Tilt at Windmills as World War Looms
By Simon Jenkins
Times" -- - Is the world drifting towards a new
global war? From this week the dominant super-power, America,
will for three months pass through the valley of the shadow of
democracy, a presidential election. This is always a moment of
self-absorption and paranoia. Barack Obama and John McCain will
not act as statesmen but as politicians. They will grandstand
and look over their shoulders. Their eye will stray from the
Meanwhile, along history’s fault line of conflict from Russia’s
European border to the Caucasus and on to Iran, Afghanistan and
Pakistan, diplomats are shifting uneasily in their seats, drums
are sounding and harsh words are spoken. The world is now run by
a generation of leaders who have never known global war. Has
this dulled their senses?
Dan McNeill, an American general, was recently interviewed in
Kabul on how to beat the Taliban. He was not the first to
conclude that this could not be done militarily but only by
“winning hearts and minds”. The problem, he said, lay in the
answer to the question, “Whose hearts and minds?” Was it those
of the Afghan people or was it rather those of the American
Congress and voters?
Both Obama and McCain have claimed that the war in Iraq has been
allowed to distract attention from the war in Afghanistan. This
is different from the neoconservatives, who felt the war in
Afghanistan was a distraction from the more important war in
America now thinks it has won in Baghdad and must return to
Kabul - and possibly even Tehran. At the same time it must face
the possibility that these conflicts may in turn be a
distraction from the reemergence as world powers of Russia and
China, who are already gaining the initiative in Iran and
Africa. Moscow is also precipitating a nationalist resurgence in
eastern Europe and among Russian minorities in the Caucasus.
The question is critical. Has the West misjudged the fault line
of an impending conflict? Its global strategy under George Bush,
Tony Blair and a ham-fisted Nato has declared the threat to
world peace as coming from nonstate organisations, specifically
Al-Qaeda, and the nations that give them either bases or tacit
support. Western generals and securocrats have elevated these
anarchist fanatics to the status of nuclear powers. Policing
crime has become “waging war”, so as to justify soaring budgets
and influence over policy, much as did America’s
military-industrial complex during the cold war.
Might it be that a raging seven-year obsession with Osama Bin
Laden and his tiny Al-Qaeda organisation has blinded strategists
to the old verities? Wars are rarely “clashes of civilisation”,
but rather clashes of interest. They are usually the result of
careless policy, of misread signals and of mission creep closing
options for peace.
Terrorists, wherever located and trained, can certainly capture
headlines and cause overnight mayhem, but they cannot project
power. They cannot conquer countries or peoples, only manipulate
democratic regimes into espousing illiberal policies, as in
America and Britain. By grossly overstating the significance of
terrorism, western leaders have distracted foreign policy from
what should be its prime concern: securing world peace by
holding a balance of interest - and pride - among the great
To any who lived through the cold war, recent events along
Russia’s western and southern borders are deeply ominous. Moscow
initially spent the 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union
flirting with the West. It had been defeated and had good reason
for disarming and putting out feelers to join Nato and the
European Union. It took part in such proto-capitalist entities
as the G8.
In the case of Nato and the EU it was arrogantly rebuffed, while
its former Warsaw Pact allies were accepted. Moscow was told it
would be foolish to worry about encirclement. A nation that had
never enjoyed democracy should content itself with basking in
its delights. Russians in the Baltic states and in Ukraine
should make their peace with emerging governments. The political
clutter of the cold war should be decontaminated.
Suddenly this has not worked. The world is showing alarming
parallels with the 1930s. Lights are turning to red as the world
again approaches depression. The credit crunch and the collapse
of world trade talks are making nations introverted. Meanwhile,
the defeated power of the last war, Russia, is flexing its
muscles and finding them in good working order.
On Thursday Gordon Brown told his troops in Afghanistan that
“what you are doing here prevents terrorism coming to the
streets of Britain”. He cannot believe this any more than do his
generals. Afghanistan poses no military threat to Britain.
Rather it is Britain’s occupation and the response in
neighbouring Pakistan that fosters antiwestern militancy in the
region. Like the impoverishment of Germany between the wars, the
stirring of antiwestern and antiChristian sentiment in the
Muslim world can only be dangerous and counter-productive. Yet
we do it.
The Taliban are fighting an old-fashioned insurgent war against
a foreign invader and recruiting Pakistanis and antiwestern
fanatics to help. They have succeeded in tormenting Washington
and London with visions of a destabilised nuclear Pakistan, a
blood-drenched Middle East and an Iran whose leaders may yet
turn to jihad. For Brown - or the American presidential
candidates - to imply that these conflicts with the Muslim world
are making the world “safer” is manifestly untrue.
Worse, it distorts policy. Rather than calming other foes so the
West can concentrate on the conflicts in hand, it is pointlessly
stirring Russian expansionism to life.
There is no strategic justification for siting American missile
systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is nothing but
right-wing provocation. Nato’s welcome to Georgia and Ukraine,
for no good reason but at risk of having to come to their aid,
has served only to incite Georgia to realise that risk while
also infuriating Moscow.
Russia is well able to respond recklessly to a snub without such
encouragement, so why encourage it? The more powerful state -
America - surely has an obligation to show the greater caution.
Any strategic decision, such as the goading of Moscow, must plan
for its response. Nato’s bureaucracy, lacking coherence and
leadership, has been searching for a role since the end of the
cold war. That role is apparently now to play with fire.
Western strategy is dealing with a resurgent, rich and potent
Russia. It has played fast and loose with Moscow’s age-old
sensitivity and forgotten the message of George Kennan, the
American statesman: that Russia must be understood and contained
rather than confronted. The naive remarks welcoming Georgia to
Nato by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, show a West far
detached from such analytical truths.
Any student of McCain or Obama, of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and
Dmitry Medvedev, or of the leaders of Britain, France and
Germany, might conclude that these are not people likely to go
to war. They are surely the children of peace. Yet history shows
that “going to war” is never an intention. It is rather the
result of weak, shortsighted leaders entrapped by a series of
mistakes. For the West’s leaders at present, mistake has become
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