Welcome Mr. President
A success ... George Bush's visit to the U.K.
DID the invasion of Iraq bring greater stability to West Asia? I asked that question in my "Cambridge Letter" in April and came to the reluctant conclusion that the answer was "no". The answer was not the result of any particularly perceptive insight; nor was I alone in giving it. Events since the invasion have not led me to change my view.
According to a recent opinion poll conducted by ICM for the Daily Mirror, 75 per cent of Britons think that President Bush's "war on terror" is making the planet less safe. Interestingly, in an ICM poll conducted for The Guardian, 66 per cent of British voters believe that British and American troops should stay in Iraq until the situation there is more stable.
Those findings are not inconsistent. The fact is that the invasion of Iraq did happen, and President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have justified it, to some extent at least, as part of the "war against terror". It is perfectly possible to believe that that war is not succeeding, but to believe also that walking away from Iraq would simply make matters worse both for regional stability and for the people of Iraq.
There can surely be no doubt that instability in West Asia, and indeed far more widely, is a major problem. The appalling suicide bomb attacks in Istanbul are only the most recent demonstration of that.
Such attacks should be unreservedly condemned, but in condemning it, it is important not to make matters worse by the nature of the condemnation. It is important, for example, not to state, or imply, that because the attackers, possibly linked to Al Qaeda, are Muslims, this represents a war by Islam against the west. A recent speech by a Minister from the British Foreign Office, Denis MacShane, asserting that British Muslims had to make a choice between "the British way" and terrorist values was extremely stupid, and has been rightly widely condemned. Leaders of the Muslim communities in Britain, which are numerous, have consistently condemned terrorism. Furthermore, it is possible to be critical of British policy in Iraq as many people clearly are without in any way condoning terrorism.
Given all the criticism in the United Kingdom of President Bush, there were understandably many people who thought that his State visit should not have taken place. It did take place, and within the severe constraints imposed by security requirements, it can be counted a success. That does not mean, of course, that it was "a good thing" or that those opposed to it were wrong: opinions remain divided on that. Fortunately and essentially if we believe in the importance of democratic societies where people can express strongly opposed views without resorting to violence there were anti-Bush demonstrations which remained just that: demonstrations of opinion.
The really sad commentary on the state of the world in which we live is that all high-profile political figures face risks that make it impossible for them to be treated "normally" on visits to other countries. As it happens, I have personal experience which is a constant reminder of that.
About 40 years ago I was living in Oxford and invited Kenneth Kaunda, then President of Zambia, whom I knew quite well, and who was in the U.K. for an international conference, to spend the day at our home. For security reasons, we did not tell people of the planned visit, but he came without fuss, in a British government car, with his wife and a police guard, who delivered him to us and then went into Oxford until the President was ready to leave.
We were left in sole charge of a visiting Head of State. We did not worry, or even think, about the risk. We would not dream of taking such a risk today, and no government responsible for such a visiting political figure could allow us to do so.
There are all kinds of reasons why things have changed so depressingly in the past half century. Terrorism had become a fact of daily life (certainly in the U.K. as a result of conflict in Northern Ireland, but in many other countries also) long before the attack on the New York twin towers in September 2001 and long before the growth of the Al Qaeda network. It is a major problem throughout the world, and to express doubts about the effectiveness of particular ways of dealing with it is not to underestimate its devastating seriousness.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K.
E-mail him at email@example.com
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