to them.

And when it's over, it won't be over. The shadowy armies of bin Laden, in the emotional aftermath of his destruction, will gather numbers rather than wither away. So will the hinterland of silent sympathizers who provide them with logistical support. Cautiously, between the lines, we are being invited to believe that the conscience of the West has been reawakened to the dilemma of the poor and homeless of the earth. And possibly, out of fear, necessity and rhetoric, a new sort of political morality has indeed been born. But when the shooting dies and a seeming peace is achieved, will the United States and its allies stay at their posts or, as happened at the end of the cold war, hang up their boots and go home to their own backyards? Even if those backyards will never again be the safe havens they once were.

Copyright David Cornwell © 2001.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy