WHEN in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center the American Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that America was "at war", he made a very natural but a terrible and irrevocable error.
Leaders of the Administration have been trying to put it right ever since.
What he said made sense if one uses the term "war" in the sense of war against crime or against drug-trafficking. But to declare war on terrorists is immediately to create a war psychosis that may be totally counterproductive for the objective that we seek. It will arouse an immediate expectation, and demand, for spectacular military action against some easily identifiable adversary. The press demands immediate stories of derring-do, filling their pages with pictures of weapons, ingenious graphics, and contributions from service officers long, and probably deservedly, retired.
Any suggestion that the best strategy is not to use military force at all, but more subtle if less heroic means of destroying the adversary, are dismissed as "appeasement" by ministers whose knowledge of history is about on a par with their skill at political management. Figures on the Right, seeing themselves cheated of what the Germans used to call a frischer, frahlicher Krieg - a short, jolly war in Afghanistan - demand one against a more satisfying adversary, Iraq; which is rather like the drunk who lost his watch in a dark alley but looked for it under a lamppost because there was more light there. As for their counterparts on the Left, the very word "war" brings them out on the streets to protest as a matter of principle. The qualities needed in a serious campaign against terrorists - secrecy, intelligence, political sagacity, quiet ruthlessness, covert actions that remain covert, above all infinite patience - all these are forgotten or overridden in a media- stoked frenzy for immediate results, and nagging complaints if they do not get them.
All this is what we have been witnessing over the past three or four weeks.
Could it have been avoided?
Certainly many people would have preferred a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations on behalf of the international community as a whole, against an criminal conspiracy; whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court.
In an ideal world that is no doubt what would have happened. But we do not live in an ideal world. The destruction of the twin towers and the massacre of several thousand innocent New York office-workers was not seen in the United States as a crime against "the international community". For them it as an outrage against the people of America, one far surpassing in infamy even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Such an insult to their honour was not to be dealt with by a long and meticulous police investigation conducted by international authorities, culminating in an even longer court case in some foreign capital, with sentences that would then no doubt be suspended to allow for further appeals. It cried for immediate and spectacular vengeance to be inflicted by their own armed forces. And who can blame them? In their position we would have felt exactly the same. The courage and wisdom of President Bush in resisting the call for a strategy of vendetta has been admirable, but the pressure is still there, both within and beyond the Administration. It is a demand that can be satisfied only by military action - if possible rapid and decisive military action.
There must be catharsis: the blood of five thousand innocent civilians demands it.
President Bush deserves enormous credit for his attempt to implement the alternative paradigm. He has abjured unilateral action. He has sought, and received, a United Nations mandate. He has built up an amazingly wide- ranging coalition.
Almost equally important, the President and his colleagues have done their best to explain to the American people that this will be a war unlike any other. …