One American's Abridged Post-9/11 History
On a gorgeous Tuesday morning five years ago I stood with several co-workers on the roof of an office building in downtown Manhattan and watched in stunned silence as the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, sending great khaki-colored plumes of smoke, dust, and debris shooting across the southern tip of the island. In a daze I drifted to the stairs and out of the building, stepping into a Gothic scene. Dust covered zombies shuffled up from Ground Zero, stopping to catch their breath and stare into the middle distance, eyes wide and mouths half-opened. Buzzing crowds gathered around storefront televisions and radios on Broadway, yearning for the whos and hows and whys while others embraced and conferred in desperate tones. Attacked on its own turf unawares, New York, and America, had been shocked and deeply wounded, and something had to be done.
You might recall the outpouring of sympathy from across the globe (or you may not). Parisian headlines carried condolences and in Germany 200,000 gathered at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to express their sorrow. Palestinians held not one but two candle-lit vigils and in Tehran's largest stadium 60,000 soccer fans and players observed an unprecedented minute's silence in sympathy with the victims. French political analyst Nicole Bacharen summed up the solidarity that swept the world: "At moments like this, we are all Americans."
"International notes of sympathy and empathy are fine,” Rand analyst James Mulvenon responded prophetically at the time. “But what will separate those who are with us from those who are against us is military action."
And so it has passed that the bellicose rhetoric and mostly unjustified, Islam-trained aggression of American foreign policy that followed has erased that great goodwill and exacerbated already-extant tensions with the Muslim world. Numerous major terror attacks and the combative belligerence and often ignoble proclamations on the part of Muslim leaders have also fanned these fires, and, as a result, the intervening five years have left that 21st century sword of Damocles, the long-feared clash of civilizations, hanging by a thread.
The Trouble Deepens
When the U.S. sought to retaliate that October with the toppling of Afghanistan’s Taliban, most developed nations were behind the move. Syria, North Korea, and Iran predictably sounded the first discordant notes, and as the US’ widespread and seemingly indiscriminate bombing raids led to vast civilian deaths condemnations poured in from the United Nations, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders, prodding Donald Rumsfeld to trot out that infamous term of obfuscation, “collateral damage,” and signaling the great tides of diversionary rhetoric soon to flow from the Bush administration.
But if Afghanistan was a grenade to global American approbation, the invasion of Iraq was an atomic blast. The Bush team linked then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and claimed he had great stockpiles of weapons capable of mass destruction, both of which represented imminent threats to the United States and both of which history has since Swiss-cheesed. In a reversal of post-9/11 solidarity, protest marches from New York to Chicago, London to Paris, Damascus to Sydney, Tokyo to Milan and beyond, tens of millions of demonstrators expressed vehement opposition to the US’ planned preemptive war. France and Germany, which had so eloquently shared New York’s sorrow, stood out as America’s most vocal detractors. Yet shock and awe was unleashed on Iraq in March 2003, a point in time future historians may mark as the beginning of the end for American hegemony.
The World Today
Recent developments in five key stories traceable to 9/11 provide an excellent overview of the current global situation.
1. Rising sectarian violence has reached a new post-invasion peak in Iraq, with a fifty-one percent rise in casualties among Iraqis in the past three months alone and more than 3,000 killed each month, according to a US Defense Department report released last week. “This is reality catching up with Rumsfeld and the Pentagon,” said Brookings Institution military analyst Michael O’Hanlon. Where there was once no Al Qaeda, the cells are now legion, prodding Bin Laden to dub the struggle in Iraq the “third world war…a war of destiny between infidelity and Islam. The whole world is watching this war and it will end in victory and glory or misery and humiliation.” Far from the stable democracy Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the neo-conservatives envisioned, Iraq is embroiled in a civil war with global ramifications.
