Thus far, we have been perversely fortunate in our counterterrorism attempts. When 9/11 happened, we could point to a state that was openly allied with the terrorists responsible—Afghanistan—and a state that openly celebrated the attacks, was a longstanding enemy of the United States, and was neck-deep in general terrorist nastiness—Iraq. (And yes, paying Palestinian suicide bombers $25,000 to murder Israelis counts as terrorism in my book; so don’t bother with all the obnoxious “no connection to terrorism” blather, it gets you no sympathy at all from me.) Moreover, both of these states were geopolitically vulnerable and relatively easy to conquer and pacify.
Aside from the value of the Iraqi and Afghani wars in and of themselves, they also gave politicians something to point to, to show that they were indeed “doing something” in response to the attacks. This lessened the need (in theory) for government to pull its usual idiocy on the home front, and (should have) allowed it to restrict its response to actions that actually have a practical purpose. (If this is true and they still managed to bungle the Homeland Security debate, imagine what would have happened without the war?)
The wars had an abstract value in geopolitics as well: an attack must be responded to, or else it will encourage further attacks. By invading Afghanistan, we demonstrated that we are willing to hit back, hard. By invading Iraq, we demonstrated that we will not limit our response to those directly responsible, but will clean up the whole fetid swamp of state-sponsored terrorism and totalitarianism if necessary.
But because we have already taken out the easy targets, Britain is left with a difficult situation. Prudence, pride and the long tradition of British defiance in the face of attack demand that the Brits respond with overwhelming force to the London bombings. The question is, where and against whom?
It is difficult to point to particular states that could have actively supported this specific attack; moreover, the remaining state sponsors of terrorism are all much trickier to deal with than was Iraq, for example. Iran, probably the most egregious example, already has the West tied up in knots over how to act. I doubt the mullahs are stupid enough to openly support actual terror operations right now, as opposed to general terrorist infrastructure, so a “case for war” would be difficult to sell.
Britain could conceivably step up its counterterror operations against the world terror networks, which it is probably going to do anyway. But such things are not in the public view, they are not sexy, and they do not produce immediate results. Any Pavlovian will tell you that the longer it takes for an action to get a reaction, the more tenuous the mental connection between action and reaction. As counterterrorism is as much an educational process as anything else, we need somehow to drive the message home.
One conclusion that has generated broad agreement is that Britain has been far too lenient with Muslim extremists and their supporters on British soil. Yet though the British must clean up house, they cannot afford to give the perception that their main response to the attack was to oppress their own Muslim community. This will tie their hands somewhat, unfortunately, and it also makes finding an external enemy all the more urgent.
It will be interesting indeed to see how Tony Blair chooses to respond. I have no persuasive ideas for where the response will be, but the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is an option, as well as Kosovo (a major transit-point for organized crime and terror groups, and practically a failed state after years of suffering the tender attentions of the UN), and Nigeria or other African countries with ties to al-Qa’ida. The next few weeks should be instructive.