16 MARCH 2002, Page 14

Rosemary Righter says that anti-Americans

in Britain and Europe have no understanding of the war in which we are all engaged

ON the night of 11 September, I had a long-standing date to dine with someone I hadn't seen in years: a rich and rather beautiful Arab-speaking American dilettante, deeply ignorant about the Middle East and avidly attached to the Arab cause. I'd expected dinner to be over by the time I finally got there; but I wasn't, at the end of that agonising day, prepared for the purr of triumph around the table. I sloped off after a few minutes. One of the guests, a Brit, cadged a lift. The car was moving quite fast when he said, 'Rosemary, isn't it marvellous to think that the arrogant bloody Americans have finally got it in the neck?' Involuntarily, I braked. Hard.

I did not, and still do not, believe that this crass and frivolous triumphalism is shared even by many Arabists, let alone by most British people. In Egypt. earlier this month, I certainly found no trace of it. For practically every family there, the Islamist massacre of tourists at Luxor in 1997 was a disaster; everyone knows someone whose livelihood was wrecked. Last September's atrocity again emptied Egypt of visitors; significantly, trade began to pick up almost from the moment that America forced out the Taleban. Most Egyptians, even those who are fundamentalist Muslims, understand why Islamist terror is war at its unholiest, and why it threatens their social and economic survival; whatever they think about Israel, the Palestinians, or the American way of life, is secondary. In this battle they want and need Washington to stay the course; their main fear is that it will not.

It should be our fear, too. Eleven of the 19 suicide hijackers spent time in Britain; they plotted in Hamburg, Milan, Manchester and Paris. This hostile conspiracy found in European cities and suburbs a general welcome, space, privacy and financial support that is completely chilling. Genoa was a target before New York. 'We are all Americans now', the Le Monde headline on 11 September, is in this sense literally true. Yet this fear seems not to be shared — or not to be as strong as a swelling resentment of 'untrammelled' American power. It is not the least of the oddities of this open-ended confrontation that American intervention is courted,

not denounced, in al-Qa'eda territory, in Yemen and even in Sudan; it is to the salons and newsrooms of Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and to places such as the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, that you must go to hear these words: 'What is the threat? It is the United States.'

America-bashing is in fashion as it has not been since Vietnam. If this were just a case of the usual suspects — visceral anti-Americans such as John Pilger or Tony Benn's hoary old Labour coterie — Tony Blair could shrug off the label of 'Bush's poodle'. But it is politically another matter to be accused across the spectrum of 'slavish clinging' to America's coat-tails by Cold War 'realists' such as Professor Sir Michael Howard (whose lofty view was that by now, 11 September would be 'remembered only as history'); by high Tories and normally staunch Atlanticists; by articulate Little Englanders — among whom I dejectedly include Matthew Parris of this parish — and, though this is hardly surprising, by Europe-firsters whom Blair is, for other reasons, desperately anxious to keep on side.

Is everyone out of step but little Tony? The carping about American arrogance has got louder since Bush's 'axis of evil' speech in January. That speech could have been better flagged, better phrased and less assertive about American readiness to act alone; Bush tried to redress the balance this week. But when Bush identified 'rogue states' as integral to the complex terrorist threat, he was not actually changing the subject. Saddam Hussein is no man of God; but he shares the Islamist goal of humiliating America and driving it out of the Middle East. It is no mere vanity that drives him to amass and conceal biological and chemical agents, nuclear warheads and missiles. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair: you do not build a bicycle to weigh butter; you build it to ride it.

Papers littering al-Qa'eda hide-outs reveal how hard bin Laden's agents tried to get hold of these things. Iraq could help. Bush put it rather better this week: 'Men with no respect for life must never be allowed to control the ultimate instruments of death.' But there is no 'axis' in the Nazi sense, and the word's historical associations gave the wrong impression of the kind of 'total war' that terrorists wage.

Behind the fuss about the State of the Union address lies a resurgent anti-Americanism that no amount of US coalitionbuilding — and there has been far more of it than Washington's critics admit — has been able to dispel. America is never less loved in Europe than when, at the height of the Cold War and again today, it is angry, determined, and certain that it is in the right. Its strengths, economic as well as military, are never more distrusted than when Europe needs them most. The new American mood of national conviction jars. It embarrasses. It stirs ancient Athenian antipathies to the new Rome. Taunts that Bush was tilting at windmills, with Blair as his lance-bearer, could be heard in this country even before the fires died in Manhattan.

The initial criticisms went like this. It was naive of America to swear to fight back until 'the roots of terrorism have been destroyed'. Naive, and dangerous too. Patient detective work — the adjective goes with the noun like donkey and cart — was the best defence; but any resort to emergency powers would set the law against the law in an unacceptable erosion of civil liberties. Democracy would go down to defeat and bin Laden would have 'won'. Over-reaction would 'dignify' terrorism.

This totally misreads the character of terrorism. It works by traumatising entire societies; until terrorist cells are physically disabled, they will seek to pile atrocity on atrocity. To treat attacks as insignificant is not an option. That was what Italy learnt with the Red Brigades; but only after an Italian prime minister was abducted and murdered.

