Fighting Words

Playing It Safe

The fatuous politics of compromise.

During the last presidential election in the United States, both candidates commissioned opinion polls on the question of “safety.” Voters were asked to say which of the two made them “feel safer.” Not, mark you, whether they made them actually safer. Only whether they made them “feel safer.” Obviously, nobody is really qualified to say whether they are more secure or less secure under the presidency of one or the other nominee. So, they had to be content with registering what is known in the trade as their “perception.” It all worked out fine and was soon played back into the political process. You saw people on-screen, expressing their own opinions. “I’m a Kerry voter,” they would say, or a Bush voter, according to taste. “Because he makes me feel safer.” If it had gone on much longer, there would have been bumper stickers saying “Feel Safer With Dubya.” Or even: “John Kerry. Safely Reporting for Duty.”

Or would that have been too ridiculous and pathetic? It’s hard to be sure. The last time in history that “safety” was a political slogan was—as far as I know—when Stanley Baldwin led the Conservative campaign in the 1929 general election on the watchword “Safety First.” This mantra, which is said to have been taken from a contemporary road-safety campaign, is agreed by most historians to have kept the British people in a fool’s paradise for a few extra years while the European dictatorships made ready for a war that would have made the world safe for fascism. (To make the world “safe for democracy” had been the earlier ambition of President Woodrow Wilson, in his “war to end all wars.” That didn’t work out too well, either.)

Now we are all being asked to consider whether or not we are “safer” than we were five years ago. What this question means in practice is: Has the Bush/Blair foreign policy exposed us to more danger or to less? The answer depends on how you define the threat. You can either believe that Sept. 11, 2001, was the opening shot, or the most shockingly palpable shot, in a long war waged by Islamic fanaticism against “the West.” Or you can believe that it was part of a stubborn resistance to an unjust global order largely led and organized by the United States, with Britain as its servile junior partner.

If you take the first view, then “safety” is really a second-order issue. The main priority is to take the war to the enemy and to deny things like “safe havens” to his suicidal warriors. Any risk involved is preferable to continued passivity or inaction. If you take the second view, then every such action undertaken will only incite and justify further acts of “terrorism,” thus making us all less safe by definition.

The classic division here was expressed after the London bombs last July and has surfaced since then in the controversy over the High Wycombe  arrests. There are those who say that these actual or potential atrocities are to be expected as a reaction to a foreign policy that is “perceived” as “anti-Muslim,” and there are those who say that the resort to violence is produced by the preachings of a depraved clerical ideology. Actually, both of these positions are simplistic. There obviously isa connection between our foreign policy and the activities of people who think it their holy duty to commit mass murder. They are doing so in solidarity with other mass murderers, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, who want to destroy democracy or prevent it from emerging. (One casualty of the King’s Cross bombing last July was, aptly enough, a young Afghan who had fled his homeland after many of his family had been killed by the Taliban. He had been under the illusion that in London he would be “safer.”)

You may if you choose take the view that resistance to jihadism only makes its supporters more militant and, given the fact that all wars intensify feeling on both sides, there must be some truth to this. But the corollary is a bit disturbing: The most prudent course of action then seems to be compromise or surrender. This is a rather contemptible conclusion. And it also overlooks the unpleasant fact that the jihadists don’t seem to be that much interested in compromise. Indonesia and Canada, to take two very different countries, both opposed the Iraq war. But both of them have been targets of vicious terrorist attacks, as have Turkey and Morocco, which likewise opposed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Speaking of the latter, he only ever made one self-criticism. Speaking after his expulsion from Kuwait, he admitted to his followers that he had made a mistake. He should have built his nuclear bomb first, and only then invaded his neighbor. In 1990, in other words, as the world was celebrating the end of the Cold War, a mad dictator had both a nuclear reactor at Tuwaitha and a plan to occupy another country by force and annex a huge quantity of the world’s oil. And we did not know of either contingency. (The nuclear facility was not discovered or disarmed until after the war was over.) So, 1990, in retrospect, was a year of living safely. And if you can believe that, then you can feel blissfully safe cultivating a vineyard on the slopes of Mount Etna.