Turkey pays a tragic price for the West's failure

Simon Jenkins http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,174-902471,00.html

The bombs aimed at British targets in Istanbul yesterday are a tragic irrelevance. They are an incident on the margin of war, the work of people ready to shed their lives and those of ordinary civilians to publicise the cause of driving Britain from the Middle East. Few even of those who support that cause will sympathise with the method.

That Turkey should be the venue is ironic. Turkey has played a distant hand over Iraq. But it is accessible and "soft". Big cities are always vulnerable to bombs. Traffic must move. Buildings cannot become fortresses. Baghdad must now be the world capital of defensive architecture, yet "hard" targets are merely a challenge to the grenade and rocket launcher. Suicide killers have shifted the balance of war, tilting the advantage to attack rather than defence.

The reason is that the bombers' objective is not to kill as such but, through killing, to work the multiplier of terror. It is to play games with the responses, voluntary or involuntary, of those attacked. The bombers of the World Trade Centre two years ago were granted precisely the response they sought, the traumatisation of American society and a retaliation which stirred anti-Americanism across the Muslim world. It was not just an outrage but an invitation to war.

I believed then, and believe now, that the West should have declined that invitation. It should never have glamorised al-Qaeda as evil-empire successor to the Soviet Union. Al-Qaeda was a mafia of murderous fanatics, to be hunted down by spies, bribery and subterfuge. In no way did it constitute a threat to Western values or the stability of Western states, whatever George Bush and Tony Blair might claim. I have more faith in those values and in that stability. All al-Qaeda could do was explosions. Overreact, and the West would merely fuel the support on which all outlaws ultimately depend.

I have read no study of Muslim fundamentalism that has it seeking the downfall of Western states. Its attention is directed against reformers within the Muslim world and against foreign influence. Fundamentalism seeks only to shut Islam off from the outside world. Its militants might seek targets in America and elsewhere overseas. But their cause is to drive the West and its perceived immorality from the lands of the Prophet. It seeks no military or cultural conquest.

So how to react to outrages perpetrated in its name? I recall the intelligence briefing I was given by exiled Afghans in the lull after 9/11. They said that Osama bin Laden must be killed and that the best people to do this, sooner or later, would be the Taleban. Bin Laden had become "an unwelcome guest". Do not be distracted by regime change, I was told. That may come in time. It is bin Laden you want. Kill him, punish his Saudi allies, and al-Qaeda is a broken reed.

The Americans were given that advice but did not take it. They were in a hurry, yearning for punitive retaliation. Washington was distracted by the glamour of "regime-change" in Kabul. As a result, Afghanistan is today again staring anarchy in the face. Heroin, stopped by the Taleban at America's bidding, is flowing. Bin Laden is free and al-Qaeda seems anything but a broken reed. At the very least, the case for the warpath in Afghanistan was unproven. At most, it was a strategic disaster whose price is now being paid in British lives.

Iraq was different. Here the intention was "pre-emptive retaliation" against an ill- defined threat. Ironically that threat came not from fundamentalism but from its most ferocious foe, Saddam Hussein. Saddam massacred fundamentalists. His party, Michel Aflak's Ba'athists, was founded to modernise Arab nationalism and defy the ayatollahs. When Saddam could not realistically be protrayed as a threat to the West, America and Britain abruptly changed the casus belli to his threat to his own people. Yet even after the most powerful force on Earth has been brought to bear on him, he remains at large, a submerged but continuing threat to his people.

The hypocrisy long adopted by the West towards Muslim regimes is explained away in London and Washington as a sad but necessary by-product of great-power status. By implication, Arabs are too simplistic to notice. Yet they do notice. They notice when we publicise bombed European civilians but not bombed Arab ones. They notice when we appease Israeli expansionism. They notice the shifting bases on which we wage war on their countries. They notice when we demand the toppling of some dictators yet deal on friendly terms with others, Uzbheks, Saudis, Pakistanis and Afghan warlords.

At present many Iraqis are desperately afraid. The fear was put to me one evening in Baghdad by a Sunni Muslim, a devout but cosmopolitan man. Mr Bush, he said, was right to declare that decades of American pandering to regional dictators had not brought peace. But nor was the West's heavy-handed interventionism achieving it now.

His fear was that the terrorist culture cursing Israel and Palestine was about to spread across the Middle East. Car bombs and rockets would become the standard form of political protest. The American response "the only thing Arabs understand is force" would become the norm. In Iraq, he said as another tank roared past, it seemed that the only thing Americans understood was force.

The West's presence in the Middle East is bizarre, since it is not that of the classical "imperialist". It is not hunting down "international terrorists". It cannot even catch two such high-profile villains as bin Laden and Saddam, both of whom it once found it convenient to support. Yet it is creating precisely the conditions in which their contrasting extremisms flourish, notably the counterproductive " Operation Iron Hammer", in the Sunni Triangle.

After six inept months in Iraq, the coalition authorities are at last making sensible decisions. A provisional government of "great and good" is being established, an army formed and steps taken to give real power to Iraqis. Money is starting to flow. Mr Bush this week repeated his obligation, that having invaded Iraq the coalition cannot leave it to an early bloodbath, whatever the cost. Let us hope this pledge lasts longer than his last, that he would first create "a stable democracy".

I returned from the region last week with my enthusiasm for non-intervention undimmed, except by a conviction that the country must not be precipitately abandoned. If Iraq becomes a democracy and not another dictatorship, it will be a miracle. But if it breaks up, or reverts to the Ba'athists, or finds another strongman, that is Iraq's business and no longer ours.

There is much good that the West can do in the Middle East without seeking military domination. It can trade, do business and exchange students. It can rebuild the infrastructure it has destroyed, enriching and empowering local capital. It can share culture, learn and understand. In doing so, the West may perhaps tranfuse democratic and liberal values. It cannot impose them.

Bombs do not happen at random. They are delivered by people for reasons. Against them there is no military defence. In this global combat zone the weak are strong and the strong weak, because the weak are ready to die and the strong are full of fear. The weak do not need Scud missiles or weapons of mass destruction. A boy with a bomb in a car can send a "ripple of terror" round the world, and there is not a blind thing the mightiest army can do about it.

Yesterday's bombs were due to a mix of political circumstance to which Britain is an active party. They are the inevitable outcome of Britain's decision over the past year to intervene in the region with armed force. Bombs have proved the one form of retaliation to which ever-volatile Western opinion has shown itself vulnerable.

Bombs in themselves should not compel a change in policy. That would be the worst surrender. But the motives behind the bombs must not be smothered in rhetoric or there will be no clear thinking, merely an upward ratchet of violence. The West has intervened in the Middle East for the best part of a century. As Mr Bush points out, it has not brought peace. Nor does peace beckon now.

Western systems and traditions cannot be imposed on Arab peoples. When we realise that, the bombs will cease. Until then, they will remain the white man's burden.