No time for Schadenfreude

Critics of US foreign policy may live to regret finger-wagging from the sidelines, argues Paul Cornish

March 20, 2008

Paul Rogers's latest contribution to the international security debate is a provocative assessment of the West's response to 9/11 and its handling of subsequent events. He writes with authority and incisiveness, such that Why We're Losing the War on Terror is sure to be well received in many quarters. What is less certain is whether Rogers will persuade those who do not already share his analysis. There is much to be said about the response to 9/11, about the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and about the international campaign against al-Qaeda. But much of what could be said already has been.

Why We're Losing the War on Terror has a familiar ring to it, giving the impression of a book that sets out to reinforce the centre-left orthodoxy concerning international security and the War on Terror (It's all gone wrong, and the West is to blame) while doing little either to challenge that orthodoxy or to extend it - at least not convincingly.

Rogers seems to endorse the anti-American, anti-Western school of opinion, writing in evidence that "a bitter anti-American mood is evident across the Middle East and beyond". So what? No one in their right mind could argue that the international reputation of the US has not been damaged by recent events, and that there is a good deal of deeply entrenched antagonism towards the West in the Middle East and elsewhere. But antagonism to America isn't intrinsically and necessarily right, and in any case this isn't the whole story. Trade figures, statistics for development assistance, tourism and travel data all suggest a different image; a US that not only remains engaged internationally but that still has the power to attract, even in those areas where its security policies are most reviled. Things could of course be done better, but the US is not an international pariah and is unlikely to become one. What is more, it must be in the interests of Western liberal democracy to prevent such an eventuality, rather than watch from the sidelines with something approaching Schadenfreude.

Although offering only a "preliminary analysis" of the "early years" of the War on Terror, Rogers believes he already has sufficient evidence to judge that "the policies adopted by the United States" and its allies "have failed to achieve their aims". The War on Terror, he argues, should never have begun, and it was delusory to expect success in Iraq. There is a hint of 20:20 hindsight to commentary of this sort. Less palatable still is the contention that "by any independent assessment", life in Iraq is "actually far worse" now than under the "brutal autocracy of Saddam Hussein". But by what standard? And is the implication that the US and Saddam Hussein are equivalently bad?

Rogers sees "little alternative" to withdrawal from Iraq, and he argues that the West should abandon its "control paradigm" in favour of "sustainable security". These solutions are not persuasive, however. Withdrawal would be both a short-term disaster for Iraq and a propaganda defeat for the West and its values which would resonate for decades.

It is also unlikely that al-Qaeda and similar discontents will be impressed by Rogers's vision of the world order. What is needed, instead, is recognition that the West is engaged in a complex, long-running counter-insurgency campaign, one that it cannot be allowed to lose. Judging by their lacklustre performance in Afghanistan, however, some Western governments (like some commentators) have yet to realise that this campaign has to be fought: politically, economically, socially and even militarily.

Why We're Losing the War on Terror

By Paul Rogers
Polity Press
177pp
£45.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9780745641966 and 41973
Published 1 December 2007

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