Tony Blair is the world’s greatest threat to rational thinking

Mr Blair, you will have us on. Tony Blair joked the other day in an interview with the BBC that radical Islam is the world’s greatest threat. He said that Islamic fundamentalists will stop at nothing to get their hands on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and that since 9/11, we “could not take chances on this issue”.

For the sake of clear heads, I would like to exercise disagreement. First, a quick history lesson. The whole Islamic radicalism threat to the world was the creation of the colonial powers, Britain, France and the US foremost among them, and Israel. Resistance to colonialism and occupation in all its forms has been a feature of intellectual and political life in the Muslim world for a long time now. Where it started is debatable, but the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest political Islamic group, was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. It did not rise out of the sand. The Brotherhood, which brought us Hamas, was formed in reaction to European colonialism in Arab and Muslim countries. By no means are all its adherents or actions violent, but it nonetheless strikes fear into the hearts of white people who do not understand it, as well as reactionary governments like Egypt’s.

Since then, the United States especially has repeatedly penetrated the Middle East with its well-meaning but disastrous policies, culminating in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Muslims see Israel’s repression and killing of their co-religionists as an extension of this policy. As I have written elsewhere, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was most stark after the Six Day War, which, incidentally, is when US support for Israel took off. If anyone wants to know why terrorists attacked the US so ferociously, they need but pick up a history book. They will see support for brutal regimes, oil plundering, cruise missiles and dead Arabs. Unfortunately, when the history books were most needed, on 9/11, they were not consulted.

Let us next consider Mr Blair’s fear that radical Islamists will acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Having learned how unlikely that is from people who think and research for a living rather than speak, we can largely discard that idea. The most dangerous place for Islamist violence at the moment is Pakistan, where it is truly a major problem. However, even in Pakistan, the nukes are under lock and key, and they cannot be detonated with a simple strike of a hammer like everyone seems to think. Furthermore, even the most devout of the violently religious have shown they are not desperate to kill everyone in the world, just enough that they can achieve their political goals. Of all the reasons that were given prior to taking out Saddam, Mr Blair has settled on one: “his breach of United Nations resolutions over WMD.” The irony that Mr Blair’s government broke international law in order to uphold it was apparently lost on him. He says he is sorry for the faulty intelligence, but not for the war.

As important as his warnings of Muslim evil are, Mr Blair’s assumption is that we should focus all our efforts on combating Islamic extremism. Never mind what one man thinks: what do YOU think? Do you think that Islamic extremism is more dangerous than AK-47s, which have killed some hundred million people? Is it more of a threat to your life than climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters? Even the people of Pakistan are more at risk from floods than Muslim suicide bombings. Or if it is better to attack people’s ideas, why not push to eradicate nationalism and racism? If we want to avoid preventable death, we can start by ending those bad ideas. Radical Islam should be much further down the list. Finally, a truly radical idea that Mr Blair would likely scoff at: end the state’s ability to wage unnecessary war. But that one is just utopian.

Look at the war in the heart of Africa and tell me Mr Blair’s pet project kills more people or creates more suffering. If you want to stop something, stop the killing and rape in the Congo.

But perhaps when Mr Blair says “the world” he means Europe and North America. After all, scary Muslims chanting foreign languages seems a greater threat to the local ways of life to read any conservative newspaper’s editorial section nowadays.

If Islamic extremism is getting worse, it is because of the same reasons Muslims have been angry at Europeans for the past two hundred years since Napoleon, and during the Crusades: perceived foreign occupation. How many Muslims have to be bombed until the decision makers realise that?

The main reason Tony Blair wants us to believe that radical Islam is going to kill us all is to provide justification for his failed policies. We humans have a bias that makes us seek out legitimacy for our actions long after we have taken them. If we close our minds, which politicians almost have to do to keep their consciences under control, our beliefs get stronger with time. We can see the clues: in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom and throughout the massacre in Mesopotamia, Mr Blair and his contemporaries warned endlessly of “terrorists'” acquiring WMDs; now he is repeating the refrain. (You will find he still has company.) Thank you, Mr Blair, for your humour, but I think it is lost on us.

Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is

Weeki Wachee Springs--Potential Terrorist Target

Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Could it be? I am still studying the American public’s answers to that question, but to scholars who study it, there is little doubt. The infinitesimal odds of dying in a terrorist attack are rarely made clear to many Americans, but if they were they could cast some doubt on the usefulness of the Department of Homeland Security (national security through colour code), the truthiness of political discourse and how threatening al-Qaeda actually is. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them is clear and sensible thought for a world of headless chickens.

John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, who also wrote “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons” for the journal International Security a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, begins his book by throwing out empty rhetoric about “the age of terror” in which we live and ushers in some perspective. Statistically, including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is similar to the number killed by deer or allergies to peanuts. One is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist, and yet our reactions to the one successful terrorist attack on American soil have been so absurd that after invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands, the American public still fears another surprise attack.

This attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, perhaps from the ever-present boogeymen of Iran or North Korea. But as Mueller points out in Foreign Policy (and in Overblown), terrorists’ exploding nuclear weapons all over the place is almost impossible. We have been afraid of them for more than 60 years, and since then not one has gone off accidentally, been sold to a terrorist or found its way to Manhattan. Chemical and biological weapons, too, fail the terrorist test: they are simply too difficult to develop and wield with any effectiveness. And why would they? The 9/11 hijackers had no WMDs because they did not need them.

And yet, the panic over nuclear or WMD terrorism, or any other kind, was high for years following 9/11. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected somehow to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

The media have contributed generously to the terror potluck. Politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to issue vague warnings from time to time in case there is an attack and they are accused of not preventing it. In Mueller’s words, “[s]ince 9/11 the American public has been treated to seemingly endless yammering in the media about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats may feel that, given the public concern on the issue, they will lose support if they appear insensitively to be downplaying the dangers of terrorism.” It is as if each news program, each politician, each government spokesperson baits his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. But our enemies are not the only ones who have suffered at our hands.

9/11 has cost money. Nearly $10b per year is spent on airport security, not including Homeland Security’s $50b budget. A sense of urgency to protect every possible terrorist target has meant a big increase in government spending with the usual billion dollar riders tacked on to each bill. (Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, in the photo above, was happy to receive funding for preventive counterterrorism. Fortunately, his water park has not yet been a victim.) Visa restrictions have kept out scientists, engineers and businesspeople who could have helped the US economy. But never mind those costs: they are for security. No price is too high for a colour-coded warning system. The true costs of 9/11 are in the wars that would not have been politically possible without it. Hundreds of billions will have been spent on Afghanistan and at least three trillion will have gone toward Iraq after it is all over. Surely if those wars have saved lives and prevented terrorism, they are good wars. But all accounts say they have not.

9/11 has cost lives. One estimate is that more than 1000 people died between September 11 and December 31 of 2001 after they canceled planned trips by plane and took their cars instead. Another study found that in the same time period, 17% of Americans outside New York continued suffering shell shock. More obviously are the two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, which have claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis in the name of nebulous ideals, false security warnings and failed intelligence.

Professor Mueller provides refreshing views not only of the present unwarranted panic but of historically parallel ones too. Pearl Harbour was described by observers at the time as catastrophic, devastating, crushing, “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”. More realistically, however, it was an inconvenience. A colossal overreaction ensued in which a hundred thousand Americans were killed for the loss of 2403 in the initial attack. 120,000 Japanese people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were sent to detention camps without trial. Much more historical analysis provided in Overblown describes additional speculative fears and their consequences that, with hindsight, were exceedingly foolish.

John Mueller is part of a line of thinkers, from sociologists and other scholars to Michael Moore and George Carlin, who explain the destructive effects of the fact that, in the latter’s words, Americans panic easily. From Afghanistan and Iraq to freedom at home, this panic has for years led to the trading of lives and liberties for the illusion of security. Professor Mueller does not touch on the less obvious effects of 9/11 that we are dealing with to this day. For instance, while I believe the Iraq War would not have happened without 9/11, I also believe it is the continued fear of al-Qaeda and militant Islam and the Middle East and anyone who wears a turban that is pushing some Americans toward war with Iran. The mentality seems to be, “You think 9/11 was bad? When Iran gets a nuclear weapon…” Such a belief is only speculation, though. Overblown offers a much-needed clearer-headed response to terrorism than to try to blow it up.

Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

Imagined Communities and the End of Lebanon

Lebanon had so much potential. Once lauded as the Switzerland of the Middle East, its collapse in 1975 was confusing. How could it happen?

This essay examines the short history of Lebanon before the 1975 civil war to identify the factors that led to the breakup of the state. It argues that Lebanese citizens’ loyalty to the state above their own ethno-religious group was so weak that when the outside world introduced catalysts of polarisation, namely pan-Arabism and, to a much greater extent, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on Lebanese soil, the Lebanese state collapsed.

Much of the literature on war examines the role the elites play in precipitating it. However, many or most wars could not happen without the approval of the people in whose name they are waged. Loyalty to the state of Lebanon may have existed in 1975, but not among political opportunists and the militias they led. While the elites may have played the key roles in the crisis, the people were sufficiently loyal to their sects and disloyal to the state as a whole that they were wiling to kill and die for their group.

Turkey’s Incursion in Iraq: Why No Legal Consequences?

Between October 2007 and February 2008, Turkey intervened into northern Iraq several times, by air and on the ground. On the face of it, without having been invited by either the Iraqi government or the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq, these acts were illegal. According to UN Charter Article 2(4), Turkey should not have used force against Iraq’s “territorial integrity or political independence”. But there are reasons it might have been permissible under international law.

This essay explores the legality of Turkey’s incursion and then the political discourse around it. It argues that, whether or not its incursion was legal, the reason no one attempted to charge Turkey with violating international law is that they consider good relations with Turkey more important than law.