Some of the complications of a general declaration of war against terrorism are now becoming apparent. It was understandable why George Bush used such language, and why Tony Blair echoed him so faithfully.
No reasonable person can approve of the use of the tactic of terror to pursue any cause, but to declare war against a tactic is a mistake. It has made it more difficult to maintain the international coalition behind the US-led response to last month's atrocity. Vladimir Putin wants to link his campaign of internal repression against the Chechen guerrillas with the war against terrorism. India wants its struggle against Kashmiri militants to be recognised as part of the war against terrorism – hence Mr Blair's visit to Pakistan has to be balanced by a trip to New Delhi. Israel wants its brutal attempts to suppress the intifada to be part of the war against terrorism. Even David Trimble, the currently resigned but not forgotten First Minister of Northern Ireland, thinks the war on terrorism means there should be no truck with the IRA's equivocations.
Thus the diplomatic offensive to secure the cordon around Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors has given a number of hostages to fortune throughout Asia and the Middle East. Mr Putin can expect to be allowed a freer hand in Chechnya. India and Pakistan have had the sanctions which expressed disapproval of their nuclear arms race lifted. And Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, seems increasingly bull-like in his bucking against a ceasefire. Mr Sharon's claim that President Bush was treating Israel in the same way Neville Chamberlain sold out Czechoslovakia was intemperate, insulting and foolish. But the Israelis are entitled to feel confused when they are told both that the US has joined their war against Islamic terrorism and that they should make peace with Palestinian terrorists.
What is dangerous about a war on "terrorism", as opposed to a war against a specific group of terrorists, is that it fails to distinguish between the different causes of terrorism and the different responses required in each case. It may be harder now to argue for action to address the causes of Palestinian, Kashmiri or Chechen grievances – and even Irish republican grievances – if all terrorists are treated as if they are suicidal fanatics inspired by quasi-religious nihilism.
On the other hand, the passage of time since President Bush's rhetorical declaration of war has allowed people to understand that this is not a war in conventional terms, and that victory is likely to prove as long-drawn-out and elusive as that in the war against drugs or crime. Mr Bush and Mr Blair have tempered warlike rhetoric with reasoned argument and humanitarian action. The fact that the US and its allies are getting food aid into Afghanistan before munitions speaks far louder of Western priorities than any amount of war talk.
When Mr Blair spoke this week of the inevitability of victory it should have been obvious from the rest of his speech, and from the restraint with which the US-led coalition has acted in the month since the attacks on New York and Washington, that he was not talking about a clear-cut ending with Mr bin Laden's head paraded on a stick.
He was trying to rally support for a nobler cause, which has been decried as "trying to solve all the world's problems at once", but which deserves a more thoughtful reception. Isolating and dismantling the al Qa'ida network is going to be difficult enough. To establish a new world order, governed by international law, is an even larger ambition. That does not mean it is not worth trying, but it is rather different from a "war" against all terrorists everywhere.Reuse content