Blair overstates the threat of terrorism

William Pfaff writes:

PARIS Tony Blair gave a major talk last Friday on terrorism and the intervention in Iraq that was a strange combination of apocalyptic warning and anodyne remedy, very different from what has been said on the same subjects by the George W. Bush administration in Washington.

The British prime minister declared that Islamic extremism constitutes a threat that could “engulf” the world. The scale of this threat, according to Blair, requires abandoning the framework of international law and interstate relations that has served society for the last three and a half centuries.

Blair told his parliamentary constituents in northern England that Islamic extremist collaboration with rogue states to obtain weapons of mass destruction warrants an aggressive new international legal standard justifying international or state intervention in other countries, overriding their sovereignty.

This superficially resembles the claim made by the Bush administration’s national security strategy statement of September 2002, that when circumstances make it seem necessary, Washington intends to take pre-emptive action “to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.”

Blair placed his argument concerning weapons of mass destruction in the context of “humanitarian” interventions into the affairs of other countries to remove despotic regimes, an idea that has been making its way since the Yugoslav wars of secession and the Rwanda genocide.

His references were all to Iraq and to radical Islam, however, and the purpose of his talk was to justify his decision to take Britain into the war in Iraq – where, unfortunately for his argument, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and until after the occupation began, there were no Islamic terrorists.

The difference between the British and American positions lies in the robust nationalism of the American statement. It concerns threats to U.S. security. It says that it was possible in the past for the United States to rely on deterrence based on the threat of retaliation. Nuclear weapons were then mutually “considered weapons of last resort” that risked the survival of those who used them.

Today, the statement went on, weapons of mass destruction are seen by America’s enemies “as weapons of choice” for aggression or to intimidate neighbors, and are considered usable in order to blackmail the United States and its allies so that they do not attack rogue regimes.

Established international law concerning pre-emptive defense must be modified, it said, to allow “anticipatory action,” to disarm threats to the United States. References to allies and global interests in the security statement were infrequent and perfunctory.

The American position was challenged for just that reason. Its claim to a right of unilateral American pre-emption in the national interest, against a unilaterally determined threat, was criticized internationally in the historical context of powerful or dominant nations who do what they please. The United States was accused of merely rationalizing its own self-interested conduct.

Blair, making his argument in terms of the common international interest, failed to suggest a standard of evidence or a forum for international decision that an armed “humanitarian” intervention is justified.

Who decides? The prime minister says of the United Nations that even now “it is strange that the United Nations is so reluctant” to enforce its own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But as the United Nations acts in such a matter only when it is told to act by the Security Council, of which Britain is a permanent member, this would seem a reproach to Britain itself.

Blair says that the United Nations should be reformed, adding that “poverty in Africa” and “justice in Palestine” should also be addressed, and “our duty” should be acknowledged “to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan as stable and democratic nations.” This does not lend much weight to his case. Iraq and Afghanistan have yet to become conclusive arguments for the humanitarian benefits of overthrowing tyrannical regimes, with or without weapons of mass destruction.

Blair actually abandons his argument at just the point where it becomes interesting. Interventions to seize weapons of mass destruction and interventions meant to impose humanitarian standards of government are quite different things. Are we talking about North Korea, or Zimbabwe and Haiti?

Blair and Bush ultimately build their case on their personal intuitions, provoked by the Sept. 11 attacks, that something new had appeared in the world. They both concluded, as Bush was to put it, that they had to “rid the world of evil.” But their argument that Islamic extremism is a “global threat” is indefensible. The Islamists can make spectacular attacks on Britain or the United States, but neither country, nor any of the other democracies, is in the slightest danger of being “engulfed” by terrorism, or shaken from its democratic foundations.

The Islamists are a challenge to Islamic society itself, but a limited one. Their doctrine will run its course, and eventually be rejected by Muslims as a futile strategy for dealing with the modern world.

Yglesias continued the discussion here after mentioning Andrew Sulliva’ns views. I think Pfaff is right – they are a limited threat to both Islamic society and Western society.