In the wake of the atrocious terrorist acts in Paris on 13 November, Francois Hollande declared “war“ on the Islamic State. The French president has received widespread support across Europe for this stance. It seems that both country and continent are forgetting their previous history with terrorism and instead rehearsing the explicit American model of fighting terror.
Over the 1960s and 1970s, many European countries witnessed the emergence of armed groups that were ideologically radicalised and politically motivated. The implicit European model was based on the premise of making the resort to terror improbable, unnecessary and illegitimate. This entailed a patient and prudent combination of deterrence, development and dialogue, involving the state (deterrence), public and private actors (development) and civil society (the dialogue). In short, it meant a mix of improved rule of law and extended welfare state. By the mid-1980s most terrorist organisations in Europe were defeated: more justice and prosperity had made it possible.
After 9/11, George W Bush proclaimed a "war" against Al-Qaida. The key notion was to make an asymmetrical conflict – a type of conflict where the weak has, initially, the tactical advantage of choosing the target, the means and the moment – impossible and unworkable. The confrontation against an openly extremist and religiously driven terrorist group was supposed to be unlimited in time and geography. Thus, the distinction between war and peace became erased. There was the beginning of perpetual war on American terms.
Guantánamo; Abu Ghraib; the Patriot Act; enhanced interrogation techniques; extraterritorial abduction; extrajudicial executions; punitive attacks against countries that have not threatened or attacked the United States; the "drone wars" deployed on various Islamic nations; manipulation of international law – all are part of the arsenal of the US anti-terror model. A model which can be temporarily sustained: it "only" requires vast defence budgets, curtailment of domestic rights, a militarised foreign policy, and relocating the violence to its original source – in this case, the Muslim world.
Until now the United States can assert that its strategy has been successful, at least partially. Since 2001 many more Americans have died each year because of tornadoes and lightning strikes than terrorist acts at home and abroad. However, US policy actions – both hardline and softball – have been mostly a failure. American military operations made Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya "failed states". Washington eroded its legitimacy in the Middle East by obsessively supporting Saudi Arabia, the main financier of Sunni jihadism. It also generated more resentment among young and vulnerable segments of the population by constant and massive aerial attacks on Islamic countries. Even if it is not so stated, the underlying premise is that “war” on terrorism and ensuing socio-political chaos in Middle East, north Africa, and central Asia is “manageable”: a new-old Realpolitik that is seriously flawed.
Now France, and Europe behind it, seems anxiously eager to lead the war. In the French case – and maybe this will be replicated elsewhere in Europe – the implicit European model in dealing with terror is being finally abandoned, and the explicit American anti-terror model embraced. against terrorism. Not surprisingly, President Hollande announced wide and drastic legislative changes and relentless battles abroad. More of the same: this, in the end, is a recipe for a larger fiasco.
Unless there is serious rethinking of what is happening both in the west and the Islamic world alike, new declarations of war will not bring peace to either. In the end the only alternative to unjust post-legality and warfare states is improved rule of law and extended welfare state.