Steve Richards: Terrorists killed after an indiscriminate strike would die laughing

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The Independent Online

After the deadly precision of the attacks comes the stutteringly imprecise response. The attacks had pattern, balance, form and completion. The response has been shapeless. Political leaders reach for big words, attempting to convey clarity and conviction. Instead they expose a lack of clarity and conviction.

Take the subtly differing tones of George Bush and Tony Blair. Mr Bush refers to "war", but does not specify the enemy. Mr Blair does not use the word. Wisely, he sticks to less misleadingly stirring terms. He speaks of the "menace" facing the civilised world. That is more accurate; the vagueness of the word conveying the sinisterly elusive nature of the enemy and the threat.

When Mr Bush and Mr Blair do speak as one, there is the hint of an internal contradiction. They are united in saying that terrorism must be eradicated. More problematically, they imply that countries harbouring terrorists are potential targets for a military response. Such words will soothe the terrorists they seek to eradicate. A main objective of international terrorists is to provoke governments into such acts of suppression that they forfeit public support. An indiscriminate bombing of Afghanistan or Iraq, or both, risks breeding terrorists for generations to come. The terrorists killed in the immediate conflagration would die laughing.

But in the Commons Mr Blair also said, encouragingly, that the current "international solidarity must be maintained". There were no qualifications. He did not say, "It is our hope that the solidarity will be maintained". No, it has to be. Mr Blair has made unity a pre-condition of the next stage, whatever that may be. It is extremely difficult to see how the solidarity would be maintained if the onslaught on terrorism extended to a wider war.

I note these internal contradictions and tensions in a spirit of hope rather than criticism. International leaders have on the whole responded in a way that invites optimism. They have sought words that will unite rather than divide. Their language suggests there is a vacuum in which they are all agonising, feeling their way ahead uncertainly. That is how it should be, given the nature of the attack and the longer-term threat.

Mr Bush is often portrayed as a cartoon character, a numbskull with his finger on the button. Several liberal voices have been raised wishing that Bill Clinton was still in the White House, another example of the extraordinary way Mr Clinton is acquiring an aura in retirement that he never had in office.

Mr Clinton would have captured the grieving anxiety far more effectively than the muted, hesitant, inarticulate performance of Mr Bush, but he would have been at least as hawkish. As a Democrat outsider from Arkansas, Mr Clinton felt the need to prove himself constantly as a military leader. In a book soon to be published about the relationship between Mr Clinton and his generals, the author suggests that the president even fretted about his inability to salute properly. He compensated for his ineptitude by displaying his willingness to use military might, not least – incompetently – against Afghanistan.

At least Mr Bush knows how to salute. His background, steeped in America's political and military establishment, means that although he has much to prove, he does not have as much to prove as an insecure outsider. Mr Bush is a plodder as much as a right-wing ideologue. He plodded his way to an unexpectedly fruitful relationship with Vladimir Putin, and more recently has plodded his way at home to a cleverly balanced compromise on the highly charged issue relating to the use of stem cells for scientific research. Some commentators expected an immediate retaliation from the US last week, but Mr Bush has plodded before he strikes, and when he strikes the need for international unity – and unity in his own administration – will have to be borne in mind.

The Bush government has been impotently divided on foreign policy from birth. So much so that Mr Bush, who has pronounced with an ominous self-confidence on just about every other pressing issue, has not made a single speech on foreign policy. He has not been able to make such a speech because his senior advisers disagreed on what he should say. On one side, he has hawkish, insular voices; on the other, more pragmatic, outward-looking ones. Mr Bush has attempted to resolve the debate by not having one.

Now he has no such choice, but it is almost certain that he will be continuing to receive conflicting advice. Colin Powell, although he has also used the term "war", will be more pragmatic than the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who, in his Camp David location, will almost certainly be urging retaliation on a more ostentatiously grand scale. More pragmatic, and not to be underestimated, will be the voice of Mr Bush's father, to whom he speaks two or three times a day. In his only public comments, George Bush Snr stressed the importance of improving intelligence to combat terrorism rather than launching an ill-defined war.

Public and media opinion in the US is also more subtle and complex than is generally reported. The vox pops, especially from New York, urge restraint almost as much as revenge. So do the editorials in some newspapers.

Into this complex brew enters Tony Blair and other European leaders, with their publicly declared determination to keep this coalition together. Nato's decision to support the US is almost certainly intended to broaden the counsel available to the US government. It does not give the US a blank cheque, as Jack Straw stated unequivocally in his speech last Friday. The European voices, some senior figures around Mr Bush and a cautious Congress will act as constraints on the hawks in the Bush administration.

The counter-pressure on Mr Bush to act big is immense, not least because we live in a media age that implicitly demands it. For days the world has been transfixed by the images of the towers collapsing and the bodies in the rubble. When the story is not "moving" the pictures are repeated to give the impression that events are proceeding more quickly than they really are. This narrative cries out for a denouement, a dramatic moment with the same visual impact as the terrorists' strike. Mr Bush's rhetoric in New York implied that he would like to provide the city with just such an act, but there are too many constraints on him for a bellicose recklessness to prevail.

The only sensible option does not provide such a defining countervailing moment of glory. This is the option that does not play to the cameras. It was hinted at by David Blunkett and, as I have already suggested, by George Bush Snr. It is about greater co-ordination between countries over intelligence and in their judicial systems so that extradition becomes more straightforward.

It is also about improved airport security across the world. Here is an emblematic example of the contrast between the drama of the attacks and the mundane response required. Improved security at airports would stop such a horror from happening again. But this does not provide the same gripping television as the events that make it necessary.

The appropriate reaction to the appalling drama that lasted a few minutes is the long haul that will take several years. Mr Bush will not be as restrained as this. There will be a military response of some kind, but at this point a dangerous war is not inevitable. Out of the confusion, as leaders come to terms with what has happened, there is some hope. The fact that they are unsure of the precise way ahead is in itself a reason not to despair.