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It may seem too early to make such a confident prediction, but George Bush has probably already made the decisive mistakes which will lose America the war on terrorism and mire it in a struggle that will go on for decades

Andrew Brown for Scorr Rosenberg

Is the war already lost?

It may seem too early to make such a confident prediction, but George Bush has probably already made the decisive mistakes which will lose America the war on terrorism and mire it in a struggle that will go on for decades. The first is that he has allowed Sharon to defy him over the West Bank and to get away with it. No European country, and still less an Arab or Muslim one could so openly defy the White House right now; and perhaps not at any other time. It is possible that the President is exerting pressure behind the scenes. But what the occasion demands is pressure in front of the scenes, where the drama is public, and the audience is global. Because every time America is seen to do what Israel wants, and not the other way round, the more credible becomes the idea that this is a war against Islam and not against a particularly unpleasant terrorist gang. The announcement that there will be a "phased pull-out" providing that the Palestinians do exactly as the Israelis demand does nothing to alter this situation. We know that the Palestinians cannot fulfil all Israeli demands. Imposing impossible conditions is not negotiation.

If the Palestinians killed six Israelis every time an Arab died, President Bush would not tell them to stop "as soon as possible" when his Secretary of State had earlier told them to stop "immediately". He would react violently, forcefully, and with no understanding of their situation at all. Yet the Israelis have indeed killed six or eight Palestinians for every Israeli who has died in the yearís most recent rioting. The only conclusion one can draw is that, while the Koran, notoriously, places the value of a woman somewhere between that of a man and a cow, the White House places the value of a Palestinian life at about a sixth of an Israeli one. Neither piece of arithmetic is what the rest of the world understands by democratic values.

Perhaps the rest of the world is wrong. Americans know that they are fighting for freedom and for democracy; and that they are not fighting against Islam, and they would be horrified to be asked to do so. But what Americans believe they are doing doesnít actually matter. What matters, in the struggle against terrorism, is not what our side believes, but what the rest of the world does. If Muslims think that America is fighting against Islam, thatís what counts. If Muslims believe that Bush acts as he does because he is afraid of the Jewish vote in the USA, then bin Laden has won a propaganda victory much greater than any he can get by putting his videotapes on al-Jazeera; and this is a victory which will long outlast him.

It is quite possible that the Muslims are right to believe American policy towards Israel is largely determined by domestic considerations. It may be very hard and very dangerous for any American president to defy special interest groups. There are a great many Jews, outside as well as inside Israel, who are horrified by what is being done in their name on the West Bank; but there are hardly any who would welcome a conclusive demonstration of American power over Israel. It would require real courage to defy them, especially as there is no guarantee of success. But courage without any guarantee of ultimate success is a quality that war leaders are sometimes called on to display.

The reason that Arab public opinion matters is not that settling the Palestinian question will end the terrorist threat. It wonít. It wonít even give the Palestinians a democratic or loveable government. They will probably live under a hate-filled military dictatorship, as much of the Arab world already does ó but thatís how they are living now, and at the moment it is not even their own military dictatorship, but one imposed from the outside and supported by the US. For Bush to face down Ariel Sharon is a necessary condition for winning a long war against terrorism, even if it is not a sufficient one.

This is partly a matter of simple self-interest. If there is one thing that Israeli policy has demonstrated in the last thirty years, it is that there can be no purely military victory for a democracy in a war against terrorism. I donít know how many people have died in the war; a figure of 17,000 civilian casualties after the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon is fairly widely accepted; but of course there have been many more victims on both sides, both inside and outside Israel, not all of them civilians. You might argue that even more violent measures are needed to end this killling: the total ethnic cleansing of all Arabs from the whole of the biblical territory of Israel has been suggested. But democracies canít do that sort of thing and stay true to the values they claim to be fighting for. So itís foolish for the US to follow that example.

The long-term aim of American policy must be to restore American security. This isnít solely a matter of making the rest of the world fear American power. Victory against terrorism comes when most of the rest of the world sees and loves America as Americans do. Only then is large-scale organised terrorism unthinkable, and it is the unthinkability of terrorism which makes it impossible: what stopped people from flying airliners into the World Trade Centre before September 11th was not physical security precautions but simple moral decency and a sense of shared humanity.

But the fear of American power is also part of it, and that is where the second mistakes my already have been made. If it is right to topple the Taleban in Afghanistan, as the US government has clearly decided, then this is not a job for mercenaries. Itís true there has been one special forces raid we know of, and there may have been others. But there is a difference between commuting to hell and living or fighting there. For the most part, what the Americans have done is to bomb the enemy troops, and increasingly their civilians, from complete safety. But the soldiers who will one morning have to climb out of their trenches and walk under fire through the minefields towards a waiting, desperate Taleban enemy are not Americans. They are Afghans almost as wretched as the Taleban they must fight, and representing a Northern Alliance which is almost as nasty. Why are there no American troops alongside them? So far as one can tell, this is because President Bush thinks it would be really stupid to have American troops killed trying to conquer Afghanistan. He may be quite right. But the death of your soldiers is surely one of the necessary stupidities of war. To flinch from it will ensure that the campaign in Afghanistan is simply lost, and that will be an even worse outcome than winning what will be only one battle in a very long war.

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