World War III on a Dime

The Global War on Terror in its first decade was marked by a disregard for costs. As Stephen Biddle defined it, the effort to eliminate terrorism (a method of war) of the world-reaching variety through a global liberal crusade. This amounted to the pursuit of ‘absolute security’ – and at almost any price. This was not just an American ideology about pursuing security through launching ambitious wars. It was also articulated strongly by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But since the Global Financial Crisis and the wider debt-deficit problem afflicting the Euro-Atlantic world, new austerities mean that the formula has changed. The stated aims and rhetoric are still similar. But now that resources are scarce, the commitment of resources is far more limited.

So in response to the appearance of Al Qaeda offshoots in Algeria and Mali, Prime Minister David Cameron calls Al Qaeda an ‘existential threat’, a ‘generational’ one and a ‘global one.’ So few limits are recognised on the scope and stakes involved, and there is little discrimination or ranking of interests. The ultimate aim of this struggle is not to contain the Al Qaeda network until it becomes a marginal nuisance. It is eradication, or in Cameron’s words ‘ ‘not containment but trying over time to completely overcome them.’ A threat spawning in North Africa, it seems, directly threatens British existence, though it isn’t clear how.

Yet the extent of his commitment to this epochal war is modest. A spyplane, a few advisors, a few hundred troops. Cameron may be the hawkish idealist who has discovered Africa as a haven of terrorism, bloodshed and chaos that the West must rescue and help pacify. But he is also the austerity Prime Minister who continues to cut the defence budget seriously. Cameron might respond that he is trying also to galvanise an international coalition. But short of American or African political will, we know that it will be the Western Atlantic guardians who will be expected to do most of the heavy lifting.

This contradiction – between Cameron’s maximalist rhetoric and limited material commitment – is his response to security crises. Its not necessarily imprudent to scale back on resources, or to have far-reaching aims. But it is a mistake to unbalance the relationship between the two. The size of the policy should be proportionate to the resources and capabilities in hand, and vice versa.

It was not a good thing to conduct a war on terror regardless of cost. But its also disturbing that Cameron apparently disregards the proper relationship between ends and means.

First, rhetoric can trap those who utter it. Bellicose warnings and calls to arms generate expectations of commitment and can create a standard against which one is judged. Cameron announces, effectively, a world war while seriously weakening the country’s ability to conduct (and especially sustain) military operations. The service chiefs have noticed.

Secondly, one of the reasons that the War on Terror has been so exhausting and so costly has been our habit of speaking about the adversary without proportionality, the failure to measure risks and costs soberly. To speak of Al Qaeda, an increasingly marginal, incapable network whose flair for mass casualty terrorism has been weakened, which increasingly loathed in the Muslim world and which was irrelevant to the Arab Spring as an ‘existential threat’ is perverse, but it is precisely that misperception that gives Al Qaeda its most serious basis for future mischief. We are still open to reacting to their provocations in a self-defeating way.

Thirdly, we continue to speak as though the violent chaos of the world is an external thing ‘out there’ that must be tamed by our active intervention as an agent of order. It isn’t actually clear that the world is more dangerous, as Cameron and others keep telling us, than during the Cold War. But isn’t it time we recognised that we are part of that violent chaos? Britain’s war in Libya, which some warned would have unintended consequences, helped to empower the Islamists now threatening Mali and indeed cause a proliferation of Islamist militias, just as it turned Libya over to new torturers and vengeful partisans, a place where black Africans are unsafe to go.

Liberal hawks derided us at the time for catastrophising from the experience of the Iraq war, just as they now urge us to sharpen our swords for a good hard crack at Syria. They blithely move from war to war, revisiting their tactical doctrines and lessons learned, but their idealistic and moralistic conception of the West as Saviour is never in doubt, despite the mounting evidence of the limitations on our power and on our knowledge, and the deadliness of our good intentions.

Finally, this word ‘global.’ What does it mean? Does it mean that Al Qaeda’s power and capabilities are evenly distributed throughout the world. Well, they aren’t. The best they can usually do in the West’s backyard is blow up their underwear. Does it mean that events somewhere must implicate and threaten us? Well, now that we’re watching, its quite difficult to project power from the third world against western core interests, and most jihad is local, not global. What it means most of all is that to question these crusades is to be, gasp, provincial. What globalists call provincial, we might instead call strategic.

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