2. Afghanistan’s 2006 poppy crop, estimated last week by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime at a record 6100 metric tons of opium, or ninety-two percent of world supply, is certain to please heroin addicts, poppy farmers, and the warlords expecting a piece of the action. This is an increase of nearly sixty percent from 2005 for a trade that accounts for over one third of Afghanistan’s economy and continues to bankroll insurgent elements. Five years after the toppling of the Taliban, three years into the Hamid Karzai regime, and months after NATO took over security responsibilities from coalition forces, the Taliban is resurgent and much of Afghanistan is a warlord-ruled, chaos-rife narco-state. Oft-lauded US anti-terror ally Pakistan essentially ceded parts of its Afghan-bordering North Waziristan province to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in a just-inked truce, giving Osama bin Laden and his co-horts their own private mountain redoubt. "This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," the U.S. top narcotics official admitted. "We have seen what can come from Afghanistan, if you go back to 9/11. Obviously the U.S. does not want to see that again."
3. For most of the Muslim world, this summer’s Israeli-Lebanon war was a shorter, more satisfying sequel to the Afghanistan-USSR conflict that ended the Cold War. Islamic radicals fought and essentially defeated a great global power, even if by proxy, and a charismatic, militant, devoutly Muslim leader (bin Laden then, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah today) stood up to a regional and international bully, sending his status through the roof. The fallout included an Israeli investigation into military failures, a Saudi Arabia that had urged other Arab states to be careful of Hezbollah when the Israel-Lebanon crisis was brimming suddenly dissatisfied with the U.S., and the exact opposite of stated intentions – a more vigorous Hezbollah and Iran. The over one thousand Lebanese casualties brought accusations of war crimes from the UN and increased international opprobrium.
4. Opinion within the US reveals increasing disapproval of the Bush administration and its war on terror, as over half of Americans support neither the Iraq War, their president, nor the linkage between Saddam and Al Qaeda. In an online interview this week, Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh said, “By going to war, instead of criminalizing what Osama bin Laden and his minions did—there’s no question that, in terms of military operations, this is the worst government in the history of America.” As if on cue, the World Citizens Guide, a pamphlet recently published by the Texas-based nonprofit Business for Diplomatic Action in the hope of ameliorating anti-Americanism, blithely underscores the faults of US’ post-9/11 leadership. The document offers Americans traveling abroad diplomatic insights the American president could take to heart: dialogue instead of monologue; be proud, not arrogant; check the atlas; talk about something besides politics; and keep your word.
5. Polling data published recently by Harris and the Pew Global Attitudes Project reveals considerable drops in US esteem across Europe and the Middle East. Out of the five most powerful European nations, according to the Harris Poll, only Italians believe the US is not the greatest threat to global stability. And overall polling data found that nearly twenty-five percent more pollsters believed the US more dangerous than Iran. Since 9/11, outbreaks of Muslim violence, deadly terror attacks, and/or major arrests have occurred in the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany, and just this past week authorities arrested accused plotters in Denmark – Europeans may well blame these new problems with recent US foreign policy. Less than one quarter of Spain’s populous holds a favorable opinion of the US, according to Pew, and Turkish regard has dropped from over half to a mere twelve percent.
Turkey Turns Away
Often cited as the very type of democratic, secular, and Muslim nation the US would like to import to the Middle East, Turkey has long served as vibrant evidence of the Western argument that Muslim nations could willingly and successfully embrace democratic institutions. But this bridge between the West and the Muslim world is crumbling, mainly because of American foreign policy, making Turkey the new poster boy for the world’s post-9/11 attitudinal adjustment.
Since the American-led and UK-supported invasion of Iraq, the Turks have turned away not only from the U.S. but from long-sought EU-membership. Instability in its mainly Kurdish southeast, which borders the predominantly Kurdish northern-most province of Iraq, has ignited separatist sentiments among Turkey’s 15 million Kurds. Turkish leaders fear chaos in Iraq could lead to renewed calls for an independent Kurdistan, with the blame placed squarely on American shoulders.
The latest Transatlantic Trends survey, released last week, confirms this development. Favorable U.S. opinion has dropped twenty-five percent in the past two years while views of Iran have received a similar bounce in the same span. Perhaps even more telling is the data regarding Iran’s tough stance on the nuclear issue: approximately forty percent of Americans and Europeans approve of the use of force to keep Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, compared to only ten percent of Turks polled, more than half of whom approved of an Iran with nuclear weapons. These figures become more chilling considering that in his landmark work, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Coming World Order,” Samuel Huntington cited Turkey as a potential barometer of West-Islam relations. “At some point, Turkey could be ready to give up its frustrating and humiliating role as a beggar pleading for membership in the West and to resume its much more impressive and elevated historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West.” That time may be nigh.
