Arvind Sivaramakrishnan

Merely saying that the idea of a war on terror was a mistake amounts to an evasion of the reasons for the slogan being coined, of the purposes it served, and of the enormous amount of work that is needed to redeem the damage it has caused.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has received substantial amounts of publicity for his comments on January 15 that the “war on terror” proclaimed and prosecuted by the U.S. and its purported allies since September 11, 2001 was a mistake. Mr. Miliband, who set out his arguments in a speech in Mumbai and in an article in the same day’s issue of the British newspaper The Guardian, contended that the phrase “a war on terror” incoherently conflates groups as diverse as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbollah, the Tamil Tigers, and the Taliban, and thereby magnifies the sense of being under threat. Secondly, the phrase creates a widespread perception that the only response is a military one. Thirdly, it simplifies the issues into “a simple binary struggle” between good and evil, and thereby even assists some terrorist groups’ claims that there are unified grounds for complaint about the state of the world. Mr. Miliband added that “democracies must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it.”

The U.K. government is saying all this seven years too late. Many of the same arguments were in fact stated all round the world in 2001 and repeatedly thereafter. But that made no impression whatever on successive U.K. governments, which had totally allied themselves to a U.S. policy that has been widely called a crusade for world dominance. In particular, merely saying that the idea of a war on terror was a mistake amounts to an evasion of the reasons the slogan was coined, of the purposes it served, and of the enormous amount of work that is needed to redeem the damage it has caused.

To start with, the much-criticised British support for the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq probably had as much to do with domestic U.K. politics as with the post-1945 British strategy of following U.S. foreign policy almost to the letter. The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has been publicly accused of joining the Bush wars in order to protect his ruling Labour Party from opposition Conservative allegations of his government being soft on terrorism. That the British electorate had given the Labour Party a majority of 165 seats in the 2001 elections just three months earlier, and that Labour then had little to fear from the Conservatives, appeared to mean nothing to Mr. Blair and his associates, who over the next year and more proceeded to invent stories of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction solely in order to justify going to war.

In addition, the British security, intelligence, and police services have, since September 2001, been granted vastly expanded powers under highly repressive legislation, which was purportedly created to counter the threat of terrorism. The British courts have even ruled that evidence obtained under torture abroad is admissible in trials under anti-terrorism law. Mr. Miliband’s comment that states need to be alive to the impact of counter-terrorism strategies on minorities — with a direct remark about India added — conveniently glosses over the fear, bitterness, and resentment engendered among British ethnic minorities, especially those of South Asian origin, by powers apparently indiscriminately used against them since September 2001. The overwhelming majority of those questioned under the relevant powers have simply been allowed to go free of any charge, although a small number of them were charged with apparently minor immigration offences. But the clear impression created is that the legislation makes an assumption of guilt among British ethnic minorities — an assumption which Mr. Miliband would presumably regard as unacceptable in any democratic political system. There is, furthermore, no evidence whatever that any of the newly created repressive powers or institutions will be scrapped. Indeed plans are afoot to extend electronic surveillance in the U.K.

A further evasion lies in Mr. Miliband’s statement that “as the cornerstone of all democratic societies, the rule of law is a key target for terrorist organisations.” This ignores the question of why terrorist organisations target some countries and not others, and, above all, avoids really unpleasant and difficult questions about why terrorist groups do the specific things they do — questions which are acknowledged by security and intelligence organisations to be essential to any effective preventive and deterrent action by states. It also repeats the very error Mr. Miliband says must be avoided, namely, that of regarding all terrorist groups as forming a unified entity with a single purpose.

Comments on Kashmir

As if that were not enough, Mr. Miliband’s comments on Kashmir have generated an understandably curt response from the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi to the effect that India does not need unsolicited advice on an internal matter. Yet Mr. Miliband’s further remarks that commitments to human rights and civil liberties at home and abroad must be upheld carries the highly problematic implication that intervention in other states’ affairs is acceptable in support of those commitments; Mr. Miliband adds nothing about, say, the legitimation of such intervention through the U.N.

Indeed Mr. Miliband’s concluding remarks are perhaps the most revealing of his speech. In the context of rights and liberties, Mr. Miliband welcomes President-elect Obama’s decision to close the U.S. detention and torture centre at Guantánamo Bay. But his own government has totally failed to do use any influence on the U.S. over Guantánamo, and therefore this British approval of Mr. Obama’s decision only continues the post-1945 subordination of British foreign policy to that of the United States.