In the last ten years, it has become increasingly fashionable to knock both George W Bush and Tony Blair for their response to the attacks of 9/11writes Peter Cannon, the Governance, Strategy and Terrorism Section Director at the Henry Jackson Society. Read also Jim Lacey's "Saddam: What We Now Know" (the first sentence of which states "Saddam Hussein was a WMD threat and a terror threat to the United States and its allies.")
But ten years on, I would argue that — while mistakes have certainly been made — Bush and Blair basically got it right. (
It is difficult to argue that the war to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan was not the right response. Here was a clear-cut case of a just war — the US was responding to an attack on its soil, by a terrorist group based in Afghanistan and hosted by the Islamist regime there. Any lesser response would have looked pathetically weak and left Afghanistan as a base for Al-Qaeda.
But what about Iraq? The lesson the US administration and British government took from 9/11 was that threats should not be left alone until they struck first. Saddam Hussein had been an ongoing problem for years, repeatedly obstructing UN weapons inspectors, while the sanctions regime against him was crumbling due to a lack of support from other countries. Here was a dictator who was in breach of seventeen UN Security Council Resolutions, had used chemical weapons against his own people and who had a record of harbouring and collaborating with Islamist terrorists.
Many people became legal experts overnight and declared the war ‘illegal’, despite the Attorney General’s advice that it was lawful, despite the seventeen UN Security Council Resolutions and despite a vote of Parliament.
Many more condemned the US and the UK for the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet they ignore the plain fact that the vast majority of civilian casualties have been caused not by US or allied forces, but by the Islamist insurgents fighting against us — who have received notably less condemnation.
Yet many in the West find it much easier to condemn the US and Britain rather than accept that we are genuinely facing a vicious enemy and have the right to defend ourselves. We were even blamed for ‘creating’ the forces that we were battling, with it still being wrongly claimed that the CIA funded Osama Bin Laden during the 1980s. In the case of Iraq, it was often said that it was the US that had armed Saddam Hussein in the first place, during his war with Iran. In fact, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US and UK combined provided Saddam Hussein with less than one per cent of his purchased weapons — against fifty-seven per cent from the USSR, thirteen per cent from France and twelve per cent from China.
Similarly, it was claimed that the War on Terror, and particularly the Iraq War, radicalised many Muslims. It should hardly need pointing out that it was Al-Qaeda that started the war, not us. And arguing that we should not do anything which might radicalise would-be terrorists would be to hand Islamist terrorists a veto over our foreign policy.
It has often been argued that the War on Terror alienated Muslim opinion worldwide, and was perceived as a ‘war against Islam’. Yet George W Bush and Tony Blair repeatedly went out of their way to emphasise that this was not a war with Islam and that Islam was neither the enemy nor the problem.
It has also been said that the US should have done more to ‘reach out’ to the Muslim world. In fact, in the early days after 9/11, there were many attempts at reaching out, particularly by Tony Blair, but beyond expressions of sympathy for the victims of the 9/11, there was little reaching back.
Incredibly, after 9/11, some still persisted in claiming that the terrorist threat was ‘exaggerated’ or even ‘manufactured’ by governments. But the reason there have not been even more terrorist attacks is not because Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have not had the intention of launching them but due to concerted military action and the constant vigilance and undercover work of our security services.
Many have criticised the terminology of the ‘War on Terror’, pointing out that you cannot fight a war against something which is a tactic rather than a group or an ideology. They may have a point, but such quibbles over terminology are hardly helpful. Given the scale of the 9/11 attacks and the threat of further atrocities, conceptualising the response as a ‘war’ was surely the right thing to do. Bush and Blair were absolutely right to recognise that these were not just isolated terrorist attacks against specific targets, but that they were indeed an assault on our values and way of life.
Thankfully, Osama Bin Laden is now dead, his organisation weakened, and his ideology dwindling in popularity. These things did not happen by accident, but as a result of the War on Terror and the efforts led by George W Bush and Tony Blair.
The ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrates another thing which Bush and Blair got right: that democracy could be spread to the Middle East, that freedom was not an exclusively Western value that was incompatible with Muslim or Arab societies. It is impossible to tell whether or not the Arab Spring would have happened if Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq. If it had, then he would almost certainly be doing his best to crush it with a bloody campaign of repression to rival what has been done in Syria and Libya. Instead, we had a democratically elected Iraqi government calling for action against the regime of Colonel Gaddafi.
While we have had numerous successes in the War on Terror, the fight goes on, most notably in Afghanistan. The last decade has been tough, not least for the US. Tough but — given the enormity of 9/11 — necessary.
At the end of the decade, it needs to be said: Bush and Blair did the right thing, and we are in a better position now than we would otherwise have been.