Some time after the arrests in early August in connection with the alleged terrorist plot against airline passengers, I read a post somewhere that I didn't keep the link for and now can't find. I think it was on Comment is Free, but in any case it concerned the drawing of links between British foreign policy and the terrorist threat to this country, and it said (roughly) that making a connection between the Versailles Treaty and the rise of Nazism is done in teaching in British schools, without anyone assuming that this constitutes an apologia for Nazism. Quite so. I made a similar point in a post on this subject last August, writing...
Not everyone in search of understanding and explanation is an apologist for what they want to understand and explain. This should go without saying; otherwise there could be no historians of fascism, or genocide, and no sociology of crime.One obvious problem, though, in applying this elemetary truth to the case of people who now insist on the existence of a causal relationship between British foreign policy and the alienation of some young British Muslims is that that insistence is – at least, generally - not part of a disinterested, dispassionate exercise in historical understanding, as might be undertaken by a historian some time after the events being discussed. On the contrary, the context of it is a plain effort of political persuasion. The context is exhortatory - normative - public argument about what should be done by the government, how policy should be shaped or changed. This doesn't mean that any talk of how the Iraq war has made terrorism more likely is, in itself, an exercise in excuse-making for those who plan or commit terrorist acts. But it does mean that critical reference to foreign policy in such an argumentative context is unlikely to be just analytic-historical; it indicates a strong likelihood of there being, also, some kind of justificatory function for the causal hypothesis proposed. One can ask what that function is. For it isn't at all clear.
In an article on this topic in last Friday's Guardian, David Clark begins thus:
We know it. They know it. We know that they know it. So why do they continue to deny it? I am, of course, talking about the very obvious connection between British foreign policy and the rising terrorist threat, and the government's refusal to come to terms with it.The causal connection is stated upfront. What does David Clark want to do with it by way of practical, political advocacy? At first sight, there is no mystery about this. He wants a different British foreign policy. But once you look at how he presents the case for it, you'll see that things are not as straightforward as they seem. Clark writes:
The government argues that to change policy in the face of a terrorist threat would be an act of moral cowardice that would put us in even greater danger. But that would only be true where the policy in question was both legitimate and necessary in order to combat terrorism or serve some other vital objective. It would, for example, be sheer folly to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban. Eliminating al-Qaida's principal base of operations was fully justified on grounds of self-defence.Two points emerge from this, complicating the seemingly simple initial picture. First: independently of Muslim anger, the Iraq war was wrong in Clark's eyes (no external threat posed by Saddam, the aim of democratization doomed from the start, etc). Second: the fact of Muslim anger isn't itself a good reason for changing the shape of foreign policy (intervention in Afghanistan 'fully justified', folly to abandon that country to the Taliban now).
The same cannot be said of Iraq. Saddam Hussein posed no threat beyond his borders, and the main effect of our intervention has been to create an enormous terrorist threat that didn't previously exist. Short-term Muslim anger might have been worth the creation of a model democracy in Iraq and a modernising dynamic in the Arab world. But that was never going to happen, and we ended up backing the Shia brand of Islamic fundamentalism against its Sunni equivalent.
The absence of legitimacy and necessity applies particularly to the government's acquiescence in America's support for Israel, which along with Iraq is the main source of Muslim anger.
So, there are sufficient reasons against the Iraq policy without bringing up the anger it has aroused amongst Muslims; and such anger shouldn't deter against adopting or continuing with a policy that is justified. Why, in this case, invoke Muslim anger as an argument for changing foreign policy? It isn't needed as an argument, and it isn't a good reason in the determination of policy anyway.
Note that my question here is not rhetorical; it's a genuine one. In particular, I'm not saying that Clark refers to Muslim anger in order to excuse terrorism. I'm simply asking, as an open question, why he does refer to that anger, since in the light of what else he says the reason isn't clear.
I observe in passing that Clark blithely skates over the difficulty for his case created by the difference he sees between policy on Afghanistan and policy on Iraq. I've pointed out this difficulty twice before. The anger - or alienation - under discussion is about Afghanistan as well as about Iraq, Israel, and everything else that we're always being told that it's about. In his last picture show Shehzad Tanweer, one of the July 7 bombers, said:
What [you have] witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan [!] and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.Should we yield to anger over Iraq but not to anger over Afghanistan, and if so why the difference? Perhaps it's just that we should yield to anger when it's provoked by a policy lacking legitimacy and ignore it when it's in response to a policy that's justified.
Let's leave aside, for the moment, the difficulty implicit in this suggestion: namely, that a policy's legitimacy/justification or lack of same are not like a full moon shining out of the night sky - or not shining out of it. These things aren't plain to the physical vision. They're disagreed about, contested – as, precisely, in the case of the Iraq war. Which anger to yield to and which anger to ignore will itself be a matter of contestation therefore. Quite possibly it will make further people angry. It may be thought better, consequently, that anger - even, or especially, become murderous - shouldn't weigh upon the democratic will, so much as principles and reasons, including the reasons for the anger itself (which may sometimes be good ones, but can also be bad). Otherwise, won't the democratic process be hostage to those more inclined to anger? And how could such a weighting of influence over the process possibly be justified?
But, as I said, leave this for now. Let's return to the suggestion that what makes the best sense of David Clark's otherwise puzzling meaning is the hypothesis that he thinks we should yield to righteous anger but not to anger that is unjustified.