More scorn was heaped on America's frontal attack on al-Qa'eda's Afghan strongholds. Far from taming fanatical Islam. avenging the innocent in 'innocent blood' would play the terrorists' game. multiply the number of followers ready to avenge the 'martyrs', and make Samuel Huntingdon's 'clash of civilisations' a reality. The campaign would drag on as inconclusively as did the Soviet attempt to subdue Afghanistan; and the catastrophic result of America's engagement in a 'second Vietnam' would be an Islamist revolution in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Would there have been as many armchair fatalists if Piccadilly Circus or Montmartre had been levelled on a crowded Saturday night? My necessarily tentative answer is yes, quite probably, for one reason: Britain and France. Europe's only credible military powers, could not have taken the war to the enemy unless the US decided that this was the 'attack on all' that Nato declared the assault on American soil to be. Blair grasped that immediately. That is why he will not now retreat from America's side. That is why he is right not to do so.

This extra, and deeply uncomfortable, sense of Europe's vulnerability has brought on the current fit of anti-American sulking. American power, and the will to project it, has been demonstrated yet again to be vital to European security. Bin Laden exposed the hollowness of European Union pretensions to military autonomy, just when it had laid plans to shed the role of attendant lord at an American pageant.

Six months on, the sceptics have been discomfited. The Afghan campaign is unfinished, but America's power to uproot regimes that do business with terrorists has been well demonstrated. It is too early to be sure that the 'demonstration effect' will work everywhere, but Pakistan has been emboldened to deal robustly with the Islamist enemies within its own gates. Contrary to predictions that the Afghan campaign might kill a few malignant cells but spread the cancer throughout Islam, the 'Arab street' has been strangely quiet; and quiet, moreover, at a time of horrifying escalation between Israel and the Palestinians. The American position in the Arab world needs more tending; but it is stronger than it has been in years.

America has navigated past the first forbidding rocks. But, the sirens sing, the course it has now set is much more dangerous. Blair appears to have shed his initial doubts about Bush's quest for a 'regime change' in Iraq. He now maintains that Iraq's illegal weapons programme must be decisively destroyed before it is 'too late' and Saddam Hussein is able to use, or to rent out to terrorists, the arsenals he is rebuilding. It is a watershed. Blair's Cabinet is split, his party is brimming with revolt, his country is queasy and his European 'partners' are appalled. He is derided for siding with America, right or wrong, under the pathetic illusion that he can then influence it.

The Americans themselves have as yet no clear idea how to oust Saddam; they are sure only that 'containment' of Iraq has failed. That tactical uncertainty further convinces Bush's critics, and Blair's, that Washington, swelled by its successes in Afghanistan, has lost all sense of proportion about the limits to military power. Bush is accused of playing roulette with world peace for the sake of settling an old score, of diverting the counter-terrorist effort, of ignoring the 'underlying causes' of Islamist extremism, and above all of leaving Palestine to the mercies of Arid l Sharon.

These misinterpretations of American intentions go with the wider failure to understand how the world changed on 11 September. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld is as clear as ever that the unseen armies of fraud experts and computer programmers are as important as braided generals. If Washington has a quarrel with Europeans, it is about refusals to share intelligence and extradite suspected terrorists. Where it can, it has enlisted help, and got it: a quarter of France's nay is serving off Afghanistan.

The American focus on Iraq is deliberate and logical — with respect to Islamist terrorism, but also with respect to Israel. Saddam's decade-long defiance of the UN weakens respect for international law. He applauds Islamist extremists for resorting to terror against Israel. While Saddam endures, Arab leaders will not find the political courage to make genuine peace with Israel — not even if that country were led by the Archangel Gabriel. It is Iraq that is on a confrontation course with the West, not the other way round. Saddam's Iraq is not merely unfinished business; it is a menace of the first order, to the Middle East, to the Western oil supplies that it is his ambition to dominate, to Israel and, ultimately, if he can build missiles with sufficient range. to Europe itself. He must be dealt with or he will deal with us. Blair believes that. He has started to say that. I have not been his admirer, until now; I have thought him weak, deep down. I have not thought him to be much of a strategist. But, in this great emergency, he has raised his game.

The closer war with Iraq comes, the more isolated he will feel. He does not relish isolation. There has always been an anti-American strand in the British establishment, Left and Right. It is one of its 'forces of conservatism'. When Blair talks about these forces, he too often seems to have inchoately in mind 'people who disagree with me'. The rise in anti-Americanism — and, to a lesser extent, anti-Israeli prejudice — may be a chattering-class phenomenon; but it risks distorting the political prism through which Britain's national interest is perceived. Blair must acknowledge this, to counter it effectively. And, if he does so, Conservatives who hate the very thought of his being right must have the courage to support him. Britain's interest is not always identical with America's. But it is now. Blair should wear the badge of loyalty with pride.

Rosemary Righter is chief leader writer of the Times.