Max Hastings

The U.S. President's conflation of Al-Qaeda and legitimate Muslim grievances can benefit only Osama bin Laden.

GEORGE W. Bush sometimes sounds more like a man preaching jihad against infidels, than the leader of a Western democracy. In his regular radio address to the American people on Saturday he linked the British alleged aircraft plotters with Hizbollah in Lebanon, and these in turn with the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All, said the President of the world's most powerful nation, share a "totalitarian ideology," and a desire to "establish a safe haven from which to attack free nations." Mr. Bush's remarks put me in mind of a proverb attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib: "He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare, and he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere."

In the United States, a disturbingly large minority of people polls suggest around 40 per cent remain willing to accept Mr. Bush's assertions that Americans and their allies, which chiefly means the British, are faced with a single global conspiracy by Islamic fundamentalists to destroy our societies.

In less credulous Britain, one could nowadays fit into an old-fashioned telephone box those who believe anything Mr. Bush or Tony Blair says about foreign policy. Many of us are consumed with frustration. We know that we face a real threat from Muslim fundamentalists, and that we are unlikely to begin to defeat this until we see it for what it is: something infinitely more complex, diffuse and nuanced than the U.S. President wishes to suppose.

Common strand

There is indeed a common strand in the anger of Muslim radicals in many countries. They are frustrated by the cultural, economic, and political dominance of the West, whose values they find abhorrent. In some, bitterness is increased by awareness of the relative failure of their own societies, which they choose to blame on the West rather than examine their own shortcomings.

They turn to violence in the spirit that has inspired fringe groups of revolutionaries through the ages. It is essential for the Western democracies to defend themselves vigorously against such people, whose values and purposes are nihilistic. We must never lose sight of the fact that Al-Qaeda's terrorists attacked the twin towers on 9/11 before Mr. Bush began his reckless crusade, before the coalition went into Afghanistan and Iraq, before Israel entered Lebanon.

In September 2001, most of the world clearly perceived that a monstrous crime had been committed against the U.S., and that the defeat of Al-Qaeda was essential to global security. While many ordinary Muslims were by no means sorry to see American hubris punished, grassroots support for Osama bin Laden was still small, and remained so through the invasion of Afghanistan.

Today, of course, everything has changed. In the eyes of many Muslims, the actions of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair have promoted and legitimised Al-Qaeda in a fashion even its founder could hardly have anticipated a decade ago. Mr. Bush has chosen to lump together all violent Muslim opposition to what he perceives as Western interests everywhere in the world, as part of a single conspiracy. He is indifferent to the huge variance of interests that drives the Taliban in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq, Hamas, and Hizbollah fighting the Israelis. He simply identifies them as common enemies of the U.S.

Almost three years ago he contemptuously challenged the Iraqi insurgents to defy American will: "My answer is bring 'em on." Today he has widened this bold defiance to embrace a vastly more ambitious range of foes: "He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere."

Far from acknowledging that any successful strategy for addressing Muslim radicalism must include a just outcome for the Palestinians, he endorses Israel's attempt to crush them and their supporters by force of arms alone, together with Israeli expansion on the West Bank. The West faces the probable defeat of its efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, a worthy objective, because of the likely failure of its campaign in Iraq, which began on false pretexts.

There is no chance that the West will get anywhere with the Muslim world until the U.S. Government is willing to disassemble a spread of grievances in widely diverse societies, examine them as separate components, and treat each on its merits. America cannot prevail through the mere deployment of superior wealth and military power, the failure of which is manifest. Judicious and discriminatory political judgments are fundamental, and today quite lacking.

The madness of President Bush's policy is that he has made a wilful choice to amalgamate the grossly irrational, totalitarian and homicidal objectives of Al-Qaeda with the just claims of Palestinians and grievances of Iraqis. His remarks on Saturday invite Muslims who sympathise with Hamas or reject Iraq's occupation or merely aspire to grow opium in Afghanistan to make common cause with Osama bin Laden.

It is widely agreed among Western governments and intelligence agencies that, in order to defeat the pernicious spread of such nonsense, a convincing counter-narrative is needed. Yet it becomes a trifle difficult to compose this when the U.S. President promulgates his own single narrative, almost as ridiculous as that of Al-Qaeda.

Whatever the truth about last week's frustrated aircraft bomb plot, we cannot doubt that Britain faces a serious and ongoing threat from violent fanatics undeserving of the smallest sympathy. Yet we shall defeat them only when our Muslim community at large perceives that its interests are identified with Britain's polity.

This objective will remain elusive as long as the British Government supports the U.S. in pursuing policies that many Muslims perceive as directed against their entire culture. You and I know that this is not so. We are as dismayed as they are by Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair's follies. Yet however eloquently we explain this, many Muslims respond by pointing to the spectacle of American, Israeli, and British troops daily executing operations that the U.S. President declares to be in furtherance of his global war. It avails little that we know our boys in Afghanistan are pursuing infinitely more admirable purposes than the Israelis in Lebanon, when Mr. Bush is telling the world that the two conflicts are mere different fronts in a common struggle.

Mr. Blair clings to a messianic conviction that he must continue to endorse American statements and policies to maintain his restraining influence on Mr. Bush. This invites speculation about what the President might do if Mr. Blair was not at his elbow. Seize Mecca?

The West faces a threat from violent Muslim fundamentalists that would have existed even if a Abraham Lincoln had been presiding at the White House. As a citizen, I am willing to be resolute in the face of terrorism, which must be defeated. I become much less happy about the prospect of immolation, however, when Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair translate what should be an ironclad case for civilised values into an agenda of their own that I want no part of.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006