Lecture, Maastricht studium Generale, September 13 2011
We all remember the attacks on 9/11. Events like these leave an impression not soon to be forgotten. Even so, in the great scheme of things the attack itself and the almost 3000 dead will become a footnote. The thesis that 9/11 changed everything is way overdone. It can be argued that 9/11 did not change a whole lot but merely fastened or underlined changes already underway.
Let me set the scene that I will in the rest of my lecture hope to illustrate. I will argue that the attacks on 9/11 on New York and Washington were highly symbolic events limited in their direct consequences. If the world has changed since 9/11 it was not as a result of the events as such but as a result of the psychological and political consequences of the attacks. I do not want to sound frivolous or flippant and certainly not disrespectful, but despite the many deaths, nothing much happened that had direct consequences.
That is not to say there were no changes in the United States and the world. The reaction to the attacks have led to the derailment of American domestic and foreign policy and have weakened the position of the most powerful country in the world in a very substantive way. A process of relative loss of power was already well on its way in 2001, but 9/11 led to a temporary loss of sanity in the US, followed by hubris and the inevitable fall, an erosion of hard and soft power, a loss of stature and respect. The American wars in the 21st century were strangely out of sink with the way the world was moving, an aberration, a last convulsion of the American Century, finished now forever.
The post 9/11 world culminated in an event that in its practical and direct consequences will turn out to be much more important than the attacks, the financial disaster of 2008. It was exactly the opposite op the attacks on 9/11, nobody died but the consequences were huge and will be with us for a very long time. Both events are connected, though. That is to say, the reactions to 9/11 set the scene for what happened in 2008. I think that 9/11 qualifies as a catalyst, not a turning point. If the world has really changed post 9/11 it is because the financial crisis of 2008 was a such turning point.
Let me also lay down the thesis that the world in 2011 in many respects would not have looked very different if 9/11 had never taken place. We talk about the major trends here: relative loss of power of the United States, growth in influence and power of China and other emerging economies, weakness of the European Union, entirely predictable in military affairs but surprisingly so in the realm of economics and politics. We would have comparable financial insecurity, economic stagnation and political paralysis. All these things were affected by 9/11 but only indirectly so. No doubt, details would have been different, but not the main picture.
So far, so provocative, maybe. Before I lay out my arguments, let’s go back tot that sunny day in September 2001. You may recall that the presidency of George W. Bush did not look particularly strong in those days. The contested elections of 2000, with the famous 500 vote difference in Florida, made his presidency limited in its claims on a political mandate or even its claims on legitimacy. Nevertheless, Bush had already pushed through the main economic legacy of his presidency: the historic tax cuts. They would automatically run out on december 2010, but he knew that harvest was in. We now know that the lower tax revenues that resulted from these tax cuts were an important reason for the economic mess that we’re in right now. In any case, Bush succeeded in turning around the 800 billion surplus that was foreseen in the budgets for 2002 en later years into enormous deficits.
To the surprise of many Bush had also managed to get an education law through Congress, Leave no Child Behind. He got the assistance of the liberal chief Edward Kennedy, so there was at least the faraway promise of a non ideological, consensus seeking presidency. The economy was so so, still suffering from the effects of the dot com crisis. Bush appeared to be out of his depth, without much of an agenda and without much power. Many of us started to think his would be a one term presidency.
Well, we got two terms and, by any standard, a historic presidency. Thanks to Osama Bin Laden. The attacks on 9/11 gave the president the autorithy and support that he originally lacked. America was united, the presidency the rock on which an uncertain population hoped they could depend. No question, most people were scared, more than they were angry. Remember the anthrax scare, a few weeks after 9/11?
All were ready to support the president and basically the government could do whatever it wanted. Ideologically inspired neoconservatives with an aggressive interventionist, unilateral and hyperpower exploiting agenda took over foreign policy and defence, helped by their hench men Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Domestically Karl Rove and his gang started an aggressive, take no prisoners program to make the Republican Party the entranched party of government. If 9/11 had one direct result, it was the salvation of George W. Bush.
