Last week’s terrorism alert in
Britain has again ignited debate about the relationship between foreign
policy and terrorism. A group of prominent British Muslims set the ball
rolling with an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, calling on him not to “ignore the role of its foreign policy”:

The
debacle of Iraq and the failure to do more to secure an immediate end
to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the
risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to
extremists who threaten us all.

The Blair government and its foreign supporters have denounced
the very idea. But the denunciations depend on misrepresenting what
their opponents are saying. Their strategy is to try to fix opponents
of the Iraq war and an unbalanced Middle Eastern policy with one (or
more) of three claims:

  • That there would be no terrorism if it were not for Anglo-American foreign policy. As Blair says,
    terrorism has “long preceded Britain’s part in the American-led
    invasion of Iraq”. But no-one denies this; the claim is that the war
    has increased the risk of terrorism, not created it.
  • That we
    should let terrorists determine foreign policy. As British transport
    secretary Douglas Alexander said, “No government worth its salt should
    allow its foreign policy to be dictated to under the threat of
    terrorism.” Again, that’s not what opponents of the Iraq war are
    saying: we should get out of Iraq because it’s the right thing to do,
    regardless of what effect it will have on terrorism. But if they
    believe that it would, in addition, make Britain safer, then they’re
    entitled to point that out.
  • That foreign policy should be
    blamed for terrorist attacks instead of terrorists. Blair’s new
    foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, says “Let’s put the blame where it
    belongs: with people who wantonly want to take innocent lives.” Well
    yes, of course. But causation isn’t a zero-sum game. If I get mugged
    after walking in a dark alley late at night, saying “you shouldn’t have
    done that” doesn’t mean holding the mugger any less responsible.
    Terrorists are responsible for terrorism, but bad policy can be
    responsible as well.

It is perfectly consistent to
reject all three claims as so many straw people, but still maintain
that a change in foreign policy is an essential step in the fight
against terrorism. As Mary Ann Sieghart says in The Times
of London , “Whether or not Mr Bush and Mr Blair have been right in
their judgments, it seems wilfully blind to deny that these foreign
policy choices have had an effect on Muslim opinion.”

Peter Fray

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