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Lessons of the London Bombing

By Robert Parry
July 9, 2005

At about 9:30 a.m. on July 7, an overcast Thursday, I left a hotel in the Kensington section of London and walked – with my wife and 16-year-old son – toward the Earl’s Court subway station, planning to take the Piccadilly line to Heathrow Airport to catch a noontime flight back to Washington.

When we reached the Underground, we found a surge of people moving away from the entrance. We were told that the station was being evacuated because of some emergency elsewhere in the system, possibly an electrical explosion.

With little prospect for finding a cab and unclear how widespread the problem was, we began trudging off – luggage in hand – toward the next stop on the line, at Barons Court. Many Londoners were doing the same, some in their business suits with cell phones to their ears trying to glean the latest detail of what was happening.

The sorry parade had the feel of a disaster film in which people are suddenly denied the transportation that they so casually rely on.

When we finally reached Barons Court, guards barred the door to that station, too, informing us that multiple explosions had forced the closing of the entire London Underground. It was becoming clear that this incident wasn’t just the result of a malfunctioning electrical grid.

At the advice of one security guard, we double-backed about a quarter mile and found a store-front office of a “mini-cab” company. We secured the services of its last available car, which for the price of 40 pounds took us – and an elderly chap on his way to Belfast – to Heathrow Airport.

By the time we boarded our flight and departed for Washington early in the afternoon, news reports were describing how four bombs – three on subway cars and a fourth on a double-decker bus – had killed an undetermined number of people in London. Suspicions were already focused on an al-Qaeda connection.

Back in the USA

Several hours later, after we landed at Dulles Airport, we climbed into a cab for the last leg of our trip back to Arlington, Va.

The cab driver was listening to a right-wing radio station that was already drawing lessons from the London bombings. George W. Bush’s wisdom and resolve were vindicated again, the radio voices told us, while American liberals were cowards and traitors for wanting to coddle terrorists.

We were back in the USA.

But what are the real lessons of the London bombings – and what do those lessons mean for the Iraq War, the War on Terror, and the shaky future of American democracy?

First, there is the forensic evidence, the relatively crude nature of the four bombs.

That could be viewed as a negative or a positive. On the one hand, assuming that these bombs indeed were the work of a militant Islamic group, their simplicity could suggest a declining terrorist capability. On the other hand, the bombs indicate that even amateurish terrorist cells can disrupt the functioning of a sophisticated city like London and kill scores of people.

The London bombings suggest, too, that al-Qaeda may be evolving into a diffused movement, more an inspiration to disaffected Muslim youth on how to wage war against the West than a centralized organization that hatches complex plots and dispatches operatives to carry out the attacks.

Bush’s Illogical Claims

Second, again assuming that there is some tie-in to Islamic terrorism, the London bombings undercut one of Bush’s primary arguments for continuing the war in Iraq – that fighting the “terrorists” there somehow prevents them for attacking elsewhere.

As Bush said in his June 18 radio address, “Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home.”

This argument has always flown in the face of both logic and U.S. intelligence analyses, which have concluded that hatreds stirred up by the invasion of Iraq have been a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda, strengthening Islamic extremism, not weakening it.

Plus, it made no sense to think that fighting extremists in Iraq precluded other extremists from launching attacks in Europe or the United States. Rather, the opposite would almost certainly be true, that hardened veterans of the Iraq conflict – or sympathetic Muslims already living in the West – were more likely to avenge the deaths of Iraqi civilians by killing civilians in countries that have sent troops to Iraq, such as Great Britain.

But Bush’s case for the Iraq War was never strong on logic. It’s always been about pushing America’s “hot buttons” – whether exaggerating threats from Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction or juxtaposing references to Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks despite the lack of evidence linking the two.

The use of “hot buttons” – rather than reason – has been a conscious policy of Washington’s neoconservatives since the early 1980s when this CIA-style practice, known internally as “perception management,” was employed to control how Americans perceived the bloody conflicts in Central America. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq or his earlier book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]

Baiting War Critics

The neoconservatives found that these P.R. tactics from the 1980s worked even better after the horrors of the hijacked-plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As Bush and his allies consolidated political power after Sept. 11, 2001, the strategy – especially during the run-up to the war in Iraq – was to bait opponents, not debate them. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Baiting, Not Debating.”]

Just last month, facing deepening criticism over his Iraq War policies, Bush returned to this approach, unleashing his deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to mock “liberals” for supposedly demonstrating a cowardly naivety in the face of the Sept. 11 terrorism.

