Michael Appleton - student, Vinezac, France

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Bin Laden, mein Fuhrer

Hyperbole comes in many forms, especially in a Euro-American press gripped with fear of "Islamic" terrorism. In the aftermath of the ousting of Spain's Aznar government, all sense of perspective has been lost by commentators at both ends of the political spectrum. The Sunday Times' Washington correspondent, Andrew Sullivan, was typical of the pro-Bush response, spitting bile at Spaniards under the headline 'Europe's appeasers' and a famous photo of the much-parodied British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. At the anti-Bush end, the cover story of this week's French current events mag Marianne is headlined, "How the Spaniards saved Europe and democracy", leading into a standfirst which reads:
What a beautiful lesson the Spanish people have given to the neo-conservatives and the principal supporters of George Bush! Insulted, menaced, murdered, the Spaniards, in driving out Aznar, have affirmed their democracy and, without a doubt, saved the European Union.

You know that debate is getting pretty infantile when the Hitler analogy is invoked. In Britain, he represents the country's most recent existential threat. But while everyone knows a great deal about him, very few still writing in the media actually experienced the effects of his policies first-hand. But the allusion to the Furher is never far away: you feel it in all this appeasement talk, in Tony Blair's grand Bush has given bin Laden exactly what he wants. Should we start calling him an appeaser too? and grave foreign policy speeches about his generation's greatest challenge, and in the writings of such "single-issue guys" as Mark Steyn and Christopher Hitchens. One hopes that we can have more faith in the robustness of Western political institutions and societies than to think that a network of "Islamic" terrorists who kill a few thousand civilians a year is anywhere near as threatening to our societal livelihood as was Hitler's total war.

This allusion to Hitler must be rather insulting to anyone who lived through World War II (not to mention the memories of the millions of Jews who perished). Let's start comparing the chances of my getting killed by al Qaeda the next time I use the tube in London with the odds my grandmother faced of being killed by a German bomb in the early 40s, when she lived in the greater London area. There's really no contest. And, as The Independent's excellent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown points out, Euro-American hysteria is also rather demeaning to the millions of people in non-Western societies whose livelihoods are daily threatened much more acutely than ours.

Much of the criticism of the Spanish electors was underpinned by the assertion that the Socialists' victory was in fact a victory for al Qaeda, because al Qaeda wants Spanish troops out of Iraq, as do the Spanish Socialists. The Spaniards were thus giving the terrorists what they wanted, the worst possible offence in a post-9/11 world. By this logic, Western governments should refrain from doing anything which might please al Qaeda. However, as much as it is difficult to get inside the heads of "Islamic" terrorists, I would submit that nothing has given bin Laden and co greater pleasure than the foreign policy devised by the Bush Administration. It has deeply divided Western governments and public opinion, and inflamed discontent among Western and non-Western Muslims towards Anglo-American foreign policy generally, and the lamentable history of Western involvement in the Middle East specifically. The war on Iraq was a great PR victory for al Qaeda, providing a rallying cry for all those who resent American foreign policy, especially with regards the Middle East. So, Bush has given bin Laden exactly what he wants. Should we start calling him an appeaser too?

The confusion here is between short-term and long-term strategy. It seems that bin Laden's ultimate, long-term goals are the ejection of Western forces (and influence) from Muslim lands, and the politico-legal institution of a revivalist, culturally transcendental form of Islam throughout the Muslim world. But to try to get to these long-term goals, he needs to provoke, in the short- to medium-term, a violent civilizational clash that will bring a majority of Muslims the world over to his cause. So, while in the long-term he wants the Americans to get out of the Middle East, in the short- to medium-term he needs the Americans to stay put and to remain egregiously unfair in their handling of Israel/Palestine. He also needs Western societies to take retrogressive legal steps which embitter Western Muslim populations. All in all, he must be rather pleased with what he's getting.

Indeed, if the United States and Europe were really serious about not giving bin Laden what he wants, they'd stop giving him the status of a Hitler-sized genuine threat to Euro-American survival.