Michael Howard: The dangers of America's growing unilateralism

Taken from a lecture delivered by the military historian at University College London

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I begin this lecture by being self-referential or, rather, by referring to a lecture that I gave three months ago at the Royal United Services Institute. In that lecture I expressed doubts about the efficacy of bombing as an instrument in "the war against terrorism". At that moment it was not at all clear that the bombing of Taliban and al-Qa'ida targets in Afghanistan was, in fact, preliminary to an orchestrated ground attack that would destroy enemy resistance withindays.

In fact, selective bombing in support of ground attacks by the Northern Alliance and its allies, linked together by an intelligence and communications network master-minded from a command centre in the United States, proved an essential element in a brilliant campaign that perhaps marks a turning point in the history of war, and for which the United States Armed Forces deserve high praise. Like many others better informed than myself, I got it wrong, and I apologise.

But, however complete the victory, the war in Afghanistan is only the beginning of a long and complicated process of destroying their network. Unless that is conducted with skill, patience and restraint, the victory in Afghanistan could, in retrospect, be remembered much as are the spectacular victories that the German armies won at the beginning of the two world wars: military triumphs that were later to be squandered through the rashness and the insensitivity of their governments.

There are two paradigms for dealing with international terrorism. One is the liberal ideal: a police action conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, with any necessary military operations being conducted by an alliance acting strictly in accordance with the Geneva Conventions to apprehend suspects and bring them to trial before an international court where they would be treated according to strict process of law. The other is rather more popular in the United States today. For many, perhaps most Americans, this is simply America's War, and is so described on radio news programmes: a private fight conducted by the armed forces of the United States against almost cosmic forces of evil.

In this war, Afghanistan was only the first round. It must be continued with hot pursuit to Somaliland, Iraq, Iran, Libya, any state that gives aid to the enemy, until the terrorists have been destroyed. The support of the outside world is welcome and indeed expected – as President Bush put it, "those who are not with us are against us" – but the war will be waged and won by Americans.

The first of these paradigms – the liberal ideal – may be desirable, but it is quite unrealistic. In their present mood, the American people are simply not prepared to subject themselves to any international authority or hand over the perpetrators of the twin towers massacre to any foreign jurisdiction. But if this liberal paradigm is desirable but unrealistic, the other, America's War, though realistic, is highly undesirable.

In the first place, this is not simply America's War. For whatever reason, the United States has many enemies in the world, some for good reason, some for ludicrously trivial. By appropriating this conflict to itself the United States unnecessarily alienates many potential supporters from what should be a truly global alliance.

Worse, the American administration is in danger of spoiling a historic opportunity of a kind that occurs at best once in a generation, that of using its power to mould a better world. In 1945, the United States was able to convert a wartime alliance into a framework for world governance capable of embracing her wartime enemies. Out of the evil done on 11 September it looked as if unprecedented good might come. It still might, and it still should.

But it will only come about if the United States abandons its unilateral approach to the handling of terrorism and recognises that it can only effectively be dealt with by the international community that it has itself done so much to create, but which still needs American leadership if it is to function effectively.

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