It is now over twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall; for many young people, the Cold War, of which it was the most compelling symbol, is no more than a history lesson. In my desk here I have a small piece of concrete, with paint on, which was recovered from that wall and sold as a tourist trinket. It is perhaps the most telling one I have.
Our children do not, as those of my generation did, live in daily fear of being blown to pieces by atomic bombs or dying an agonising death from radiation sickness. They do not walk into their schools to find posters saying “Better Dead Than Red” on the walls, nor do they crowd around flickering television sets alongside their anguished parents, watching as Kennedy drew his line in the ocean, and curled his finger around the trigger of nuclear Armageddon. And for this we should all be very, very thankful indeed. No child should have to live with nightmares like those.
The Middle East
The lifting of this Damoclean Sword did not, unfortunately, mean that our civilisation was free from danger. In dark and hidden places, new threats were gathering. The first, and most obvious, came from what we call the Middle East. As is well known, after the Holocaust of World War Two, in which a third of all Jews were murdered, many of those still alive left Europe, vowing never to return. Some went to the United States, where they became, in many cases, powerful in business, science and the arts. Many others went to what was then the British Protectorate of Palestine, intending to set up a homeland for all Jews, to be called Israel.
It is an unfortunate fact, with more unfortunate consequences, that the land they occupied was not empty at the time. It was populated instead by Palestinians, not Arabs but an Islamised people descended from the Biblical Samaritans. They had every right, they believed, to call the land home. It matters little, now, that an arcane system of land tenure had allowed wealthy Zionist Jews to buy up land in Palestine, and become the landlords to sitting Muslim tenants.
After the horror of Dachau and Buchenwald, no Allied politician could deny the Jews what they asked, a pittance of desert. Wars were waged by Israel’s neighbours to try to destroy the new state, but this, far from alerting us to what many in the Arab world considered an outrageous injustice, only showed how vulnerable Israel was, and encouraged us to support it militarily and otherwise. After these wars Israel annexed new land, seeking to develop buffer zones between its homeland and the neighbouring states who had attacked it.
We in the West forgot those who had been driven off, whose situation, living as they did for the main in refugee camps, was deplorable; at least, that is, until the formerly peaceful and prosperous state of Lebanon collapsed into civil war.
The concept of Realpolitik
That is to say, we have to live in the world as it is, not as we might wish that it were. Clearly it would have been very handy if the land of Israel had been held as an empty desert for the Jews to return to. It would have simplified life greatly if Jerusalem were not so important to quite so many different, and mutually antagonistic, faiths. It would have been helpful if the refugee Palestinians had been given succour, new land to live on and financial support to restart their lives. And it would certainly have been handy if Islam did not insist that land once under shariaa may never be liberated from it. But Realpolitik provides no comfort on any of those. Realpolitik is not like that.
At the time, we in the West saw the Israeli conflicts as a sideshow, albeit one which the real global power-brokers, the USA and the USSR, meddled in as they pleased. It was still the Cold War and the Arms Race that dominated our strategic thinking. And still, then, the West had an imperialist mindset that assumed that the ultimate winner in any geopolitical confrontation would be the one with the most and biggest gunboats—or in this case, arsenal of nuclear weapons—and that the balance of power as it had been established at the end of World War Two would remain forever, propped up by the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD.
Because of this mind-set, no-one seriously believed that the mighty United States would be pushed out of what was then South Vietnam. How could mere guerilla fighters combat the might of a superpower, even if they did have one prepared to supply them with guns? It was a ridiculous proposal, yet one which, exactly, came to pass. We in the West might then have asked ourselves some hard questions about what was happening and where we were going, but by and large we did not. Vietnam was an aberration, not evidence of a trend. And yet, in 1979, Iran exploded in an Islamic Revolution that swept aside the Pahlavi dynasty—which had been held in power by we in the West—and set in place as its head of state possibly the most odious religious bigot since John Knox.
We still did not ask the questions we should have. The United Kingdom saw off an invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina in what was initially regarded by many as an impossible endeavour, yet which came to be seen as one of the most successful actions since D-Day. The United States, humiliated in Vietnam and again in Iran, managed to recover and executed several successful campaigns, notably the ousting of the Panamanian dictator Noriega. Gunboat Diplomacy still seemed to work, after all.