Fighting the Bad Fight
How have we arrived at such a tangle of crisscrossing anguish? One reason is America’s military aggressiveness, to be sure, but its tin ear, which invariably results in uninformed rhetorical bombast, does not help. In a speech in Washington last week Bush reiterated his latest theme: “Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say? America and our coalition partners have made our choice. We're taking the words of the enemy seriously. We're on the offensive. We will not rest. We will not retreat. And we will not withdraw from the fight until this threat to civilization has been removed.”
This is a slightly different iteration of Bush’s post-9/11 “for us or against us” paradigm, which reduces the world to black and white, good and evil, painting people as either secular, democratic and Western-leaning or wrong-headed, fascist and terror-plotting, whereas in reality over half the world’s population fall somewhere in between. The fascist analogy has been torn to shreds elsewhere, and the reference to communism not only brings to mind precisely the kind of global conflict the US should seek to avoid but also links today’s terrorists with an ideologically powerful popular revolt that controlled a large chunk of the world for some 70 years. One of the primary goals of any terrorist group is getting their opponents to overestimate their importance, and here once again is Bush falling into that trap. What’s more, a US on the offensive is precisely what Islamic terrorists want, Americans playing the bully, the big kid on the block who knocks around his smaller neighbors; the belligerence and the resulting death count are excellent recruitment tools.
“For decades,” Bush continued, “American policy sought to achieve peace in the Middle East by pursuing stability at the expense of liberty. The lack of freedom in that region helped create conditions where anger and resentment grew and radicalism thrived and terrorists found willing recruits.” Yet America’s universalist pretensions, its continued reliance on military means, and a surfeit of dead Muslims are creating those same conditions today.
Indeed, the Bush team and its allies have since 9/11 sought to drive their enemies into submission by hitting them atop the head with a stone. The blunt objects of traditional warfare – technologically advanced as Bradley fighting vehicles, killer drones, and laser-guided cluster bombs may be, they are but bombs, planes, and tanks – have not only wrought immeasurable physical damage on the infrastructure, humanity, and psyche of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, but have also provided great grist for the terrorist mill. At least 100,000 dead civilians in Iraq and increasing local animus with inadequate NATO forces in Afghanistan do nothing to bolster the image of America in the Muslim world. And the pictures of slaughtered Lebanese civilians that shot around the globe in July and August were a public relations bonanza for Hezbollah that contributed significantly to leader Hassan Nasrallah’s burgeoning esteem.
Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has consistently endeavored to build the better slingshot. Call it cowardly if you must, but hijacking planes and using them as giant missiles was a brilliant tactical innovation. And the recently uncovered UK terror plot in which operatives had planned to combine several innocuous fluids to build bombs while in flight revealed a terrorist network constantly looking for new and unpredictable means of destruction.
Much of the reasoning behind stodgy American policy can be found in the White House’s newly-updated National Strategy for Combating Terror (available in full at www.whitehouse.gov), which argues “the long-term solution for winning the War on Terror is the advancement of freedom and human dignity through effective democracy… Effective democracies honor and uphold basic human rights, including freedom of religion, conscience, speech, assembly, association, and press...are responsive to their citizens, submitting to the will of the people. Effective democracies exercise effective sovereignty and maintain order within their own borders, address causes of conflict peacefully, protect independent and impartial systems of justice, punish crime, embrace the rule of law, and resist corruption…They are the long-term antidote to the ideology of terrorism today. This is the battle of ideas.”
More than a decade ago Huntington warned of precisely such efforts, writing that these same ideals “make Western civilization unique, and Western civilization is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique. The principal responsibility of Western leaders, consequently, is not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West, which is beyond their declining power, but to preserve, protect, and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization.”
