Terror at home affects West’s view of Middle East
London - All news is local, as the journalistic saying goes. It is a recognition that audiences tend to relate to events halfway around the world broadly to the extent that they affect their own lives.
Public interest in day-to-day turmoil in the Middle East, for example, tends to peak in the United States and Europe whenever it is identified as the driver of Islamist terrorism that threatens the West.
When a lone attacker drove a car into pedestrians near Britain’s parliament in March before stabbing a policeman to death, the incident understandably dominated headlines and airtime in Britain and the rest of Europe. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, even though its direct links with the British-born perpetrator, a Muslim convert, appear to have been non-existent.
Among the Western public, this ostensibly Islamist-inspired act of terror in Europe eclipsed the news that week from Iraq of the death of possibly hundreds of civilians in what are being investigated as likely accidental coalition air strikes intended for ISIS targets in war-ravaged Mosul.
That is not to say that the civilian casualties, or indeed their likely cause, were played down by either the media or the public in Europe and the United States.
London-based Amnesty International was prominent in highlighting the circumstances and consequences of the coalition strikes and it launched a petition to urge the US and Iraqi governments to protect Iraqi civilians.
It is just that the London attacks grabbed the bigger headlines.
Although polls show much of Western public opinion is driven by humanitarian concerns about the plight of civilians, they also indicate widespread unease about the extent to which Western military involvement in the region might further encourage ISIS retaliation against Western targets.
This mood of public caution dates back more than a decade. In the messy aftermath of the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was little appetite in the West for further military adventures.
Former US president Barack Obama won office in 2008 partly on a promise to a war-weary electorate that he would wind down US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. That led to what his critics at home and in the Middle East came to regard as a hands-off approach in the face of a deteriorating situation in Syria, a stance that arguably allowed Russia’s decisive September 2015 entry into that conflict to save Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Elsewhere in the West, there was an equal desire not to get involved. On the day before British lawmakers refused in 2013 to approve the government’s plan to launch air strikes on Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, an opinion poll indicated two out of three Britons also opposed such action.
After ISIS fighters swept across Iraq in 2014, opinions hardened somewhat in light of their reported treatment of the people they had conquered and their bloodthirsty oppression of captives and minorities.
However, both the rise of ISIS and its subsequent territorial decline fuelled fears in the West of further terrorist attacks at home, carried out by returning fighters or home-grown fanatics inspired by ISIS ideology.
Such fears have been exploited by an unholy alliance of ISIS itself and vociferous anti-immigration movements in the West that, for their own domestic motives, have attempted to stoke concerns about immigrants in general and Muslims in particular.
During the referendum campaign on whether Britain should leave the European Union, some on the “leave” side played on fears about immigration, with one group issuing a poster featuring a column of Middle Eastern refugees heading for Europe.
Elected governments must take account of changing public opinion even if they do not always follow its dictates.
US President Donald Trump’s promise to “smash ISIS” went down well with many of his voters but might prove less attractive if it involves a cost in American treasure and troops. Perhaps that explains some of the imprecision surrounding current US policy in the Middle East or at least a reluctance to discuss it too much. The less the public knows, the less it is likely to object.
It is perhaps in that spirit that the American administration has stopped revealing detailed information about US military involvement in Syria and Iraq.
The US Defense Department said this is a deliberate measure to hinder the enemy. Sceptics say it is to keep the American public in the dark. But at the same time the Trump administration is playing down an inevitable strengthening of the US military in Iraq while the campaign against ISIS plays out, it is also signalling that its commitment will be limited in the aftermath.
As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told fellow members of the international coalition in March: “We are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction.” That is a position that may find favour among many in the West who would like to insulate themselves from the Middle East’s problems.
The challenge is that events halfway around the world may still come to adversely affect their lives if their governments fail to play their part towards the region’s long-term stability.