In the end, however, our friend Realpolitik stepped in. The dynamic balance of the Cold War era ended when the Berlin Wall was torn down. Germany was reunified, and then one by one, the states that had been enslaved by Stalin turned their backs on the Soviet Union and their faces to the West. Ultimately, not only did the Soviet Union itself collapse but the Communist Party, which had held power since 1917, was cast down. Catharsis was loose in the world and the balance of terror known as the Cold War, was finished for ever.
Many of us were guilty of being rather smug, I remember. Surely now all was well. We had no more need to fear a surprise nuclear attack that would destroy everything we knew and loved, if it did not kill us outright. What power was there in the world that could approach, in its ability to be our dreaded nemesis, the awesome might of the Soviet Union? Even the Chinese, whom we still did not really trust, were now doing business with the West, and showed no inclination at all to threaten their best customer. Everything was going to be fine; even the environmental crisis, and the approaching arrival of Peak Oil, a concept that no-one in 1990 had heard of in any case, could not rock the boat of our satisfaction. Sure, we had to clean up a few poisonous messes left behind by the years of Soviet domination, like the disaster of Bosnia. But even this only showed us how we could cope, and how powerful we in the West really were.
The European Union would become both larger and more integrated; its leaders wanted it to be an economic force to rival the United States. And the economies of the EU grew and grew; formerly poverty-stricken states like Spain became wealthy and modern, and we bent over backwards to assist the countries of Eastern Europe, previously Soviet satellites, into the fold, where they would themselves prosper. A new, static balance had been born out of the end of the Cold War, a balance secured in trade and economic success. And, as a result of all this, we allowed ourselves to drift into a false sense of security.
Yet peace and security were fragile things. We had been guilty of meddling in the affairs of Arabs for centuries, indeed, one might contend, for over a thousand years. In 1990, just as our triumph over the so-called Evil Empire, the Soviet Union, was approaching fruition, a rather nasty dictator, whom we had hitherto been assisting on the grounds that he was hostile to Iran, and, as the saying goes, ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ upset the apple-cart. Saddam Hussein, already in control of a significant part of the world’s oil resources, decided that he would like some more, and annexed Kuwait. One might query how we went about finding friends like him, and consider the wisdom of it.
My goodness, what an opportunity for our old standby, Gunboat Diplomacy—and this actually let us use the most powerful gunboats ever built, the US Navy’s Iowa Class battleships, which had been ‘de-mothballed’ by US President Reagan, mostly as a Public Relations exercise. I mean, no-one believed they would be used in a real war, well, not against an enemy with a modern navy—and submarines—at least. But Iraq had no navy to speak of, and its air-force was neutralised at the start of the conflict, so these mighty floating temples of destruction could pound away at land targets with impunity. Thus we were treated to real, live footage of real, live Imperial battleships raining the righteous wrath of the West down upon people so far away they were over the horizon.
As is well known, although Realpolitik—in this case horrific pictures of a bombed-out column of fleeing Iraqi soldiers,and a change of occupant at the White House—caused a delay in the process, in the end we removed Hussein from Kuwait, and ultimately his head from the rest of him…though that is believed to have been carelessness.
Many in the Arab world applauded our action in what is now called the First Gulf War. Hussein was an unpopular dictator with territorial ambitions and a powerful army. What Arabs did not appreciate was our continuing tendency to believe we could intervene in their affairs willy-nilly. Furthermore, Hussein was seen by some as a bastion against Israel, and America’s action, in leading the campaign to liberate Kuwait, was seen as much as an assistance to Israel as the freeing of an Arab state.
The Islamic world had been brought to its knees after the defeat of the Ottomans at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. However, in the 20th century, things began to change as a number of factors came together. The first was the establishment, by Kamil Ataturk in 1923, of the modern secular state of Turkey. This was ferociously resisted by Islamists, who founded something previously unheard-of in the Islamic world: a political movement expressly formed to counter the increasing secularisation of its sphere of influence.
Prior to this, Islam itself had been its own political party, but the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had left it leaderless, confused, and culturally unable to challenge Western secularism. Thus was formed the Muslim Brotherhood, which has become synonymous with the political side of Islamic Jihad. While defeated in Turkey, they remained active, biding their time, infiltrating other states and studying their enemy. While the Brotherhood never openly takes up arms, it is ever ready to be the political representative of more violent Islamists.
The Brotherhood is a classic terrorist apologist, similar to the Communist Party or Sinn Feinn, in that it sets out to destroy that which it hates by infiltrating and defeating it. In the 1980s, the UK Labour Party found itself treated very much the same way by an ultra-leftist subgroup called Militant Tendency. These tactics are sound and have been proven time and again. The strength of democracy depends on the presumption that everyone taking part wants the system to work; it is therefore vulnerable to those who have another agenda.
