John Humphrys: Get used to a state of siege, it can only get tighter still

The airport on the tropical island of Langkawi is everything a jaded tourist dreams of -- especially British travellers used to the horrors of Heathrow. It is modern and clean and you can park a few yards away for 20p and stay all day if you wish. A long queue is six people. This is vaguely how I remember airports when I started flying regularly 35 years ago. It made me quite misty-eyed when I flew from there a few days ago.

A friendly guard asked me to put my suitcases through the screening device and walk through the body scanner -- and that was it for security. I could have wandered off, popped back outside the airport for a chat and popped back into the "secure" area any time I wanted. Indeed, that's exactly what I did.

A friend called to give me a package before I left so I nipped out to collect it and nipped back in again. The nice guard smiled at me. No screening this time. We were friends by now. No problem.

And that, in a nutshell, is why America's latest tactics in the war against terror are not going to work. They can make passengers take off their shoes before they board American flights as much as they like. They can even get us to strip naked and subject us to intimate body searches and have dentists on hand to examine dodgy fillings if the mood takes them.

They can make us queue all day for a visa to visit the United States, pay through the nose for it and then, when we get there, queue again to get past the steely-eyed immigration officials. A few months ago it took me nearly four hours at Atlanta airport after I'd arrived from London just to get to my connecting domestic flight.

They can treat us like criminals and fingerprint half the world and scan our irises until we go cross-eyed. They can have air marshals in every other seat and stop us forming little whining groups as we huddle, cross-legged, waiting for the loo. They can force so many airlines to cancel flights that the queues at Heathrow will stretch halfway round the M25.

They can do all that, but they can't guarantee that any of it will work. There will always be a weak link. I could easily have put a bomb in my baggage, which was checked direct all the way through to London even though I transferred flights at Kuala Lumpur. And the terrorist will always come up with something new.

The Israelis tried everything in the days when Palestinian terrorists were hijacking aircraft every other week. El Al was, by a mile, the most unpleasant airline in the world.

When I flew back from a holiday in Israel 10 years ago I was treated like a terrorist because I'd been on holiday with a woman to whom I wasn't married. We got hauled out of the queue and given the sort of grilling that Saddam Hussein must be getting now. Why did we have different addresses in London? How much time did we spend together? Were we sleeping together? Bloody cheek.

In one sense it worked. El Al was not only the most unpleasant, it was also the safest airline in the world. But are the Israelis winning their own war on terror? Ask the families who have lost their loved ones to the suicide bombers in the past few years. There are too many different methods available in this dirty war, too many zealots prepared to die for the cause.

Terrorism is not a cause or an enemy or even an ideology. It is a method, a means to an end. The question is not whether the Americans are right to try to put the terrorists out of business; it is whether they have chosen the right strategy.

It is easy to measure failure -- one downed aircraft -- but difficult to measure success. The discovery in Iraq of a great cache of weapons of mass destruction would certainly have counted as a success. The world would have felt a safer place. But on Thursday it was announced that the 400 American and British specialists who have been searching for them since the war ended have been withdrawn. And while they were packing their bags, the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace organisation issued a report which said there was "no convincing evidence" that Iraq had had any WMDs after 1991.

Viewed purely from the "war on terror" perspective, Iraq could yet prove a success -- provided it is transformed into a stable working democracy which acts as a model for other dictatorships.

But democracy is about more than elections. As the Washington-based Cato Institute said this week, it means respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary and media, separation of religious and secular authority, civilian control of the military and much more besides.

That does not come overnight. In Malaysia, where I have spent the past few weeks, it took the British colonial government 12 years to defeat the communist guerrillas (or terrorists as we called them) and many more for the establishment of anything approaching a stable democracy. It still has its flaws.

Correlli Barnett, the military historian, has another way of measuring success: which side is imposing its will on the enemy and which side has the initiative? Objective strategic analysis, he says, can return only one answer: Al-Qaeda.

Barnett calculates that in the past two years there have been 17 serious bombing attacks around the world, including those in Istanbul against HSBC and the British consulate. In the eight years up to and including 9/11 there were five. Before the war against Iraq there was no link with Al-Qaeda. Now, it seems, its men operate alongside Saddam's old henchmen against the common enemy.

America may be the most powerful military machine the world has ever seen, but even its might can be stretched. If combat divisions are tied down in Iraq, it follows that they cannot be used elsewhere. If the billions spent defeating Saddam and rebuilding Iraq had been spent searching for and destroying Bin Laden's operation, might the picture today be different? We don't know.

The American administration says it is winning anyway. Most of Bin Laden's top men have been killed or captured and more than 3,000 operatives have been "incapacitated". Terrorist cells across Europe have been disrupted. There are diplomatic successes, too. Iran has become newly co- operative and so has Gadaffi in Libya. Even North Korea is making some of the right noises.

More to the point, there has been no repeat of 9/11. All those attacks have been against "soft" targets -- a nightclub in Bali, a bank in Turkey, a hotel in Kenya. Many Muslims have been killed and Bin Laden will pay a price for that.

And yet, even as the Pentagon and the White House claim their victories, America is looking increasingly like a nation under siege. If things are going so well, why all these extra measures? It may be that the intelligence agencies are finally doing the job they should have been doing before the World Trade Center was vaporised and discovering all manner of plots. In which case every dollar is well spent -- $41 billion (£22 billion) according to the latest estimates. You cannot put a price on the prevention of mass murder.

Or it may be that nobody is prepared to take chances -- however remote, however speculative, however far-fetched. Forget any notion of risk evaluation and risk management. In this scenario the objective is risk annihilation. Nobody, it is safe to say, will be fired for over- reacting. Nobody ever is.

The problem with extra security is that it operates like a ratchet. It moves in only one direction. I wonder if anyone even suggested that security at party conferences in this country might be relaxed a little when the IRA ceasefire was declared. I doubt it.

The new border controls in the United States mean that 24m people trying to get into the country every year will be checked as they have never been checked before at 115 airports, 14 sea ports and more than 50 land borders.

All of this must gladden the heart of Bin Laden. If he wanted to make America look like a fearful giant, he has succeeded.

Worse -- far worse -- is the possibility that some fanatic will get lucky.

A "successful" strike against an ill-prepared America was one thing. A strike against an America that is meant to be the best protected country in history would be something else again. Where, then, could Washington turn?