Fifteen years ago George W. Bush launched the “War on Terror.” It was an incalculable strategic mistake, and there is no end in sight
JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
September 24, 2016
Fifteen years ago this week President George W. Bush uttered a few phrases that have tainted much of what has happened in the world since.
He made an incalculable strategic mistake when, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on September 21, 2001, he declared war on terrorism.
“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he said. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
Well, all these years later that end is now closer to achievement for the simple reason that it was the wrong objective with the wrong approach. Perhaps even worse, other contemporary and subsequent leaders, particularly in the West, have not had the wisdom or the guts to change the futile course on which Bush and his coterie launched the planet.
From the start of terrorism in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been no serious effort by Western political leaders to define and understand the underlying causes. Terrorism may be evil in its consequences, but it always stems from inequity, injustice, hopelessness and explosive frustration. Terrorism is an expression of political and social dislocation and history tells us it can never be defeated militarily. The only solutions to the causes of terrorism are political and social.
Despite this blindingly obvious fact, the notion has become so deeply embedded that military intervention is seen as the answer not only in response to acts of terrorism, but to all civic upheaval in unstable countries. What is only now beginning to sink in is the lesson that military intervention in a country comes with the responsibility to reconstruct the politics and administration afterwards. The United States with allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Britain, France and Canada in Libya, have failed abysmally to follow through on military interventions with feasible and lasting reconstruction programs. Indeed, these three countries are now less stable – in the case of Libya, a wasteland of warring factions — and even more the founts of the social discord that breeds terrorism than before the military interventions.
It is easy to prophesy that there will be similar results from the Saudi Arabian military mission in neighbouring Yemen, where Riyadh is trying to stop the takeover by Houthi rebels and their allies linked to Iran. And if Russia’s campaign in Syria achieves its objective of keeping President Bashar Assad in power, the chances are the country will be partitioned and Damascus that will secure only a rump in the western region. The rest will likely be a battleground between Kurds and Sunni Muslim extremists such as the Islamic State group, which now occupies much of the east, with Turkey making forays from the north when the situation threatens to inflame its own Kurdish minority.
This culture of blind violence, that has dominated the international agenda since Bush’s 2001 speech and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, got a long overdue drubbing on September 15. A British House of Commons committee, dominated by the ruling Conservative Party, delivered a damning indictment of its former Tory leader and Prime Minister, David Cameron, who championed and led the 2011 allied air campaign in Libya, in which Canada took part.
After resigning the Conservative leadership in June in the wake of losing the Brexit referendum, Cameron resigned from parliament two days before the committee report was published. He has thus avoided having to give serious answers to the questions about the Libyan intervention, though whether that was his intention only he knows.
Libya is now a disaster zone. It has two competing governments. Most of the country is in the hands of local, tribally-based warlords. It has become a haven for radical Islamic groups linked either to the Islamic State group or al-Qaeda. It is a highway for human traffickers bringing people from sub-Saharan Africa to the coast to be shipped across the Mediterranean to Italy. These people are economic migrants trying to take advantage of the European Community’s confused refugee laws and regulations. But these migrants encounter en route what amounts to slavery to the traffickers, and many thousands have drowned when the overcrowded and unseaworthy boats in which they are dispatched sink.
For over 40 years Libya had been the domain of the thoroughly nasty dictator Muammar Gaddafi when, early in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring swept across the Middle East. From the movement’s inception in Tunsia, where another dictator was swiftly ousted from power, to Egypt, where the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak was removed by his own military, the quest for political reform appeared to be infecting the whole region.
Western governments were overtaken by self-delusion and short-sightedness. It was evident even at the time that their enthusiasm for the Arab revolutions was motivated — at least in part — by the hope that this upsurge of support for reform would justify the military interventions of the previous decade.
No such luck. Tunisia has made a reasonably successful political transition. But in Egypt an ill-considered swift introduction of elections brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s only organised opposition whose radical theology inspired al-Qaeda and several other violent Islamic groups. The army swiftly stepped in and Egypt is again a thinly disguised military dictatorship.
Syria, of course, is now approaching the fearful denouement of the nearly six-year civil war.
Libya under Gaddafi was a bizarre and Kafkaesque place that was also a true supporter of international terrorism. But Gaddafi was a cunning desert fox. When he saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the threats from Bush to take out Iran and North Korea because of their nuclear weapons programs, he rushed declare fealty to Washington. Gaddafi handed over the components of his own nuclear weapons program and named names in his own dealings in the international arms and terrorism trade.
His reward was lifting of embargoes and the arrival of much-needed foreign investment in his dilapidated oil industry.
But he remained unloved or trusted by his new friends in Europe and Washington. When the Arab Spring spread into Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi early in 2011 the West was temperamentally inclined to aid the rebels. When Gaddafi started to use his airforce to pummel the rebels, Cameron in London and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, led a campaign among the Arab League and at the United Nations for intervention. They urged the imposition of a no-fly zone and invoked the international community’s responsibility to protect civilians targeted in conflicts.
The Canadian government of Stephen Harper, and Canadians in general, were easy marks to sign on for this crusade. The haunting experience of General Romeo Dallaire and his inability to stop the genocide in Ruanda in 1993 because of his restricted UN mandate has become part of the Canadian national consciousness. Canada sent a frigate and six CF18 fighter jets to the mission.
With UN and Arab League backing, the intervention began on March 19, 2011, with French warplanes attacking Gaddafi’s air-defence systems preparatory to imposing the no-fly zone.
The report of the British House of Commons select committee, chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, underlines that the objective protect civilians in and around Benghazi was achieved within 24 hours. That should have been the end, but it was just the beginning.
“There is a debate,” says the report of Blunt’s committee, “about whether that intervention was necessary and on what basis it was taken, but having been achieved, the whole business then elided into regime change and then we had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plans for the consequences.”
No attempt was made to use the political links to Gaddafi that had been established since he decided to ally himself with the West. Putting pressure on Gaddahi to moderate his response to the demands for reform might not have worked. But no one, especially not in Britain, even thought of trying it. Instead there was a rush to follow the Bush doctrine of bombing first and contemplating the resultant mess afterwards.
The result of the French, British and Canadian intervention – other participants were Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Qatar, Norway and the U.S. – “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil (the Islamic State group) in North Africa,” says the report.
A good day’s work, then, whose results President Barack Obama once cogently summed up in an interview as “a shitshow.”
Obama has tried to limit the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the multi-national turmoil around Iraq and Syria, but he is just as guilty as others of projecting the quest for a military solution.
The additional disturbing element now is that the military campaigns have become largely invisible. In contrast to his affable, open and engaging personality, Obama is overseeing a war of secret assassination using armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and anywhere in Africa where militant Islamic groups operate. Inevitably, there are civilian casualties. The numbers may not match the unintended consequences of manned bomber raids, which also continue throughout the region, but the outrage and anger these killings cause among survivors are just as potent. Drone assassinations feed terrorism and make political and social solutions just as unobtainable as full-blown warfare.
The other arm of Western intervention in these conflicts is special forces, whose activities are also largely invisible and unreported.
The current response to terrorism is guaranteed only to continue feeding the bitterness at its source. Until that response changes from the military to the political and social, terrorist groups will continue morphing and moving, and Bush’s war will continue without end.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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