Lawrence Freedman: We won the war, but where is our strategy for a new world order?

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The Independent Online

'Will the cry of terrorism be used as communism was by repressive regimes to suppress dissent?'

Wars are normally given two aims: in the short term to defeat the enemy, and over the longer term to build a better world. They are vicious and brutalising affairs, and many of their more obvious legacies include despair, hardship and a lingering sense of grievance. They are normally justified because of how much worse things would be if the enemy had not been challenged. Yet it is as much out of fond hopes as rhetorical flourishes that claims are made for their redemptive and improving qualities.

The impact of wars on international politics is usually profound but not necessarily predictable. Take, for example, the war fought by the current President Bush's father. In March 1991 few doubted that the elder George had presided over a strategic triumph. With UN sponsorship, the United States had met its prime objective of liberating Kuwait, and had exercised restraint by not attempting to take over Iraq. American casualties had been few, and victory had been achieved in a decisive fashion. A new world order was proclaimed.

There is no doubt the world did change in 1991 and, to some extent, in the way that the elder George hoped. The partnership with Russia remains in place, after some rocky moments, and the UN remains more at the centre of affairs than it did during the Cold War, although less so that its advocates hoped and at times more so than the Americans might wish. Saddam Hussein has been unable to exercise anything like the regional influence he had managed in earlier decades.

Yet if by its own stated aims Operation Desert Storm was an unqualified success, it now appears as a qualified failure. Saddam Hussein survived. He remains in power, unrepentant and unreformed, and still dabbling with weapons of mass destruction. Nor were the Gulf states encouraged to reform themselves when they were still in a state of shock. Saudi Arabia, the critical regional ally in 1991, is now exhibiting signs of alienation from the US, while the Americans in turn are aghast at the importance of Saudi resources and recruits to the al-Qa'ida network. A push was given to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and this was initially promising and productive, but the position now is as dire as ever.

In retrospect, what was missing from the 1991 vision of a new world order was clear guidance on the circumstances in which the major powers could interfere in the affairs of others, and how this might best be done. The old rules were clear that intervention was to be discouraged on prudential and principled grounds, and that is one reason why no effort was made to change the Iraqi government. The past decade has thrown one case after another where the consequences of upheavals within particular states has produced such obnoxious behaviour, humanitarian distress and regional instability that the pressures for outside intervention have been formidable. The major powers found themselves making up the rules as they moved through the succession of wars in the former Yugoslavia and one African mess after another.

What does this experience tells us about the likely impact of the war fought by the junior President Bush? There are some obvious parallels. The "war against terrorism" has also been fought with Russian co-operation and UN sponsorship. It has met its first objective of disrupting al-Qa'ida and, in the process, pushing the Taliban regime out of power in Afghanistan. Once again American casualties have been few and victory was achieved in a decisive manner.

Once again however there is a nagging sense of unfinished business, with the bulk of al-Qa'ida's top leadership still free. With the President now setting himself imprecise targets with regard to Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and then playing down suggestions that a new war against part or all of the "axis of evil" is imminent, this sense of unfinished business is unlikely to change.

The most important feature of this war's presentation has been the identification of the enemy as terrorism rather than just one group of terrorists. The problem with this designation lies in determining the point at which activities which might be warranted by resistance to oppression, or by self-defence, become so unacceptable as to be beyond justification. Already it can be seen that the causes of the Chechens, Palestinians and Pakistanis (with regard to Kashmir) have been severely undermined by the methods of their militants. The Russians, Israelis and Indians can feel that their determination to crack down is better understood internationally now than ever before.

Leaving aside the question of whether the preferred means of cracking down will actually end the terrorism, and the Israeli record here is hardly encouraging, there is also the question of whether a cry of terrorism will be used as the cry of communism was in the past by inadequate and repressive governments to suppress any inconvenient dissent. Moreover, does the fact that dreadful deeds are done in the name of a cause invalidate the cause?

These questions are not going to get any easier. The most egregious forms of terrorism may be dealt with, but that will still leave the underlying conflicts that prompted the terrorism in the first place, and could also lead to uncomfortably close associations with unpleasant governments seeking to gain legitimacy through their anti-terrorist credentials.

One important consequence of the war in Afghanistan is that the United States is bedding itself down in one of the more chaotic regions in the world. It may claim to be focused solely on fighting terrorism, and to have set up its military bases solely for that purpose, but it is now part of the local economic and social as well as political scene. It has already been drawn into nation-building in Afghanistan and peace-making between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile, by identifying both Iran and Iraq as problems to be solved, Bush has refocused attention on to the Gulf region without a clear strategy in place, and with a risk of aggravating a developing Saudi problem and the already chronic Palestinian problem.

The world would have been a worse place if no action had been taken against al-Qa'ida, but victory is no more than a necessary condition for wider problem solving, and this effort will be more testing than action directed against an obviously disreputable and thankfully isolated opponent.

Wars cause shifts in global and regional balances of power, the reappraisal of old alliances and antagonisms, while setting diplomatic as well as military precedents. If this new mix is to create a better, less violent, more just world, then it has to be understood that it only recasts the context in which old problems have to be addressed.

The author is professor of war studies at King's College, London