Two observations are important for our perspective. It was a happy accident of political history that the American president on 9/11 was a Republican, not a Democrat. Maybe, just maybe, 9/11 would not have happened under president Al Gore. Most likely he would have paid more attention to the warnings of Richard Clarke, the Clinton anti-terrorism adviser who stayed on under Bush but was largely ignored when he claimed that something major was going on in august 2001. Maybe president Gore would have listened to the director of the CIA at the time, who had partly the same message. I will not go into it. One cannot prove or disprove any of it, apart from acknowledging that some serious failures in intelligence gathering and analysis took place, as the 9/11 Commission has asserted.
Why was it a good thing there was no Democrat anywhere near the White House? It is hard to imagine the grief the Democrats would have come in for from Republican hardliners if a Democrat had been responsible. For decades they would have been without credibility in foreign policy and military affairs. It may well be that a president Gore would have been much more competent under critical circumstances and he certainly would not have started the war in Iraq, but he and his party would have been distroyed by the Republican party and the conservative media conglomerate.
My second observation has to do with the dog that did not bark. Given the government at the time, main stream Republicans with no particular interest in being the world’s policeman, leave alone in nation building, it would not have surprised if a long dormant tendency in the American body politic would have perked up, the old Republican friend: isolationism. After all in his election campaign George Bush had talked about a more modest American foreign policy; he had declared nation building an expensive liberal hobby. Americans post 9/11 could have chosen to turn away from the awful world, to seek revenge but not involvement. There was considerable fear thát this could happen. After all, America felt alone, despite the ‘we are all Americans now’ cry that went up in the world. It felt alone, picked upon, the victim of terrorism against the major participant in the policy of the west.
We should not forget that the motivation of Bin Laden was not to destroy the west or its culture, but at least partly, to scare the west, and particularly the United States, away from involvement in the Middle East. His other goals may have been to lure the US in the Middle East causing the resentful moslims to stand up, to unite and to run to Bin Ladens cause. These goals seem contradictory: to scare away the US and at the same time use the US to engage the moslim masses. I have no short cut to Bin Ladens mind, so I leave his motivation to others. Let me only note that multiple and seemingling contradictory goals are not at all impossible. Let’s not forget that Bin Laden and his gang had their formative experience in the Afghan war against the Sovjet Union. American involvement there was the keystone to Al Qaida and to the next and still continuing Afghan war.
A major thorn in the side of Bin Laden was the continuing American presence in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, despite, it must be added, promises to withdraw. The American friendship with Israel and the unfailling support for whatever the Israeli’s did or did not do was another reason. The attacks on 9/11 were meant to impress upon American that this was not a cost free enterprise, that even the homeland was not secure if the United States insisted on being involved in the rest of the world. It was not too much to assume, for an astute observer of western attitudes as Bin Laden, that the United States would withdraw. The US was not used to being attacked, but the idea that enemies of the US elsewhere in the world would carry American wars to the homeland, does not seem to be exotic. The Germans tried it in two world wars and so did Japan. The Vietnamese would have done it if they could have. And after all, in the Cold War, the US itself was part of the war, mutual destruction assured as much. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown how a country can fight billion dollar wars with thousands of American dead, without the country paying much attention.
However, the primary reaction of the Bush administration was not a quick attack on the perpetrators and then withdrawl, buth something much more extensive. Egged on by the neoconservatives who in their ideological assuredness impressed and overwhelmed a president out of his depth, the Americans went on the attack. The Bush admistration choose a foreign policy that would use American force and American power, both as a confirmation of America’s position as the only hyperpower and as a projectin of that power into the future. This vision claimed that the United States would be able to shape the world, use this opportunity to project a long term neoconservative goal to shape and even create a new reality, based on pure power of will, without ifs and buts, and certainly witout apologies. The world as it had been shaped by the United States, a multilateral complex system that basically benefited the west immensly, was cast aside. International institutions, even international law, were declared useless bagage and immoral restraints on the power of the country that felt it was the only power that could lead the world to eternal bliss. Unilateral was the new keyword.
