The End of the “War on Terror”

20 April 2007

The End of the “War on Terror”

By Gwynne Dyer

The “Axis of Good” is starting to crumble. It is several months yet before British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s promise to retire falls due, but already his current and former cabinet colleagues are trying to put some distance between themselves and his most disastrous legacy, the invasion of Iraq. This is causing some embarrassment to his American and Australian partners in crime, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister John Howard. (Only those three countries actually shot and bombed their way into Iraq, although lots of others showed up later for a while.)

It started in New York on Tuesday with Mr. Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary in the Blair cabinet and a contender to be deputy prime minister or foreign secretary when he goes. Benn revealed that the British government had told all its diplomats to stop using the phrase “war on terror” last December, because “we can’t win by military means alone. And because this isn’t us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives.”

It was a dangerous phrase, Benn continued, because it imputed power, organisation and common purpose to “a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common apart from their identification with others who share their distorted view of the world. By letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength.”

It was a small act of rebellion, but a significant one, for Prime Minister Blair’s own website still uses the phrase “war on terror” a mind-numbing 154 times. Blair’s official spokesperson, asked about the discrepancy, replied tight-lipped: “We all use our own phraseology.” And it was significant that Hilary Benn made his speech not in Britain but in the United States, where it would cause maximum offence to President Bush, the originator and most frequent abuser of the offending phrase.

Blair’s loss of authority over his own government was underlined the following day in Australia, when Helen Liddell, the British high commissioner (ambassador), was asked about Benn’s remarks. “Phrases like war on terror, these are tabloid slogans,” she replied — and went on to say something that must have caused Prime Minister John Howard great annoyance.

For four years, ever since he sent Australian troops to invade Iraq, Howard has insisted that they are there to fight terrorism: “Iraq is not a diversion from the war on terror, it is the front line and we must face this reality,” he said in 2004. And he has been repeating that ever since, together with the embellishment that Australia’s troops have to be on that front line because defeat in Iraq would embolden terrorists in South-East Asia.

This summons up an intriguing image of potential South-East Asian terrorists checking each night for news from Iraq as they hover on the cusp of a choice between life as a terrorist and a career in accountancy, but their actual motivations are probably a bit more complex than that. What’s interesting is not that John Howard is wrong; it’s that the British high commissioner in Canberra said he was wrong. Ambassadors don’t normally do that.

Helen Liddell was a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet in 2003 when Britain took the decision to join the Bush administration in invading Iraq, and she spoke with the certainty of one who knows where the bodies are buried: “We have never seen Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. Certainly at the moment we are engaged in a war on the streets in Afghanistan, in Iraq against terrorism. But our raison d’etre for our involvement in Iraq has not been about terrorism.”

The real message of these events is that the new British cabinet that is installed this summer after Blair leaves office, presumably under the prime ministership of Gordon Brown, is not going to be tied by Blair’s dogmas and Blair’s commitments. Australia may soon be America’s ONLY remaining significant ally in Iraq.

But there is another message, too: words matter. The “war on terror” was an extremely pernicious concept that led its purveyors down some very strange pathways, because both words were misleading.

“Terror,” or terrorism, isn’t a thing you can have a war against. It is a paramilitary technique, equally available to Tamils in Sri Lanka, Islamists in Algeria, and Catholics in Northern Ireland. You use police and security measures to track down the terrorists, you deploy political measures to eat into their popular support, but unless and until they end up (like the Tamil Tigers) with political and military control over a large piece of territory, “war” is an irrelevant concept.

And that’s the other word that’s a problem. By calling it a war, the Bush administration conditioned the American public to expect invasions of whole countries — and then delivered them. Whether the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq actually increased the “terrorist threat” to the West is still a contentious issue among military experts and strategic analysts, but they certainly didn’t diminish it by much. It’s a lucky thing that the threat is still so very small.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“It was adangerous…strength”; and “This summons…do that”)