Make no mistake, if ever a global caliphate were established and the world plunged into darkness, the Muslim Brotherhood would cease to exist. Its adoption of democratic political system is only a means to allow it to undermine and ultimately destroy that system and replace it with Islam and shariaa. That will instantly snuff out both secularism and democracy. Once democracy is gone, the Brotherhood would have neither platform nor purpose. Its activities in Turkey and Egypt today are clear evidence of its fundamental philosophy–once it has seized the reins of democracy, it shoots the horse.
There were two other major factors in the resurgence of Islam. The first was the end of the Imperial Era. For hundreds of years, European nations had controlled huge areas of the world, and Muslims, like everyone else, had been obliged to toe the line. However the global change in power-structure that occurred as a result of World War Two meant that the old system had to die. Many territories where there were Muslim majorities became independent, and, thanks to the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood, where Western secular democracy was imposed by the former rulers as a condition of independence, this was soon corrupted.
At the same time, the Arab world, which had for centuries been pauperised, became rich on the back of the modern need for vast quantities of crude oil to fuel the West’s burgeoning economies. Countries like Saudi Arabia, with no manufacturing or other sustainable means of wealth-production, became fantastically rich. (Ultimately, of course, this source of wealth will dry up, and since the economies of the Islamic, and particularly the Arab world are so completely dependent on it, running out of cheap Middle-Eastern oil may paradoxically be the saviour of the West.)
By the end of the 20th century, Islamist militancy had been growing for decades, fuelled by the black resentment the Islamic world has always harboured against the State of Israel, aided and directed by the shadowy hand of the Muslim Brotherhood and given both religious sanction and finance by the wealthy Arab states like Saudi Arabia. Israel was the focus of their hatred, especially its policies towards the Palestinians and the land Israel had occupied after the Six-Day War. The settlement of these lands by Jews was deeply resented, and far away from the glare of publicity, plans were made to wreak vengeance.
However, Israel had already proved itself too tough a nut to crack. As well as this, terrorist strikes against Israel were so commonplace they were paid little heed to by the West, the real enemy. These factors enhanced the attractiveness of targets deep in the heart of dar al-haarb, the Land of War, where they were rich, fat and unprepared. The Islamists would use the very freedom of Western secular democracy to destroy it
The practical politicians of the Brotherhood, who understand Realpolitik too, know that their intended conquest of the West is not something that can be achieved overnight, or even over a generation. However, bringing terror inside the borders of the hated enemy might at least cause them to flinch in their support of Israel. This, of course, is the same reasoning as Hitler, Franco and Mussolini used, to justify terror-bombing civilian populations in an attempt to cow their will. That it never worked appears to have escaped the Islamists.
On September 11, 2001, one such plot came to fruition, and provided Bush the son with the pretext to finish what Realpolitik had prevented Bush the father from doing: the humiliation and ousting of our former ally and protégé Saddam Hussein.
A hitherto little-known, Saudi-backed Islamist group, called Al-Qaeda, hijacked four airliners within the United States and flew them into the Pentagon Building, and the World Trade Centre. The fourth plane was directed towards another target in Washington. Although the White House was probably the terrorists’ intended target, this could not be confirmed, because this plane’s hijackers were overpowered by the passengers, the real heroes, who died in the crash.
The images of two planes flying into the Twin Towers, New York’s most prominent skyline feature, and of the towers themselves collapsing, were transmitted live around a horrified world. Over three thousand people died in the attacks; a tragic drop in the ocean compared to the consequent loss of life, yet seminal and symbolic. Islamist militancy had come of age.
Twelve years after that event, which entrained American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the former being very much less successful than the latter, despite the State Department spin, the West has other problems. A persistent global financial crisis with its roots in an untrammelled banking system which favoured risky, quick profits over safer, long-term strategies, has moved centre-stage in our concerns.
The consequence of economic crisis, at least in the West, has historically been an increase in our isolation. We become inward-looking and disinclined to consider the threats from the outside world. This is just displacement activity, as happened in the years after the Great Depression, when Hitler and other fascist leaders were on the rise in Europe, and Japan had become increasingly belligerent, staging horrific attacks on mainland China which the West, to its shame, chose to ignore. This was, lest we forget, the era of British ‘appeasement’ and American ‘isolationism’, both ideas which are today, rightly reviled.
While we have been so busy with introspection, however, our enemies have not been idle.
We’ll take a closer look next time.