Fast forward naar 2011. Certainly the world is a different place after 9/11. The real question is how much of that difference is due to 9/11. Would the world be much the same if 9/11 had never happened? I will not argue that, obviously too much snowballed after that awfull day. But I will argue that long term trends have not changed in their direction. Some have slowed, some have fastened, but overall the world in 2011 is not a place that would surprise if one had skipped a decade of observation. Well, the economic weakness would have surprised. We’ll get to that.
Let’s take stock of what has changed. The United States has changed. Fortunately Americans do not go around anymore scared to death about the next attack as they did in the beginning. There never was one, either thanks to good luck, good prevention or because the threat never was as big as it was made out to be. This is the kind of fear that tends to diminish over time, human nature is, luckily, very adaptable. In Holland all the scare mongering about the potential of moslim radicals has not lead to any serious terrorist attack – the assassination of Theo van Gogh does, in my book, not fit that category.
The immediate reaction of the US to 9/11 was the a gargantuan government apparatus. Homeland Security did not exist before 9/11. Now it is the biggest agency with some 220.000 employees and it is an endless grab bag for politicians and states. This explains the absurd high level of spending on homeland security per inhabitant in much threatened Wyoming and South Dakota. Like all bureaucracies, but only more so, Homeland Security is a self sustaining bureaucracy. The scare industry has a vested interest in sustaining a feeling of insecurity. Over time it has lessened somewhat but not nearly enough to make spending commensurate with the actual threat. Needless to say that George W. Bush never asked for any extra offerings to pay for all these goodies.
The security at airports have made flying an unpleasant affair, and, especially in the United States itself, security shows America in all of its majestuous inefficiency. The cost of all this are hard to measure in lost productivity and waste of money. They did create jobs, so much is true. There is no serious accounting of what 9/11 has actually cost, in hard dollars. What we can say that it is a pain inflicted on the United States that was entirely unforeseen by Bin Laden, but in many ways much more damaging than the direct damage in New York.
Impossible to measure in dollars is the damage done by scaremongering against moslims. Even in the United States this unhealthy message has gained ground, undermining much what makes the US a great country. President Bush, much maligned, deserves credit for consistently trying to separate the acts of terrorism from ‘the moslims’ or ‘the islam’. The world wide anti islam movement, as Geert Wilders calls it, has never taken these restraints and the hate message and nonsens care mongering about the imminent arrival of sharia has now also found firm footing in the US. I am afraid that this slow working poison has not yet reached it maximum effect, certainly not with Republican presidential candidates who see political gain in this hate message.
Together and in step with the security bureaucracy the national security policy establishment has gained in power. During the Bush administration vice president Dick Cheney built a parallel structure of the White House security apparatus in his own staff, working together with the Pentagon and the intelligence apparatus when it was useful, operating on his own when it served his interests better. The president nor his staff, the first four years lead by the bureaucratically inept Condooleeza Rice, had no involvement in this apparatus, that succeeded in molding intelligence and policy options. Cheney’s one percent philosophy that every possible risk is a full blow hunderd percent problem, was the norm. Such a philosphy turned into policy is not only expensive and in the long run ineffective since it warns too often to be credible, but is also threathens the open nature of a democratic society. One can discuss that subject from very different angels and with a multitude of proposals, but not with Cheney and Bush who claimed an executive power that was basically unlimited if they felt things needed to be done. They took executive power without control. As happens often, structures that have been installed by one administration stay in place even when there is a change of government or the most obvious threat has disappeared. Unfortunately, the expansive executive vision that Bush and Cheney used, has been adapted by the Obama administration. Of course there always is a question whether the executive must act when it is necessary to act quickly. Abraham Lincoln overreached immensely when the civil war started, but at least he had the excuse that Congress did not convene for another half year. Nowadays executive power should have no time problem in going through the democratic process to legitimize its activities.