President Bush has done just the opposite since taking office – spending lavishly on foreign wars, slashing taxes, and overextending his armed forces in supporting a new and more aggressive form of American exceptionalism. Like a Rip van Winkle who dozed off at the dawn of the Clausewitzian era, the Bush team has blindly maintained its reliance on military might to impose their will even as Europeans and Americans have begun to apprehend vast cultural differences. The Transatlantic Trends survey shows only one-third of Americans and a mere quarter of Europeans support the use of military force in promoting democracy abroad. What’s more, fifty-six percent of Americans and Europeans believe their form of democracy is not compatible with Islam.
This weakened US, then, is in for a long slog, not only because Islamic societies are inherently different from the West, but more importantly because they intend to stay that way. Regardless of its sectarian form, the reaffirmation of Islam exploding across the earth’s mid-section is also a repudiation of Western influence upon local politics, society, and morals.
A Dearth of Good Leadership
As this Islamic resurgence is not entirely open-minded and benevolent, the blame for the current loggerheads cannot be placed solely at the feet of the US. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, who in the past year have risen to pre-eminence in the Muslim world, the former for his defiance of the West in regards to nuclear armament and the latter for beating back an Israeli army long viewed as an unstoppable regional juggernaut, have played key roles in bringing the world closer to the brink.
Although the recent Israeli bombardment of south Lebanon may well have been disproportionate, pronouncements such as the following make it difficult for a sober-minded 21st century adult to join Hezbollah’s fight: “We will win because the Jews love life,” said Nasrallah in early August, “and we love death.” Similar words had been uttered previously by bin Laden and his terror-minded ilk, but these were so patently unnecessary and obviously inaccurate as to make one question Nasrallah’s sincerity, if not sanity. If you love death than why did you not embrace it when Israelis offered it to you on a platter? August news reports from New York to Mumbai were reporting how the Arab street and the Muslim tide had swelled behind Hezbollah and its increasingly powerful and popular leader. Why? Because Hezbollah had been so staunch and stealthy in the face of Israeli aggression, because they had fought well and survived, embracing life. Nasrallah later clarified his remark: “Regardless of how the world has changed after 11 September, death to America will remain our reverberating and powerful slogan, 'Death to America.'" This specifies the very sort of death Hezbollah loves, but it is not a statement from which harmony and understanding might flower.
Similarly, Ahmadinejad delivered this message to the American people in July: "If you would like to have good relations with the Iranian nation in the future, bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender. If you don't accept to do this, the Iranian nation will force you to surrender and bow down." And now the Iranian president is bent on an ideological cleansing, purging his nation’s colleges and universities of all liberal and secular professors.
That Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad are in cahoots is not surprising, but one would hope the Islamic resurgence could hang its hat on more cogent, sober and inspiring words of wisdom. Where is the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk for this century?
Neither is it a surprise that these two can make such dull and blandly ignorant statements as those above and still be as revered as they are in the Muslim world, by both extremists and moderates. Because they stood up to Israel, and particularly the U.S., the country that attacked and decimated Iraq unjustifiably, in violation of the UN and against the wishes of millions. Further, bruised by the end of the Caliphate five hundred years ago and subsequent centuries of imperialism, subjugation, and West-backed autocracies, a deeply rooted animus towards the US and Britain is burned into Muslim hearts. In the last five years the US, UK, and Israel have merely fanned the embers.
Osama bin Laden has for his part stepped back from the spotlight in recent years, increasingly ceding MC duties on Al Qaeda’s regular video releases to his second in command, Ayman Al Zawahiri. The leading terror organization even tapped a former infidel, converted American Jew Adam Gadahn, to deliver its most recent message in early September. In the video, Gadahn urged Americans to "surrender to the truth,” convert to Islam, and "join the winning side.” One is reminded of the rhetoric of the leader of Gadahn’s homeland.
The lone voice of eloquent near-reason has been British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but riding shotgun with Bush and American foreign policy has compromised his position and erased what understanding he may have engendered in the Muslim world. The UK has thus emerged as Europe’s top terror target and almost three-quarters of recently polled British believed the nation’s foreign policy is to blame, prodding Blair to announce last week that he will resign in late spring 2007.
In this war, then, no promising leader has emerged from any quarter. Instead of reason, restraint, and understanding, we have insults, threats, and ignorance. Two goons brawling in a back alley, a bar fight between drunken belligerents, one angry and dimunitive and occasionally crafty, the other a lumbering, thick-skulled ox attempting a lobotomy with a crowbar. Is it to this we have evolved? Is this how the world ends?
