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It was never about Iraq. It is not really about terrorism any more either, though the terrorists are still there. Suddenly, to the vast surprise of practically everybody, it is about the whole way we run the world.
There is a classic scene, lovingly replicated in a hundred cartoons, in which Our Hero removes just one brick from a wall – and one after another, in an endless, slo-mo domino sequence, every structure in sight collapses into rubble. Osama bin Laden is a bit like that hero. With one spectacular act of terrorism, he has undermined the United Nations (UN), the international rule of law, the whole multilateral system of collaboration and compromise that keeps the world safe – half a century of slow and painful progress all suddenly at risk. It’s likely, of course, that bin Laden doesn’t even understand how much his actions have destabilized the entire international system, for his frame of reference is radically different – but if he did, he wouldn’t mind a bit.
He had help: the Bush administration was his “objective ally,” as the Marxists used to put it. Its world-changing ambitions might never have got off the ground without the opportunity that bin Laden handed it on September 11, 2001, but three years later, American troops have plunged deep into the Middle East and Central Asia, the UN is struggling to survive, and most of America’s traditional allies and friends are in shock.
There is now a symbiotic relationship between the Islamist terrorists and the coalition of interests in Washington that has clambered aboard the “war on terror.” Neither side wishes the other to triumph, but both thrive on the confrontation – and they have grown far beyond the original small groups of determined people who dragged the rest of us into this mess. In fact, neither the death of Osama bin Laden nor the fall of the neo-conservatives would necessarily bring a return to normality. The rhetoric of jihads and crusades has grown more familiar, and the number of people whose emotions or career interests have committed them to an apocalyptic confrontation has grown greatly.
It is the far side of bizarre, for both the Islamist and the American projects as originally conceived are doomed to fail. The notion that Islamist revolutionaries will sweep to power all across the Muslim world, Talibanize it, and then wage a victorious jihad against the West is as implausible as the idea that the United States can permanently assume the role of global policeman (or, rather, global vigilante), that other countries will acquiesce in this unilateral declaration of hegemony, and that U.S. voters will be willing to pay the cost in American lives and money over the long term. It’s not going to happen: the danger is not that extremists from the margins will dominate the global future, but that they will do enormous damage to our future before they go under.
What is really at risk here is the global project to abolish war and replace the rule of force in the world with the rule of law, the project whose centrepiece is the United Nations. It was mainly an American initiative at the start, almost sixty years ago, and today it still commands the support of almost every government on the planet (although the Bush administration has been an exception). It is a hundred-year project at the least, for it is trying to change international habits that had at least five thousand years to take root. The slowness of change causes immense frustration, especially given the urgency of change in an era of nuclear weapons, and yet the project continues to enjoy majority popular support in almost every country, including the United States. But it is now under serious threat.
The core rule of the UN is that war, except in immediate self-defence or in obedience to Security Council resolutions, is illegal. The new American strategic policy, post-9/11, asserts that the United States has the right to use military force wherever and whenever it judges necessary. Of course, the United States has used military force against foreigners without Security Council approval before, but this time is different.
The UN is a hundred-year project because it will take at least that long for the great powers to stop yielding to the temptation, from time to time, to impose their will on weaker countries by force. The great powers do understand that a world under the rule of law, where the resort to force has become almost unthinkable by long habit, is also in their own long-term self-interest, because they, too, are vulnerable to destruction if war gets out of hand – but every so often they simply cannot resist “solving” a problem by using their own superior force.
The UN system recognized from the start that the great powers were the problem: they were given vetoes precisely so that the Security Council would never find itself in the hopelessly compromised position of trying to enforce the law against them. All hope of progress therefore lies with the gradual habituation of the great powers to obeying the new international law that forbids a unilateral resort to force – and since that is ultimately in their interest too, they have generally at least tried to cloak their actions in legal justifications acceptable to the UN. But current American strategic doctrine requires the destruction of the international law embedded in the United Nations Charter.
To believe that this huge shift of doctrine is really driven solely by the “terrorist threat” is about as sensible as believing in fairies. According to the U.S. government’s own figures, only 625 people, the vast majority of them non-American, were killed by “international terrorism” in 2003, down from 726 people worldwide in 2002: about two people a day, far fewer than die from dog bites. It truly is not about terrorism.