Even more destructive over the last decade has been the broad acceptance of violations of international law, of human rights and of simple human dignity by the American administration even, in some cases, when it concerned their own citizens. The average American has no problem at all with prisoners in Guantanamo who have never been arraigned, let alone have been taken to court. They just linger in a judicial limbo that puts America’s values to shame. This is not an executive hobby, in Congress there are no heroes. Politicians refused to try even those terrorists against whom there was a solid case, for fear it would lead to retaliation against their own cities. New York, of all places, did not have the guts to live up to the American norms. The hidden military tribunals are shamefull, the refusal of European countries such as the Netherlands, to accept Guantanamo prisoners that could not go home but should be released, was cowardly. The long term effect will be a corrosion of the standards that mark a free society.
Osama Bin Laden and some authoritarian regimes feel the west is weak, does not defend itself strongly enough and is therefore, inherently vulnerable. Some western policians join in this dangerous thinking and plead for a stronger version of western societies, if necessary turning in rights and freedoms. Necessity, of course, to be determined by the authorities. This is possibly the most dangerous thinkgame that Bin Laden has legitimized. This is the kind of thinking that, while paying tribute to the supereriority of western society, does not acknowledge the inherent strength of a free democratic system. Yes, that system, freedom and democracy, is vulnerable for those who want evil things to happen, but at the same time it is extraordinarily well capable to recover from that kind of evil. Maybe Norway can give an example how this works when ideologues are kept at bay and democracy is allowed to show its strength. The question that Osame Bin Laden has forced upon us is as old as democracy: how much freedom can you turn in to protect your freedom? Unfortunately, the answer of the Dick Cheney’s of this world, men who have no high regard for the essence of democracy, has become the norm: the executive power itself determines how much freedom we will lose, what limits on their freedom citizens will have to accept. Whoever questions the judgement of the Cheney’s of this world, is unpatriottic or even a traitor.
It is safe to assume that without 9/11 the United States would not have started a war against Afghanistan or maybe I should say a war in Afghanistan, since it is, by now unclear who we are fighting or what we are fighting for. Give the history of that unhappy land and the American involvement in helping the mujehadin and than leaving the country in the lure, is is quite possible that some engagement on Afghanistan soil would have happened. Some muddling through, some trying to undermine Al Qaida cells and a sustained effort to undermine the Taliban government. President Clinton did as much in the late nineties, but in all our pre 9/11 innocence, he held back when there was a risk of civilian casualties. The Cheney gang took him to task for it, called him weak and indecisive. I am not sure whether it is progress that we do not have those inhibitions anymore. No president, certainly not Barack Obama, shrinks back for extensive use of drones, no matter how many civilians perish.
The US did go into Afghanistan when the Taliban insisted on protecting Osama Bin Laden. Success came quickly, though the Bush though guys managed to let Osama escape from Tora Bora. After Tora Bora and the subsequent focus on Iraq, the United States lost the plot. Now the US, together with the hapless NAVO partners are involved in one of the most selfdestructive operations ever undertaken. The war in Afghanistan has lasted longer than any war in American history – except maybe the low key, long fuse war in the Philippines in the early twentieth century.
One of the big successes of Osama Bin Laden, intended or not, is to have drawn the United States and the west as a whole into that unhappy and hopeless country. The Brits screwed up, the Soviets did and now the US will. To be sure, this was the fault of president Bush. Not only did he allowe Osama to escape, he also missed the opportunity for a fast in and out operation. Mission creep was a given and put the United States and NATO on a track the Bush administration had earlier wished to take it away from: nation building. Not only did Bush let this happen, without much direction, he never got the means to fight the war and stuck the bill and the unsuccesful war to his successor.
President Obama has a war on his hands that he now can claim as his own, after his rash proposition that this was the right war to fight. It will cost him dearly and it will cost NATO dearly to be stuck in a hopeless and painful mission that in the surprisingly thoughtless words of Jaap de Hoof Scheffer, will determin the future of the alliance. Maybe and it does not look good.
