Harold Evans: Americans want action. And they're right

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President Bush has unfurled the flag, and millions of Americans from sea to shining sea can scarce forbear to cheer. The Stars and Stripes fly everywhere. More than 90 per cent of the people have told pollsters that they back military action. But do they know what they are about? Do they think of the innocent thousands who may die if military action means bombing population centres?

Yes, they do understand – with gravity. War has never hit mainland America. But too many Americans have died in conflicts for them to take action lightly. It is wrong to portray either the American people or their bipartisan leadership as gung-ho Rambos lacking in any sympathy or understanding of the cruel world that the Afghans endure. America has poured millions of dollars of humanitarian aid into that "land of endless tears".

"The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," said the poet WB Yeats. It's a sentence that haunts me as accusations of America's alleged lack of caution are bandied about. A closer look at the polls shows more discrimination. The overwhelming opinion is not that we should begin by bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. It is first and foremost that the military action should be to grab bin Laden.

The professional handwringers, who have worried about every promise of military action since Boadicea mounted her chariot, would like that to be achieved by peaceful means, once his culpability is proven. So would we all. Not in weeks or months but now – while they are digging out the dead at Ground Zero.

And there is general acceptance in America that we do have a moral obligation at some stage, to demonstrate that we have identified the right targets, both in Afghanistan and in other rogue states. Of course, a very small minority here are already in contortions to suggest that the outrage at the World Trade Centre is really our fault for polluting the soil of Saudi Arabia, failing to create a new Palestine or leaving Afghanistan in chaos and poverty. They talk as if we were in some kind of negotiation with Switzerland instead of with demented fanatics who don't really care about any of that.

The terrorists are not interested in the well-being of the people of Afghanistan. The fouler the swamp, the more they flourish, for theirs is a different agenda. A washing machine in every home, to adapt Herbert Hoover, would not stop them killing. They are intent on exterminating what they hate, not negotiating. It is usually all too easy to make most Americans feel guilty, but not this time. To most Americans, the evidence is strong enough – bin Laden's own words call for Americans to be murdered whenever possible – to justify immediate seizure, incarceration and indictment. What the worriers worldwide must tell us is what they will do, now that the Taliban has rejected the demands in Mr Bush's ultimatum.

Sanctions? Afghanistan is already an outlaw state. And how long are they prepared to wait? Put Kofi Annan on a diplomatic Kissinger-style shuttle? The Pakistanis, who have the most leverage, have tried that. Do the James Bond thing and kidnap him while the Taliban turns the other way? Remember, Jimmy Carter's catastrophic desert rescue of Iran's hostages?

Perhaps it is uncharitable, but a whiff of appeasement lingers. The same crowd, philosophically speaking, screamed when John Kennedy riskily confronted Castro and Khrushchev over the missiles, argued for persuasion or sanctions against Saddam, rather than force, and said the Royal Navy would get lost on the way to the Falklands. The point of this swift rehearsal of possibilities in Afghanistan is not to overlook the imperatives of ostracising the rogue states, concerting a durable coalition for intelligence, security, sanctions, making it clear that it is war on terrorism, not Islam. All that should be pressed with sophistication and urgency – always an awkward marriage.

But bin Laden cannot wait while the left conducts some endless seminar on the relationship of terror to poverty, to Israel policy and American tourism. In hours of conversation with ordinary citizens, public figures and military and foreign policy specialists, I have found nobody here, nobody, who pretends that either bombing or invasion is a great idea. Indiscriminate terror is what we are resisting, and that is what bombing comes down to.

Invasion, then? Forming an alliance with the enemies of the Taliban inside the country? It sounds horribly reminiscent of Vietnam, and it would be very hard. The bones of British and Russian occupiers testify to that. Yet invasion has worked before with some semblance of success. When Pakistan's army went in for genocide in East Pakistan, India invaded and created Bangladesh. Maybe an effective invasion can be mounted from the territory controlled by the Northern Alliance. I know such options are difficult to countenance. It is precisely because the options are so tough that Bush talked just the way he did. He had it exactly right in what he said, and the way in which he said it. It was not rhetoric of St Crispin's Day. It was a set of business-like demands of terror-states states – Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to name names.

You can't negotiate with a stateless terror network, but you can with the body that serves as host. President Bush had three audiences. First, there was the American people themselves, who would have been utterly demoralised if he had equivocated or hidden behind adjectives. They expect to be rallied for a long struggle, and they were. If democracy is not ready to defend its citizens and their freedom, it is no more than a debating shop.

Bush did not say that America would bomb Afghanistan, but he had to suggest it was a live option. He could hardly rally his people behind a subordinate clause. "If we can be sure it is Nazis who are landing with aggressive intent, we shall fight on the beaches ..." Had Churchill said something like that, we could well have packed up in 1940. Had he said that, Franklin Roosevelt would have given up the ghost. If Lord Halifax had been prime minister in 1940, he might lethally well have said: "We shall never surrender, unless ..."

The second audience for Bush, after rallying the democracies, were the auto- cracies of the Middle East. The greatest coup of the first president Bush in the Gulf War was to convince the Arab world that he was in earnest in a just cause. Saudi Arabia was the base, Syria sent an armoured division, Egypt and Syria contributed more than 45,000 men, and Muslim troops joined in from Pakistan and Bangladesh. That alliance would never have happened had Bush faltered.

His third audience was the Taliban and the hosts of the terror networks. Bush had to convince the leadership of a real and present danger to their country. Bombing and invading Afghanistan is a last resort. But if you are not prepared to do this, just what would you do in response to the spread of terror across the globe? It is easy to criticise America for acting on behalf of the civilised world. The alternative is what was done – or not done – before: a gradual erosion of will, leading to the reciprocal increase in determination of the terrorists and the deaths of many more innocent people. With all due respect to those who would dwell on how we got here and what we should not do, I pose the question: what would you do? I don't hear an answer.

Harold Evans is the author of 'The American Century'