Al-Qaida had to be bombed, to let the Taliban be was not an option. When fanatics, inspired by Osama bin Laden, flew airliners packed with people into two of America’s tallest buildings, it was unreasonable to expect otherwise. So, yes, I agree with Anthony Barnett that a “focused military response was essential”.
And yes, I disagree with many of my students and compatriots – with the same vehemence as I did the day after 9/11 – who still see the WTC attack as just retribution against the US for having aided Israel, the dispossessor and tormentor of Palestinians.
But have we – meaning Barnett and me and the many millions who were appalled by the mass murder of innocents – been taken for a ride? Was our unequivocal condemnation, and the horror we felt, cynically capitalized upon to create a New Imperial Order? As the drums of war start a frenzied beat, and America’s mighty armadas move to crush Iraq, it is time to step back into history for a moment and reflect.
Flush from its Cold War victory, the mighty US military machine had diligently searched for new enemies. At best, success had been partial. Condoleezza Rice’s Foreign Affairs article from 2000 begins with this declaration: “The United States has found it exceedingly difficult to define its ‘national interest’ in the absence of Soviet power.”
Her frustration was understandable. Imagine yourself at the Pentagon with thousands of bombers, fighters, missiles, and ships at your command. You also have 12 aircraft carrier groups, each a floating garrison city built for dealing massive death and destruction in any part of the globe. Surrounded by cruisers, submarines, and supply ships, they are indestructible by the forces of all countries of the world put together. But, apart from taking potshots at Iraqi targets, there was little for the carrier groups to do. These super-juggernauts had a clear mission – to safeguard the Empire and its lines of supply. But extended inaction had made their frightful power fade from the world’s consciousness.
When bin Laden’s maniacs assaulted the symbols of American power, they gave to the Empire what it had secretly yearned for – an end to the era of undeclared imperialism. For the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz team the burning towers provided a transformative moment, a chance to fundamentally change American doctrine.
It was time to discard the velvet glove; America’s iron fist would now be law. International treaties and courts had no more utility – all agreements could be discarded unless they specifically promoted US interests. The Pentagon, which hit a 48 billion dollar jackpot, would ensure that now Imperial America could go it alone. No longer, as the leaked Nuclear Posture Review made apparent, would the US necessarily desist from using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear adversary. Indeed, several US newspapers had run editorials saying that using nuclear weapons against Muslim countries would be justified if terrorists killed so much as one more American.
Most Americans would like to believe that their renewed militarism is no more than “injured innocence”, a natural response of any victim of terror. They implicitly repudiate the notion that America is, or even desires, being different from other countries of the world. “Empire” bears a negative connotation in their lexicon. Liberal intellectuals like Van Wishard of the Coudert Institute are more forthcoming – “we are perceived, at a minimum, as an empire of influence”, he says. Nevertheless, he maintains: “That said, in my view no great nation has used its power as generously and with as little intention of territorial gain as has America.”
Alas, the only ones capable of making this considerable leap of faith are Americans. Middle Eastern oil – and now the promise of securing Central Asia’s oil – has long driven US policies. The most murderous of dictators – Suharto of Indonesia, Raza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, Pinochet of Chile, Marcos of Philipines, Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, and many more – have been the firmest of US allies.
The lack of scruple and the pursuit of power by the United States combined fatally with this tide in the Muslim world in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With Zia ul-Haq as America’s foremost ally, the CIA openly recruited Islamic holy warriors from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Algeria. Radical Islam went into overdrive as its superpower ally and mentor funneled support to the mujahiddin; Ronald Reagan feted them on the White House lawn. Voila: bin Laden and his ilk.
Generosity? Yes, the US was generous to Europe and Japan after WWII. But US foreign aid to developing countries – except Israel and Egypt – has been essentially a pittance over the last 3 decades or more. Europe, on the contrary, with a much smaller combined GNP provides far more assistance to developing countries. This mean spiritedness is nowhere more apparent than in Afghanistan, a country twice devastated by US interventions over 2 decades, which is now being told by George Bush that if it wants to rebuild highways then it must do so by taking loans. Earlier promises of a Marshal Plan for Afghanistan have all but disappeared.
Americans will have to accept that their triumphalism and disdain for international law are creating enemies everywhere, not just among Muslims. Therefore they must become less arrogant and more like other peoples of this world. American people must resist the temptation to define the world in terms of their own narrow interests – a better world is worth it even if they have to pay a little more for gas in their SUVs.
America’s nemesis, bin Laden, is in all probability dead. But Al Qaida’s greatest strength is patience, a belief in the eternal and the rewards of paradise. So they are grimly content to wait in the shadows, to gain in death what could never be achieved in life. Al-Qaida’s militants and their likes are happiest with primitives like George W. Bush – he speaks their language of good versus evil, and force as the weapon of choice. They will surely gain if the US unleashes carnage upon Iraq, a country with no plausible link to Al-Qaida, because it will eventually bring to them a flood of recruits.
Despicable as bin Laden and his henchmen are, they do not have the power to flatten cities. September 11 was horrendous but it was only one snapshot of history, and history is an infinite gallery of crimes committed by the human race against itself. A global, democratic, secular, humanistic identity must soon replace the twin evils of imperial domination and religion. Else we perish.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. This comment was invited by the editors of www.openDemocracy.net