Through Afghanistan Pakistan is involved. The United States supported the military regime in Pakistan, gave billions of dollars to the army and has become increasingly aware that they are being played by the Intelligence Service, with its own pro-Taliban agenda. The killing of Osama and the probable knowledge of the army that he was there, underlines the shaky relationship with a nuclear arms possessing country.
Of course we don’t know what would have happened without 9/11 but the debacle in Afghanistan would certainly not have taken this shape and format. Maybe the relationship with Pakistan would always be poisoinous, given the American preference for India, but the country looks increasingly problematic, an accident waiting to happen.
While the war in Afghanistan was a forced one, the war in Iraq was a chosen war. Indeed, without 9/11 it would never have happened. The neoconservative cabal that had been lobbying for years to enact ‘regime change’ in Iraq saw their chances and convinced a president who was inexperienced and hapless in this field to bid their agenda, waiving the all covering flag of democracy in the Middle East starting with Iraq. There was indeed a small window of opportunity to attack Iraq, between 9/11 and the next election campaign, and they used it. The smaller lie was Cheney’s unsubstantiated deceitful claim that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, continued in the face of evidence to the contrary but so often that most Americans believed it. The bigger lie was the presence of weapons of mass destruction that the US claimed were in Saddams possession. Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent on a demeaning and deceitful presentation at the United Nations, CIA director George Tenet claimed the evidence was ‘slam dunk’ but had to admit, too late, that it was all a big mistake, if not an outright lie. The United States let itself furthermore be led by selfpromoting Iraqi refugees, like the treacherous Achmed Chalabi who managed to full many neoconservatives.
The most obvious and painful strategic blunder that the zealots who caused this war was taking out the biggest and most feared enemy of Iran. Taking out Saddam destroyed a painful but stabile regional balance that was much to the advantage of the west, despite its disgust for both regimes. Without Iraq as an enemy, Iran was much safer than before and regionally much enhanced. Although there was much blusterous talk of taking out Iran next, around the time that Bush declared mission completed, after the first scare, Iran realised the benefits of the Americans blundering into another war that was entered too optimisticly. Harder to believe was that in this collusion of strategic stupedity Israel acceded, surprising given their acute realisation that the enemy of your enemy is your best friend.
Overthrowing Saddam was the easy part. Of course the ambitious interventionist agenda that would democratize the Middle East went nowhere. American lives and American capital were spilt without much thought. Bush never asked any offers from the American people and got very few allies to cooperate with the US. American reputation and American discipline were undermined by a poorly led Pentagon that had to use untrained national guards to fight the war, and outsourced a big part of the war to reckless often immoral free lancers that fought essentially a dirty war. And a very ineffective one at that. Al Qaida found a haven in Iraq, only to self destruct by being monomanic and bloody. The United States was close to losing this war, had it not been for a last minute deal with anti Al Qaida sunni’s and big pay offs, which made up the biggest part of the surge. Iraq is no democracy and will not be one any time soon. It is still a society without a civic compact or functioning electricity, for that matter. It is a country where the United States wasted 60 billion dollars in contracts that delivered no benefit at all. Despite the appearent plan to have a continues American presence in Iraq, it is a country bound to descend in a semi autoritarian regime, this time with a shiite signature, supported by Iran. It is easy to foresee how in the long run Iraq will be another enemy for the US.
I don’t have to dwell on it: Iraq has been a disaster on almost every level. Only the Kurds in northern Iraq have profited. The price tag has been enormous, not just in money, ignored by Bush and the Republicans. If Iraq showed one thing that really undermined the US reputation in the world, it is the incredible incompetence in the aftermath of the quick victory. All predictions were wrong, all executive and even military policy was either stupid or pig headed. Suffice it to name Paul Bremer, the bumbling viceroy sent from neocon headquarters to nail down defeat in Bagdad. Except for the political general Petreus, nobody came out of Iraq with his or her reputation enhanced – and Petreus ruined his one by treating Afghanistan as Iraq, fighting as generals tend to do, the most recent war all over in different territory. The surge in Afghanistan did not succeed.
