Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Unnecessary Risk

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 19, 2005 --  

More than a week after suicide bombers killed 55 people on London's trains and busses, Britons are beginning to question whether they are paying the price for their country's invasion and occupation of Iraq. A new report by a respected British think tank, the Royal Institute for International Affairs, concluded that Britain is "at particular risk because it is the closest ally of the United States," and the war in Iraq "gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network's propaganda, recruitment and fundraising."1

This statement of obvious fact, even in the muted tones of a politically neutral think tank, is an unforgivable heresy in the eyes of a British government already besieged by negative public sentiment over the war in Iraq. In the hours and days after the release of the report, a series of ministers were unleashed to denounce its conclusions. Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, stressed that attacks have occurred around the world long before the war in Iraq.2 Jack Straw, Britain's Foreign Secretary, went further to say, "The time for excuses for terrorism is over."3 The message, of course, is that discussing what motivates terrorism amounts to excusing the behavior.

This attitude is similar to that expressed last month by President Bush's Chief of Staff Karl Rove who told a meeting of the New York Conservative Party "Conservatives saw the savagery of the 9/11 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."4

In both the United States and Britain, the pro-war government denounces those who would "understand" rather than simply act. By this standard, even the quintessential expression for recklessness, "shoot first and ask questions later" is too studied of a position for both the Bush and the Blair teams. Perhaps they would prefer "Shoot first and don't ask questions at all."

Thankfully, there are organizations like the Royal Institute for International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, who are willing to stand up to the bullies in the British and American governments, ask questions and draw conclusions. Several of the Islamic radicals suspected of blowing themselves up in London came of age in Britain during the time that their country was involved in Iraq -- a war that has enraged Muslims around the world. It was at some point during this same period that they decided they hated the country enough to kill themselves along with as many that they could take with them.

Two thirds of Briton's are now convinced that there was a link between the bombings and the war in Iraq.5 The few who continue to believe that the war in Iraq was not a factor are not being honest with themselves.

Unfortunately, the invasion cannot be undone. More than two years after the war started, Iraq is a violent, shattered mess that is in no position to stand on its own without the assistance of the British and American forces that helped bring it to its current state. The troops cannot be simply withdrawn without causing even more tragic consequences. But as long as the Anglo-American alliance continues to remain engaged in both Iraq and the fight against terrorism, it is critical for everyone to remain open minded about the effects of one on the other.

If the American and British governments were honest, they would simply acknowledge that the war in Iraq is putting their citizens at somewhat greater risk of terrorist attacks in the short term. They could make this admission without abandoning their position that the change of government in Iraq will reduce the risk of terrorism over the long term. If they are correct, and the long-term reduction in terror is great enough, there is a chance that the war could ultimately prove worthwhile.

Acknowledging this truth is critical to future decision making. Both governments must sometimes weigh actions that promise some benefits but also might fuel hatred -- the same hatred that leads people to volunteer to blow themselves up on a crowded train. The discussion of this kind of cost-benefit analysis is entirely appropriate in a democracy. Those in the Bush and Blair governments who try to silence it are weakening the fight against terrorism while putting their citizens at unnecessary risk.

Related Web Columns:

Listening to Osama, November 9, 2004

Tragic Influence
Accepting a Terrorist-Installed Government
, March 16, 2004


1. Royal Institute for International Affairs, Security Terrorism and the UK, July 18, 2005

2. Daily Telegraph, Terror "is the Price We Paid for Going to War", July 18, 2005.

3. The Guardian, Straw Rejects War Link to Bombings, July 18, 2005

4. Washington Post, Remarks of Karl Rove at the New York Conservative Pary, June 22, 2005

5. The Guardian, Two-Thirds Believe London Bombings are Linked to Iraq War, July 19, 2005*

* Published in Britain one calendar day and several time zones ahead of this column.