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Sir Michael Howard: Mistake to declare this a 'war'

01.11.2001 | Source:



Sir Michael Howard, the eminent historian, has delivered a brilliant analysis of the terrorist crisis -- and an indictment of its handling -- which is likely to prove highly influential in this country and abroad.

Here is his speech in full:

"When in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center the American Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that America was 'at war', he made a very natural but a terrible and irrevocable error. Leaders of the Administration have been trying to put it right ever since.

"What Colin Powell said made sense if one uses the term 'war' in the sense of war against crime or against drug-trafficking: that is, the mobilisation of all available resources against a dangerous anti-social activity; one that can never be entirely eliminated but can be reduced to, and kept at, a level that does not threaten social stability.

"The British in their time have fought many such 'wars'; in Palestine, in Ireland, in Cyprus and in Malaya, to mention only a few. But we never called them 'wars': we called them 'emergencies'. This meant that the police and intelligence services were provided with exceptional powers, and were reinforced where necessary by the armed forces, but all continued to operate within a peacetime framework of civil authority. If force had to be used, it was at a minimal level and so far as possible did not interrupt the normal tenor of civil life. The object was to isolate the terrorists from the rest of the community, and to cut them off from external sources of supply. They were not dignified with the status of belligerents: they were criminals, to be regarded as such by the general public and treated as such by the authorities.

"To 'declare war' on terrorists, or even more illiterately, on 'terrorism' is at once to accord them a status and dignity that they seek and which they do not deserve. It confers on them a kind of legitimacy. Do they qualify as 'belligerents' ? If so, should they not receive the protection of the laws of war? This was something that Irish terrorists always demanded, and was quite properly refused. But their demands helped to muddy the waters, and were given wide credence among their supporters in the United States.

"But to use, or rather to misuse the term 'war' is not simply a matter of legality, or pedantic semantics. It has deeper and more dangerous consequences. To declare that one is 'at war' is immediately to create a war psychosis that may be totally counter-productive for the objective that we seek. It will arouse an immediate expectation, and demand, for spectacular military action against some easily identifiable adversary, preferably a hostile state; action leading to decisive results.

"The use of force is no longer seen as a last resort, to be avoided if humanly possible, but as the first, and the sooner it is used the better. The press demands immediate stories of derring-do, filling their pages with pictures of weapons, ingenious graphics, and contributions from service officers long, and probably deservedly, retired. Any suggestion that the best strategy is not to use military force at all, but more subtle if less heroic means of destroying the adversary are dismissed as 'appeasement' by ministers whose knowledge of history is about on a par with their skill at political management.

"Figures on the Right, seeing themselves cheated of what the Germans used to call a frischer, frцhlicher Krieg, a short, jolly war in Afghanistan, demand one against a more satisfying adversary, Iraq; which is rather like the drunk who lost his watch in a dark alley but looked for it under a lamp post because there was more light there. As for their counterparts on the Left, the very word 'war' brings them out on the streets to protest as a matter of principle. The qualities needed in a serious campaign against terrorists -- secrecy, intelligence, political sagacity, quiet ruthlessness, covert actions that remain covert, above all infinite patience -- all these are forgotten or overriden in a media-stoked frenzy for immediate results, and nagging complaints if they do not get them.

"All this is what we have been witnessing over the past three or four weeks.

"Could it have been avoided ? Certainly, rather than what President Bush so unfortunately termed 'a crusade against evil', that is, a military campaign conducted by an alliance dominated by the United States, many people would have preferred a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations on behalf of the international community as a whole, against an criminal conspiracy; whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court, where they would receive a fair trial and, if found guilty, awarded an appropriate sentence. In an ideal world that is no doubt what would have happened.

"But we do not live in an ideal world. The destruction of the twin towers and the massacre of several thousand innocent New York office-workers was not seen in the United States as a crime against 'the international community' to be appropriately dealt with by the United Nations; a body for which Americans have little respect when they have heard of it at all. For them it was an outrage against the people of America, one far surpassing in infamy even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Such an insult to their honor was not to be dealt with by a long and meticulous police investigation conducted by international authorities, culminating in an even longer court case in some foreign capital, with sentences that would then no doubt be suspended to allow for further appeals. It cried for immediate and spectacular vengeance to be inflicted by their own armed forces .

"And who can blame them ? In their position we would have felt exactly the same. The courage and wisdom of President Bush in resisting the call for a strategy of vendetta has been admirable, but the pressure is still there, both within and beyond the Administration. It is a demand that can be satisfied only by military action -- if possible rapid and decisive military action. There must be catharsis: the blood of five thousand innocent civilians demands it.

"Again, President Bush deserves enormous credit for his attempt to implement the alternative paradigm. He has abjured unilateral action. He has sought, and received, a United Nations mandate. He has built up an amazingly wide-ranging coalition that truly does embody 'the international community' so far as such an entity exists.

"Within a matter of days, almost, the United States has turned its back on the unilateralism and isolationism towards which it seemed to be steering, and resumed its former position as leader of a world community far more extensive than the so-called 'free world' of the old Cold War. Almost equally important, the President and his colleagues have done their best to explain to the American people that this will be a war unlike any other, and they must adjust their expectations accordingly. But it is still a war. The 'w' word has been used, and now cannot be withdrawn; and its use has brought inevitable and irresistible pressure to use military force as soon, and as decisively as possible.


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