Shifting Gears, Moving Forward
In increasingly tense times, a look to two historical anniversaries of peace may help light the way.
One hundred years ago to the day – September 11, 1906 – an Indian lawyer working in South Africa kick-started a movement that would change the world. At a political meeting in Johannesburg, Mohandas K. Gandhi took from his countrymen the first oaths of what would become satyagraha, literally a firmness in truth but more accurately a categorical commitment to nonviolent resistance. I’m not so idealistic as to expect international relations to become a forum for Gandhian nonviolence, but leaders of Islam and the West would be wise to consider the Mahatma’s philosophy: “the nonviolence of my conception is more active and more real fighting than retaliation, whose very nature is to increase wickedness.” India’s sober response to the July bomb blasts in Mumbai, which could certainly inform both Western and Islamic policymakers, bear out this belief.
And fifty years ago a Canadian diplomat serving at the U.N. helped defuse Western-Islam animus when he brokered an agreement between the U.S., Europe, Israel, and Egypt to end the crisis over the Seuz canal. Lester Pearson, who later served two terms as Canadian Prime Minister, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, with the Nobel panel claiming he had “saved the world.” One could be sure that realizations such as the following, uttered years previous, played a part. “It would be absurd to imagine that these new political societies coming to birth in the East will be replicas of those with which we in the West are familiar; the revival of these ancient civilizations will take new forms.” It is precisely such new forms that the West must be willing to accept, for our divergences are integral to our civilizations.
The cultures of Islam and the West diverge at numerous points, making each glorious in its own way; the democratic institutions of the US, France, and the UK on the one hand and those of Afghanistan, Lebanon, Mali, and Turkey on the other bear this out. An understanding and an acceptance of these separations is necessary, but so too is an appreciation of shared values. The importance of family, friendship, and community, the need for education, adequate food and decent healthcare are common across humanity. The US should commit to reconstruction in war-torn areas and increase its partnerships with Muslim and non-Muslim NGO’s and humanitarian organizations to foster development and human rights in less-developed parts of the Muslim world. And after gruesome beheadings and deadly terror attacks in Amman, Istanbul, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the Muslim majority is maintaining a significant distance from terror organizations – Pew’s Global Attitudes Project reveals decreasing support for suicide bombing in Jordan, Pakistan, and Indonesia – offering another opening for Western leaders to communicate with Islam, about the threat of terrorism. Such a dialogue needs to be sincere from both sides of the divide. Ahmadinejad has offered to debate President Bush during his visit to the UN General Assembly this month. There is little reason to expect Bush to take the offer seriously, but why not take him up on it? Little harm could be done, and much could be gained from a friendly parley.
In fighting terror, the US must alter its methods of foreign policy in order to avoid sparking further, deeper, deadlier conflagrations. By relying less on the hawkish, blinders-wearing Defense Department and leaning more on the crime-solving abilities of the Central Intelligence Agency and the diplomatic solutions of State, the American stance could be softened without compromising security. Instead of military means, a renewed reliance on inventive intelligence gathering and advanced surveillance technologies should be the chief means of counter-terrorism. Instead of crusading condemnation, a softer tone would likely result in less animosity, and a touch of empathy might ultimately lead to a better understanding of the root causes of terror, for only he who knows his enemy can defeat him.
As an American and a New Yorker, the events of 9/11 were painful, but the ensuing five years of awesome failures and disheartening fallout from the current US leadership’s international actions have been even more so. Last week’s ho-hum global response to Bush’s confirmation of the use of secret prisons to detain terror suspects is an expression of precisely how much things have changed since 9/11. The world no longer expects greatness or high moral standards of America. Today such ethical breaches from the US instead garner a “what else is new?” global shrug. The fingerprints of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln, on America’s social and political institutions are fading fast.
Yet the opportunity to alter American foreign policy, salve Islamic wounds, and vastly improve the global outlook is still before us. Allowing each other to embrace, ensure, and protect our cultural, political, and religious differences while engaging in constructive dialogue on shared concerns will help ease the looming threat of a cultural clash, and make 9/12 seem not so very far away.