Tom Porteous is a syndicated columnist and author, formerly with the BBC and the British Foreign Office.
Last week's summit meeting in Washington between George Bush and Tony Blair took place against the background of the escalating failures of their coercive policies in the Long War against Islamist radicalism.
In Afghanistan, more than four years after the United States and its allies intervened to oust the Taliban and install a pro-Western regime, NATO forces face more than just another spring offensive by Taliban "remnants." May 2006 has witnessed little short of a countrywide rebellion. Significant masses of Afghan political and military forces are mounting a serious challenge to the status quo.
In Iraq, the formation in May of a new government under Nuri al-Maliki may or may not halt, or slow down, the steady collapse into sectarianism that has unfolded since the U.S. invasion of 2003. But the insurgency continues and opposition to the intervention grows even among those Iraqis who once welcomed it. In Muslim communities world-wide, the U.S. military intervention fuels anti-Western sentiment among extremists and moderates alike. Furthermore, the failure of the United States to control the situation in Iraq has dispelled the illusion of American military dominance in the world.
In Palestine, experts and politicians—few of them apologists for Islamism or admirers of Hamas—have argued to no avail against the U.S. policy of cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority following the Islamists' election. Such a policy, they point out, leads to further chaos in Gaza and the West Bank, strengthens the hand of extremists and sets back even further the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace. Meanwhile Western complicity in Israeli's continuing occupation of Palestinian territory remains a rallying cry for Islamists and anti-Western sentiment throughout the Muslim world.
In Iran, the hard-line Islamists have rolled back political reform and are thumbing their noses at the United States and Europe, rushing ahead with a nuclear enrichment program in defiance of U.S. and Israeli threats, safe in the knowledge that the political and military position of the United States in the region is now so precarious as to render the option of U.S. military action against Iran catastrophic for Western interests.
In Egypt, long regarded as a pillar of pro-Western stability in the Middle East and the most populous Arab state, the judiciary is now standing against the corruption and political stagnation of the Mubarak regime. There are signs that further repression of the burgeoning Egyptian movement for political reform is leading to a serious political crisis. There is little doubt that the main winners of any genuine political opening will be the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Even in distant Somalia, the pernicious impact of the Long War is being felt as U.S. backed warlords struggle to suppress Somali Islamist militias whose political and military influence has been steadily filling the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, and the failure of the international community to rescue it from feuding warlords and violent intervention by Ethiopia. The ideological appeal of Somalia's Islamists now appears stronger than the clan loyalties that have sustained the murderous squabbling of the warlords for the past decade.
If you add up all these (and other) complex events, they point to the comprehensive failure of the West's strategy to tackle radical Islamism. If the Long War really is an existential struggle between the "free world" and "Islamo-fascism" then these should be dark days indeed for the West.
The fact is, however, that we are not living through any crisis remotely comparable to the Cold War or WW II (as goes the rhetoric of the Long War). The "threat" from Islamism remains limited to random acts of political terrorism, horrifying for the victims and entirely reprehensible, but of no major strategic threat to the West. The balance of economic, military and political power remains overwhelmingly on the side of the United States and its allies. All Muslim states except Iran are subservient to America's interests. For the vast majority of Westerners, the Long War impinges hardly at all on their daily lives.
The same cannot be said of the impact on Middle Easterners. The occupation of Iraq, the unqualified support for Israel's coercive and expansionist policies, the continuing support for authoritarian regimes, the brutal counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism techniques, and the deeply worrying doctrine of pre-emptive coercion (detention, torture, economic sanctions and war) have very real and catastrophic consequences for millions of Middle Easterners and serve to strengthen the political influence of precisely those extremist and anti-Western forces the West is seeking to suppress.
Is the West now dropping the rhetoric of confrontation and returning to more realistic and sensible policies towards the Muslim world? Bush, Blair and their ideological supporters are yesterday's men, discredited at home and abroad by the negative consequences of their policies in the Middle East. In two years time they will be out of office. U.S. and European policymakers have looked into the abyss of a potential military strike against Iran and appear to have flinched. Long postponed, direct negotiations between the United States and Iran are now a possibility.
There is much that could still occur to maintain the current state of confrontation between Islam and the West. Extremists on both sides have an interest in upping the tension through polarising acts of homicide. Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine remain arenas of acute crisis and violence. There are few signs that any new Western leaders waiting in the wings in the United States or Europe have the ideas, the courage or the will to address the roots of these difficult crises.
In their conflict with radical Islam, the West and Israel will not be able to win peace and stability through war and military occupation, but must seek it through genuine political accommodation and compromise based on a modicum of justice and fairness.
Copyright © 2006 Tom Porteous / Agence Global