October 07, 2006

The Focus of the War on Terror

Tim Montgomery on Talking Politics (this link may only work for a week) has just advanced the thesis that to the traditional politics of economics we should add foreign policy to those traditional topics which win elections. He hypothesised this based on the importance of Iraq within the American elections despite the economic success of the Bush administration- despite what Montgomery argued as another commentator replied to him the economic gains from growth have not been evenly distributed and consequently the election may be more economically based than we thought.

Montgomery may be wrong but why would foreign policy be getting this attention and what kind of foreign policy is getting this attention? What we are seeing is the typical attention to foreign policy garnered during wartime. For example the news is dominated by accounts of the crisis in Iraq, this morning by a statement from the Prime Minister of the UK about Afganistan but unless other countries slide into humanitarian catastrophe they are seldom mentioned. To give a rough idea at 11.48 UK time this morning a search on the Guardian website for the word Iraq produced 37,429 results, Afghanistan produced 12630 results whereas a search for one of the places where a large Islamist terrorist attack has actually happened, Indonesia only produced 4101 results. For a quality paper like the Guardian which reports far more international news than some of its competitors the largest Islamic state in the world is far less interesting than the places in which UK troops are fighting and dying.

What can we infer from this about Tim Montgomery's statement and the wider war on terror? Firstly it is evidently true that within the Guardian at least and via a more anecdotal approach in the UK press and the blogs the Iraq war bulks large in the public mindset but what is also true is that the idea of a war against Islamic terror doesn't. The public don't seem to be interested or the media don't seem to be interested in areas of the Islamic world where British troops aren't fighting, even say an area close to Iraq with large connections to terrorism like Saudi Arabia only produces slightly more (4,970) results than Indonesia. Obviously the interest in Foreign policy that Tim Montgomery talks about is not an interest in the Islamic world or in areas where Islamic terrorism is prominent like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, as much as an interest in the areas that are under occupation.

This bears out a further insight with which I wish to end this blog. Several commentators have labelled this new war, a long war against terrorism. But if we are at war with Islamic terrorism, then in Britain at least that hasn't made the public or the political classes more interested in the Islamic world at last. So for example there is almost no discussion of our policy in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan which risks reproducing the dangers that the neo-cons diagnose in the middle East, no notice has been paid to the seeming incongruity of our policy in the stans to that in the Middle East, even by people critical of the government. This war on terror therefore looks much more limited in focus than it might do from the outside or the speculations of commentators- from the purview of the Western public the war on terror seems to have two aspects the first being domestic Muslims and the dangers associated with them, the second being the particular events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Never let it be said, but the war on terror actually might be a misnomer for our foreign policy concerns at the moment. Despite what they say, the public and media seem, sensible or not, to view the war on terror as a misnomer- for them it stretches not across the whole Islamic world except in a vague way but describes two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and police operations against some crazy people in the West.

In a fascinating addition the Guardian also gives a breakdown by year so that we can see that the number of Indonesian stories has been relatively equal ranging between 300 and 600 stories a year since 1999, whereas stories on Iraq have fluctuated more severely- 800 in 1999, 600 in 2000, rising to 12500 in 2003 during the invasion and falling back since but even then to levels of interest 6 times higher than Indonesia. Iraq therefore wasn't of special interest before we invaded but has become so since and as interest in the violent occupation has faded so public interest has faded.


edmund said...

let's not ignoe the role that Britih peopole being killed plays in driving coverage -and where there are Uk journalsts ready to report as well

good post worth expanding on