Craving a monstrous enemy, the prime minister has vastly overstated this supposed threat to world security
Wednesday November 22, 2006
"What is it about a desert that drives men mad? On Monday morning the prime minister stood on the Afghan sand and said: "Here in this extraordinary piece of desert is where the fate of world security in the early 21st century is going to be decided."
Tony Blair was talking to soldiers he had sent to fight the toughest guerrillas on earth for control of southern Afghanistan. He told them: "Your defeat [of the Taliban] is not just on behalf of the people of Afghanistan but the people of Britain ... We have got to stay for as long as it takes."
What is sad about Blair's statement is not its strategic naivety but the psychology behind it. Why have the leaders of Britain and America felt driven to adopt so wildly distorted a concept of menace? In an analysis of terrorism in the latest New York Review of Books, Max Rodenbeck offers plausible but depressing answers. They include the short-term popularity that war offers democratic leaders, the yearning of defence chiefs and industries to prove the worth of expensive kit and, in Iraq's case, "the influence of neoconservatives and of the pro-Israeli lobby, seeing a chance to set a superpower on Israel's enemies".
All this is true, but I sense a deeper disconnect. The west is ruled by a generation of leaders with no experience of war or its threat. Blair and his team cannot recall the aftermath of the second world war, and in the cold war they rushed to join CND. They were distant from those real global horrors. Yet now in power they seem to crave an enemy of equivalent monstrosity. Modern government has a big hole in its ego, yearning to be filled by something called a "threat to security".
After 1990 many hoped that an age of stable peace might dawn. Rich nations might disarm and combine to help the poor, advancing the cause of global responsibility. Instead two of history's most internationalist states, America and Britain, have returned to the trough of conflict, chasing a chimera of "world terrorism", and at ludicrous expense. They have brought death and destruction to a part of the globe that posed no strategic threat. Now one of them, Tony Blair, stands in a patch of desert to claim that "world security in the 21st century" depends on which warlord controls it. Was anything so demented?"