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European vs. American Approaches to Terrorism: | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A conference in Madrid on Terrorism and Democracy took place earlier this month to coincide with the 11 March (“11 M”) terrorist attack in Madrid one year ago, which killed 192 people and injured over 1500. The Conference highlighted the difference in approaches between Europe’s response to 11 M and America’s response to 9/11.

Multilateral vs. Unilateral Approaches. The first striking difference was the choice of keynote speaker at Madrid, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who used the occasion to announce a Global Strategy for Fighting Terrorism. Annan called for the international community to

• Dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism

• Deny terrorists the means to carry out these attacks

• Deter states from supporting terrorism

• Develop state capacity to prevent terrorism, and

• Defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism

The Madrid Conference on Terrorism and Democracy emphasized a multilateral response to terrorism using the UN, EU and other political, civil society and religious organizations to forge a social consensus and political process to isolate and defeat terrorism.

America’s response to 9/11 was quite different. Americans felt they were attacked without provocation and President Bush responded by declaring that he would defend America in this war against evil. Few in Madrid framed the challenge as a war on terrorism, but that was precisely the term used by President Bush to mobilize the American public for a long struggle against a new enemy that replaced the decades- long Cold War against Soviet Union and communism.

Political vs. Military Responses. Both America and Spain emphasized remembering the victims of 9/11 and 11 M. But America’s reaction was to bring the war to the enemy, beginning with U.S. military action in Afghanistan, which routed Al Qaeda out of their safe havens and put them on the run and on the defensive. President Bush would agree with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s impassioned concluding speech condemning both terrorism in all its forms and the mistaken notion of a clash of civilization that makes whole religions and societies suspect. But Zapatero went on to say that only political action can solve conflicts. The US-led war against Iraq suggests an American belief that military action also can solve conflicts. Moreover, the Iraq war that followed so quickly on Afghanistan gave rise to the perception among many of the world’s Muslims that America was at war not only against terrorism but against Islam.

Human Rights vs. Deterrence. Another important difference in European and American approaches to terrorism is the role of human rights. The Madrid Conference warned against any compromise on human rights in combating terrorism. As Kofi Annan said in Madrid, such compromises cede the moral high ground to the terrorists, especially among those segments of the population where terrorists are likely to find recruits.

America’s method has much to do with deterrence. Punish the alleged terrorists in a publicly humiliating way, as illustrated by the orange-clad faceless enemy detainees at Guantanamo, in order to dissuade those sitting on the fence from joining Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld used to say during the Afghanistan war that terrorists should consider choosing another line of work. But applying Kofi Annan’s reasoning, for every innocent person who is mistakenly arrested for terrorism, his cousin or friend may slide off the other side of the fence and become a terrorist.

The European approach is to understand the motivations of the terrorists but not to become like them. They would agree with the words of the late George Kennan, a legendary US diplomat, in his famous 1946 memorandum that first provided the Containment rationale of the Cold War, “we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

The Root Causes Approach. A fourth difference is the European emphasis on analysing the root causes that allow fanaticism to spread. Poverty, social exclusion and humiliation, lack of education, and failed states were cited at Madrid. Palestine was frequently mentioned as a root cause, namely the 37-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, although some speakers added that even if that conflict is resolved, many other problems in the Islamic world still need to be addressed.

One of those other problems cited at the Conference is the need for greater openness and transparency in government. Strong rule of law and systems of justice and educational reform are the antibodies that immunize societies against the scourge of terrorism. The Madrid Conference emphasized both the resolution of regional conflicts and the spread of democracy as keys to any effective long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

The Bush Administration believes that democracy is the key to resolving regional conflicts and disagrees with the prevailing view in the region and in Europe that Palestine must be resolved before democracy and reform can come to the Middle East. Many in the Bush Administration argue the opposite: only when dictators are no longer around to hijack the Palestine conflict in order to perpetuate their own power will the poisonous animosity dissipate and enable the other side’s peace camp to gain the upper hand over its security hawks.

America shares with the Europeans the belief that targeting terrorists without resolving the underlying causes of terrorism is not an effective long-term strategy. They disagree more on which root causes to prioritise: ending the occupation in Palestine and Iraq or spreading democracy in the broader Middle East and North Africa.

Convergence. The Europeans and many Arab reformers have begun to embrace the cause of democracy in the region. The formal title of the Madrid Conference was Democracy, Security and Terrorism and the “D” logo appeared everywhere. More dramatically, events in Lebanon have brought together France and the United States on the side of Lebanese opposition leaders like Walid Jumblatt, who said recently that the success of the Iraqi elections represented ””the start of a new Arab world.””

These nods to democracy from Europe and the region are mirrored by equally important changes in the US policy of W-2 (the Bush Second Term), beginning with the new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice’s emphasis on multilateral and political approaches to resolving conflicts like the potential nuclearization of Iran and North Korea, and the US Administration’s re-engagement on Palestine, encapsulated by the planned visit of President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House in the Spring.

After more than 3-1/2 years since 9/11, American policy makers appear to be gaining perspective and sophistication in the fight against terrorism and realizing, as their intelligence services know so well, that the best defence against another 9/11 is good cooperation and information-sharing with their counterparts in Europe and other countries. The Madrid Conference reminds us that no one state can defeat the tactic of terrorism alone. The attacks on Bali, Baghdad, Beslan, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Madrid and New York City were each driven by their own internal logic, but it is mandatory to cooperate in order to respond appropriately. In that sense, Madrid echoes the message of the Counter-terrorism Conference hosted by Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia earlier this year.