Adrian Hamilton: An intelligence assessment that gets it right

Iraq, says the US Intelligence Estimate, has become the cause célèbre for jihadists worldwide
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Just as Tony Blair was telling us all in Manchester that the rise in Islamic terrorism had nothing to do the invasion of Iraq, Washington was publishing extracts from a National Intelligence Estimate that said the precise opposite.

The assessment by the joint intelligence bodies of the US is clear and devastating in its conclusions. The number of activists it says, is increasing, fuelled in no small degree by Iraq, which had become "the cause célèbre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement".

Other causes were "fear of western domination, leading to anger humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness" and "pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims - all of which jihadists exploit".

Over here, in our open society, we don't publish intelligence estimates of course (and, it is true that President Bush declassified this report only after leaks to the newspapers, and then only in part). But for the US, you can now read the UK in this assessment, and for the American intelligence bodies you can, one suspects, assume a similar assessment over here.

For Tony Blair to claim, as he did in his speech, the terrorist threat is "not a consequence of foreign policy" on the ground, that terror existed before 9/11 is denying reality to the point of criminal negligence. The British public has just as much right to an accurate assessment of risk and cause as the American public. It should not be deprived of it simply because its Prime Minister wants to avoid shouldering responsibility.

Still more disgraceful for a government that keeps claiming it wants to "listen" to public concerns was to hold an entire conference while forbidding debate on Afghanistan and to pretend that the sizable anti-war protests outside the conference hall weren't happening.

Hearing Mr Blair's speech, one was struck first and foremost by the thought of what a wonderful peroration it would have been if Iraq had never happened. Then he could have gone on all he wanted about the wonders of domestic policy. But Iraq did happen. It remains the single defining feature of Mr Blair's premiership and the issue that most exercises the public.

"The British," he said, "will sometimes forgive a wrong decision. They won't forgive not deciding." That might or might not be true of the Dome but it doesn't apply to a decision to go to war. Not the least reason for the real anger with Tony Blair among many Labour supporters as others is his constant refusal to accept just how serious the decision was.

The reason why Bush finally decided to declassify bits of the National Intelligence Estimate, other than the fact he was forced to, is that it backs up his claim that the very fact Iraq is a magnet for terror makes it all the more important for the US and its allies to fight for final victory.

The trouble with this argument is that it raises the question, if the US and British presence is making Iraq into a cause célèbre for the jihadists, then surely our continuation there is making it worse. We are the problem and cannot easily become part of the solution until we leave.

Bush's answer, as Blair's, is to to try to ratchet up the whole conflict into a struggle between an evil, global movement and "our values". But this is to take the jihadists at their own valuation and to promote the struggle as a war of civilisations in a way Blair says he wishes to avoid.

The problem with the Pope's use of selective quotation was not, as Blair implied in his address, that global communications spreads every word and distorts it, but in an escalating rhetoric of world war, anything a leader says will be taken down and used in evidence, as the Pope should know.

There is an alternative way of looking at it, and it is there in the US Intelligence assessment's analysis of the rising threat of terror. In regions of the world beset by corruption, authoritarianism, poor growth and high youth unemployment, the West, and particularly the US, and now Britain, are seen as the enemy, the source of humiliation, not a friend. It may be unfair, it may reflect a reluctance by many in these societies to face up to their own problems. But it is a fact.

Blair is right in saying jihadism and Islamic extremism predated 9/11. But it was precisely because the Muslim world, and the Middle East in particular, was becoming radicalised that what we have done in Iraq and in the rhetoric of war has been so dreadful in its impact.

The answer is not to ratchet up the conflict but ratchet it down, to see the problems and the threats for what they are, reflections of specific circumstances in specific parts. Western policy over the past 50 years may not be wholly responsible, but it sure hasn't helped and it sure isn't helping now. We should start by understanding what is happening, accept our part in the problem and move back to give more space for people to sort out their own problems, not treating them as cogs in great schemes and imaginings of our own.

If Tony Blair really wants to devote his remaining months to bringing peace to the Middle East - and how many times have we heard that before from him - he might start by asking President Bush for a copy of the Intelligence assessment. It might teach him something about what is happening out there, and his and Bush's responsibility for it.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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