It suits politicians to exaggerate terrorist scares

The trouble with making a meal of protection is that it hands the initiative to the terrorist
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The Independent Online

Few are harsh enough to say so, but it is probably the truth. The growing sense of drama and emergency surrounding the terrorist scares at the moment suits the political leaders such as Tony Blair and President Bush.

That doesn't mean that the scares aren't for real. The nature of the terrorist threat is so diffuse and decentralised that any responsible government has to take every rumour or piece of eavesdropped evidence as potentially real. But in finding the balance between giving the terrorist the sense of importance that they crave or trying to keep society going as calmly as possible, the interest of Blair, Bush and others lies in leaning heavily towards giving the scares maximum publicity.

Just consider the domestic politics of the "axis of invaders" who are making the most fuss about the threats. Of the warnik five of the US, Britain, Australia, Italy and Spain, Spain and Italy are no longer important. José Maria Aznar is stepping down in March and Silvio Berlusconi is too tied down dodging the magistrates to poke his head above the international parapet.

But George Bush, the US President, John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, and Tony Blair are all facing re-election in the coming 12-to-18 months. Bush has to go in November, Howard has to call an election by the year end and Blair, although he formally could delay dissolving Parliament until 2006, is widely expected to go within the first half of next year.

And the interesting thing about this year is that, while its is largely assumed they will all get back, all of them face real opposition. The Democrats have still to choose their contender, but there is no doubt that the party has it pecker up at the moment. So, too, with Blair and John Howard. Mark Latham, the leader of the Australian Labour opposition, has yet to be fully tested with the public, any more than Michael Howard, the leader of the Tories here. But they have both immeasurably improved the morale of their parties and - what is even more important - look hungry. They have emerged as real contenders.

For watchers of the Murdoch empire - strong in all three countries - this poses the fascinating question of whom Rupert will back and how he will make up his mind. He likes to back a winner, particular a winner like Blair or Bush whom he can catch on the up in their career. This time, however, Blair, Howard and Bush are the incumbents and the newcomers are people with whom Murdoch has only tenuous relations. Watch his papers to see how he resolves this one.

You'd have to be mad, or at least extremely naive, to believe that this situation doesn't affect, dominate even, the thinking of Blair, Bush and Howard at the moment. Bush is the most obvious case. We would not be hearing now of a rush to a democratic hand-over in Iraq if it was not for the election, nor would we be audience to the silence falling over talk of Middle East peace. From now on, news and views of the "War on Terror" will be calibrated precisely to their effect on domestic opinion.

Blair and Howard will be less obvious in their political self-interest, but it is there, nonetheless. On the surface, they make strange bedfellows. Not because of their politics. It is a tribute to Blair's chameleon quality that five years ago he could appear arm in arm with a group of social democrats and this year join hands with a bunch of right-wingers and that no-one should particularly notice the difference.

In many ways, Blair is not unlike his Australian counterpart. They are both adept electoral politicians, with a keen eye for timing and gesture with the voters. They both like to play the role of head of state, although neither is one (witness John Howard's appalling performance handing out the medals in the Rugby World Cup final). Both have a shrewd sense of combining domestic toughness over immigration and crime with high-minded rhetoric about the role of their respective countries abroad.

Even more than Tony Blair, John Howard has developed the idea of Australia as an interventionist do-gooder, sending troops to the Solomon Islands, East Timor and Iraq in the sprit, as he describes it, of Australian decency and world concern. And, like Tony Blair, he projects himself as a rock-solid ally of America.

The problem for both of them is that, so far, neither has had very much to show for this loyalty, in terms of influence on American policy or better treatment for their companies. Nor is there much evidence that their public particularly embraces their vision of projection of military might. If Blair and Howard have a dream, it is not one shared by their voters. What they do have after their years in power is a certain reputation for competence.

A lot of the American public may not like President Bush much, most of the British public is now turned off their Prime Minister's rhetoric and few in Australia think very highly of their Prime Minister. But they do seem broadly to trust them to manage a crisis, whereas their opponents are too untested to arouse such confidence. That, you can be sure, is what they are all going to play on in the coming months.

Much will depend on events in Iraq, of course. But events in Iraq are not easily controllable. Nor do they necessarily work in favour of the occupiers. Even should the handover go smoothly next July, it is likely to take place more in an atmosphere of relief that the coalition forces can now start to get out than great gratitude for their efforts. On domestic issues, Blair, Bush and Howard are even more vulnerable to an effective opposition which could claim to handle the economy and social policy questions as well as the incumbents if not better.

And so it is to homeland security that the sitting presidents and prime ministers will - and already do - look to gain the political advantage. It's not a fair tactic nor necessarily a responsible one. Western response to 11 September has been much weakened by the tendency of politicians to treat intervention, weapons of mass destruction, nation building and home security as separate questions. It suits the political mind, because you can pick and choose what you want to emphasise at any one time to your public - and which seems to be going better for you at any one time.

In reality, you can't separate out military attack from consequent nation building, as we are learning in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor can you treat home security as separate from foreign intelligence and international policy.

The trouble with making a meal of domestic protection is that, while it may send out reassuring signals to your own public, it also hands over the initiative and prestige to the terrorist, who can up the ante at will merely by rumour.

An excessive concentration on the instruments of security - sky marshals, flight cancellations, bringing out the tanks to the airports - also distracts from gathering the intelligence and arresting the suspects before they do anything (as the French now fear they may have done).

There's a lot to be said in responding to terrorist threats for maintaining as much of an atmosphere of normality as possible and concentrating your firepower on behind-the-scenes intelligence, passenger profiling and the traditional policing skills. But then, of course, there's no obvious political kudos in this approach. And, for politicians facing re-election, that would never do.