“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” Rove said in a speech to the Conservative Party of New York State on June 22.

“I don’t know about you, but moderation and restraint is not what I felt when I watched the Twin Towers crumble to the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble,” Rove said.

Although Bush spoke after the London bombings about the need for an “ideology of hope,” he has shown little willingness to rethink a counter-terrorism strategy based on the prospects of endless war.

Indeed, a chilling subtext of Rove’s speech is the demonization of anyone who suggests that conventional warfare may be a clumsy and even counter-productive tool to employ against terrorism. To recommend scaling back the level of violence – away from war toward a police operation or, in Rove’s scoffing words, “to prepare indictments” – is deemed proof of weakness.

‘Moral Relativism’

Typical of Bush’s backers, radio talk show host Kevin McCullough used the London bombings as another opportunity to denounce American liberals as cowards whose very existence endangers the nation.

“What none of the Left in America understand is that this life can’t be lived by sheer moral relativism,” McCullough said, according to a text of his comments distributed by the Christian Wire Service. “They are afraid of this because they don’t wish to be forced to curb their own behavior to actually become moral people.

“But their fears aside, the unwillingness to look at the face of Satan and call it what it is jeopardizes all of us. These people can not be trusted with national security because they have no sense of the difference between good and evil.”

McCullough then advocated what he termed “the only moral way to deal with” terrorists: “Track them down. Kill as many of them as we can in the field of battle. Those we capture put on trial. Those who are found guilty, put to death.”

Yet, while sentiments about exterminating terrorists may be satisfying on an emotional level, vengeance is not a realistic solution to the broader problem of Islamic anger against what vast numbers of Middle Easterners see as Western exploitation and occupation of their lands.

According to polls, many Muslims – as well as many non-Muslims – see Bush as a greater threat to the world than Osama bin Laden. So simply lashing out at real or suspected “bad guys” is only likely to perpetuate the cycles of violence and retaliation, not lead to some end game to the conflict.

Cooler Heads

A third lesson from the London bombings appears to be that the world does face a growing risk that the tit-for-tat violence between the warring sides will spread geographically, worsening fears and deepening hatreds.

Further, a simplistic black-and-white view of the enemy is not helpful in winning this kind of conflict. As counter-insurgency experts have taught for decades, effective strategies to quell rebellions require multilayered responses aimed at winning hearts and minds, not just killing all possible enemies.

These military experts note that success requires identifying legitimate grievances, taking concrete steps to address these problems, and then isolating the hard-core enemies.

Along these lines in the 1980s, conservative counter-insurgency experts advocated a theory called “low-intensity conflict.” Their thinking was that conflict existed on a broad spectrum of violence from nuclear warfare at one end to political clashes on the other, with conventional war and guerrilla fighting in between.

The goal was to shift conflicts toward the lower end of the violence spectrum where eventually they could be handled by police, courts and the political system.

In effect, Bush’s approach to the War on Terror and the Iraq War has been a repudiation of these “low-intensity” theories, which were promoted by conservatives, such as retired Special Forces Major F. Andy Messing Jr., founder of the National Defense Council, a private group that worked closely with Ronald Reagan’s White House.

By contrast, Bush has advocated escalating the violence up the spectrum, especially with his conventional military invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Meanwhile, at home, his advisers skillfully exploited Bush’s image as a “war president” to achieve the Right’s long-sought consolidation of political power across all three branches of the U.S. government.

Though Bush’s approach has proven politically advantageous domestically, it has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the loss of more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers and a worsening international cycle of violence.

With this violence seemingly spinning out of control, Bush’s strategy also has had the negative consequence of enhancing bin Laden’s reputation among Muslims, rather than pushing him to the political margins.

IRA Case

A fourth lesson that can be drawn from the London bombings is that the route out of the current mess may come from letting cooler heads prevail – as Londoners have done after the July 7 atrocities.

Besides their traditional stiff-upper-lip philosophy, Londoners may have gained some wisdom from their previous experience with terrorism – the bitter conflict with the Irish Republican Army.

After years of bloody attacks, the back-and-forth terrorism between the IRA and Protestant militants was brought under control as new leaders, ironically including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, edged back from the hard lines, addressed the reasonable demands of the warring sides, and isolated the violent fringes.

Yet, given how deeply Bush has dug himself in to his “with-us-or-with-the-terrorists” strategies, it is difficult to envision how the United States might clamber out of the hole, especially the one in Iraq, in the near future.

But the restoration of rational – and even respectful – discourse about realistic options might be a good place to start.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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