Are We Five Years Wiser?

As the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda approaches, we should take the opportunity to assess the results of the response by the US and the international community. The attacks and the response to them have obviously brought about a sea change in international relations, but it would be difficult to argue that further atrocities have become less likely as a result. Why are we no more secure than we were five years ago?

Within a week of the attacks, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism.” The metaphor of war has the singular advantage that it clearly and strongly evokes the intensity of the counterattack that was called for. Moreover, the metaphor of war constitutes an implicit appeal to intense mobilization, not only by a country that comes under attack, but also by its friends and allies.

Naturally, no one questions America’s right to defend itself. The legitimacy of a violent counterattack has never been in doubt. But the war metaphor also carries inevitable connotations that, when applied to terrorism, are misleading and counterproductive.

Whenever war is invoked, it implies a fight against nations, peoples, or states. It implies that whole territories and the populations living there are to be considered hostile. War implies armies and command structures that can be recognized, if not clearly known; in any case, war entails a military confrontation with an identifiable adversary .

On all of these points, the concept of war, to paraphrase US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is not helpful. Even if the scale of the September 11 attack was of such a dimension that only the American army seemed able to face the challenge, in technical terms dealing with a threat that is extra-national rather than international is a matter of police techniques, not military tactics.

The negative consequences of this mistaken vision very quickly became apparent. It is now widely known that the US government, perhaps partly unconsciously, embraced a deeply distorted image of al-Qaeda that portrayed it as a hierarchical organization with a seamless command structure – the prototype of a foe that the American army could attack and destroy.

But al-Qaeda – the word means “the base” or “the camp,” that is, nothing more or less than a point of gathering and training – is more like a blurred sphere of influence, comprising individuals and small local cells that act on their own initiative and cooperate very rarely, and only for large-scale operations. It has not been proved that the attacks in London, Madrid, or Bali in the years since the September 11 plot, or the attack on America’s warship the USS Cole in 2000, reflected the existence of a “center” that coordinated the operations or gave orders to carry them out.

It is also wrong to conflate Islamic terrorism with that of the Basque ETA, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, or the Irish Republican Army. Whereas these groups have a territorial base and are preoccupied with national aims, Islamic terrorism appears to be the work of a very small number of individuals who seek to avenge the centuries-long “humiliation” of the Muslim world, brought about by colonization, absence of economic development, and political weakness. The goal of Islamic terrorists is nothing less than the destruction of the “hegemonic” Western world, despite most Muslim nations’ desire to live in peace within the international community and to cooperate in crafting effective development strategies.

The only viable strategy for confronting the threat of Islamic terrorism was, and continues to be, a search for agreement among Muslims, and among the leaders of Muslim nations, on the forms of mutual cooperation, including police cooperation, that are needed to isolate, weaken, or destroy the militants in their midst. This is a long and difficult enterprise, but there remains no alternative.

Instead, the war metaphor continues to define the US response and that of several of America’s allies. The attraction of this metaphor may be attributable to the excessive trust that Americans place not only in their army, which is understandable, but in force in general, which is much less understandable in the case of an intelligent people. Whatever the case, casting the fight against terrorism as a war has led American policymakers to multiply violent military operations that have absolutely no chance of winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Quite the contrary.

Afghanistan was the only case where a military response was understandable: its government had, after all, given al-Qaeda a temporary territorial home. But to implicate Iraq, which had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the September 11 attacks, was a huge mistake, one that has strengthened Islamic extremists and has probably helped them recruit terrorists. Moreover, the US response has strengthened Israel’s belief in the effectiveness of military methods, leading to the recent war in Lebanon and the ongoing invasion of Gaza.

Powerless, the international community does nothing. The rigidity and brutality of America’s behavior – resulting in many times more civilian deaths than occurred on September 11 – have blocked any useful intervention by countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates. Likewise, the appeal of war has ruled out the prospect of serious negotiations between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. By attacking one Muslim country after another, the US and its allies have created the impression that Islam itself is the enemy, leading inexorably to the “clash of civilizations” that America says it wants to avoid.

But America’s strategy has failed. Force cannot accomplish everything. The international community must say clearly that Islam is not our enemy and that terrorism must be fought in other ways. Muslim political leaders, for their part, should declare just as openly that terrorism is not their choice. If both sides can stifle their murderous deviances, the hope of cultural and political reconciliation will be reborn.


Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister of France and leader of the Socialist Party, is a member of the European Parliament.

Michel Rocard (born 23 August 1930) is a French Socialist politician, former Prime Minister, and currently a member of the European Parliament.


He was born at Courbevoie (Hauts-de-Seine) in a Protestant family, son of the nuclear physicist Yves Rocard, and entered politics as a student leader whilst studying at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. He became Chair of the French Socialist Students (linked to the SFIO socialist party), and studied at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. A finance inspector (senior official) and anti-colonialist, he went to Algeria and wrote a report regarding the widely ignored refugee camps of the Algerian War of Independence. This report was leaked to the newspapers Le Monde and France Observateur in April 1959, almost costing Rocard his job.

Having left the SFIO because of its approval of the Algerian war, he led the dissident Unified Socialist Party (PSU) from 1967 to 1974. Elected to the French National Assembly in 1969, he ran in the 1969 presidential elections. In 1974, after his run for re-election as a depty the previous year, he joined François Mitterrand and the new Parti Socialiste (which had replaced the old SFIO in 1971). Most of the PSU members and a part of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail trade union – generally known in France as the non-Marxist, “Second Left” – followed him.

Elected mayor of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in 1977, and a deputy for the Yvelines département in the National Assembly (1978), he led the opposition to Mitterrand inside the Socialist Party (as a candidate of the modernising wing of the party), but was unsuccessful in seeking the Socialist nomination for 1981 presidency.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Michel Rocard’s group inside the Socialist Party, known as “les rocardiens“, advocated the modernisation of French socialism through a clearer acceptance of the market economy, more decentralisation and less state control. It was largely influenced by Scandinavian Social Democracy, and stood in opposition to Mitterrand’s initial agenda of nationalization, which was still based on a broadly Marxist ideology. Nonetheless, the “rocardiens” always remained a minority.

Under Mitterrand’s first presidency, he was Minister of Territorial Development and Minister of Planning from 1981 to 1983 and Minister of Agriculture from 1983 to 1985. After Mitterrand’s re-election, he was Prime Minister (19881991) and led the Matignon Accords regarding the status of New Caledonia, which ended the troubles in this overseas territory. His record in office also include a decrease in unemployment and a large-scale reform of the welfare state’s financing system. Michel Rocard’s poor relations with François Mitterrand, notably during his mandate as Prime Minister, became notorious.

After the 1993 electoral disaster, he became head of Socialist Party, but had to resign one year later, after his own defeat: the Socialist Party had its worst electoral result in the 1994 European Parliament election. The defeat was in part due to the success of the list of the Radicals of the Left, which was covertly supported by President Mitterrand.

Michel Rocard then lost his last chance to run for president in 1995. Elected Senator of Yvelines in 1995, he resigned two years later. His supporters within the Socialist Party became allies of candidate Lionel Jospin, who was Prime Minister in 1995-2002, and then Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is his favourite potential candidate for the 2007 presidential elections.

Since 1999, he has been a member of the European Parliament, and was chairman of Foreign affairs, human rights and defense commission from 1999 to 2004. Michel Rocard is known for his hostility for the proposed directives to allow software patents in Europe, and has been an outspoken opponent of what he considers to be sneaky manoeuvres to force the decision on this issue. He has thus played an instrumental role in causing the rejection of the recent directive seeking to enforce software patents on 6 July 2005.

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