The third war that president Bush started, or maybe we should call it the first one, since it encompassed all others, was no less destructive. The war on terror served as cover for all we have already mentioned and then some. We can include secret prisons, kidnapping, torture and playing off Eastern Europe countries against Western European allies, to mention only a few things. Conceptually, it was of course a disaster. A war against a method can cover almost everything. Over time the slogan turned against the Bush administration and the United States; everything under this false flag became suspect and contributed to the shrinking of the American president. Even Bush himself stopped using it. This war which could, by definition, not have an outcome but was only a cover for operations, resulted directly from 9/11.
A war had already been going on much longer, a much more realistic fight against terrorists and their supporters or supporting regimes. The afore mentioned Richard Clarke, the terrorism adviser to Bill Clinton, claimed considerable success. The irony is that vice president Cheney became the chief of the national security group dealing with terrorism and paid no attention, hence the famous memo of August 8 2001, in Texas, during Bush’s holiday, that warned of an immediate risc, to be ignored by the president. The war on terrorism became an excuse for everything and anything that president Bush or Dick Cheney felt like doing, in the end frustrating even the fight against terrorism.
I will not go into the asserted clash of civilizations, nor the neoconservative ideas on Arab states and their inability to change. As far as the clash goes, the use and abuse of the term is an offense to Samuel Huntingtons intellect. The internal contradictions of cultures seem rather more challenging than the wars on their borders.
The neoconservative zealots, inside and outside the Bush administration, supported in Europe by political pygmees used by the Americans as useful idiots, did have a goal that was naïef but not abject: try to bring American style democracy in a region where the biggest threat to stability was the western supported autocrats. Turn Iraq into a model democracy and Egypt, Syria, Saoudi Arabia and even Iran, plus the surrounding private oil domains would follow. A laudable goal, failed in the execution, partly because it was built on hubris, ideology and short mindedness.
The autocrats in the region escaped without harm. Iraq did not become a model of anything except of American incompetence. When the first confrontation turned up in Egypt, around 2005, the United States allowed Hosni Mubarak to stifle democracy as it had done a hunderd times before. The problem was not the goal, the idea of democracy. President Clinton already made spreading democracy to a goal of American foreign policy. In that sense Bush did not offer anything new. This explains, partly, why a huge majority of the American Senate went along, including Hillary Clinton, with a war that claimend to have that goal – and was, fraudulently, also painted as a test of American resolve in the face of weapons of mass destruction. What was new was that president Bush gave spreading democracy a bad name. Rightly of wrongly, anything Bush touched turned more people away from him and his lofty ideals than attracted them.
It is a fair question whether the Arab Spring would have taken place without 9/11? I will not claim that there is such a thing as historic inevitability, but the answer must be that the Arab Spring had been a long time coming. If anything slowed it down, it was the blind fear of the west for everything and anything having to do in any way or shape with islam radicalism. With Cairo in full upheaval this spring even the Dutch prime minister could think of nothing better to say than that he was worried that radicals would get power. This particular fear was blown up to ridiculous proportions after 9/11 but it is was there well before the attacks on the US. In Algeria the results of elections in the early nineties were canceled when it looked like the islamists might win. Perversely, however, especially since 9/11 authoritarian rulers have used the fear for islam to legitimize their own regimes, even Saoudi Arabia, a regime and a country that was clearly one of the supporting powers in the rise of radical islam.
Meanwhile the United States adapted a new defence doctrine, temporarily, as it would turn out. Not just pre emptive put preventive war became part of the American arsenal, not just to deter enemies but to make sure that enemies could not pop up or could ever be a threat. The judgement was left to the executive, which made it particularly scary, given the propensities of vice president Cheney. It did break with an American tradition and it came down to a raised middle finger to the rest of the world. We do what we think we need to do. A license to kill, Iraq multiplied. As Cheney has written in his memoirs, he would have had the US attack Syria over a nuclear reactor (Israel did that in the end) and he would have started a war with Iran.
The United States is and will be for a foreseeable future the unsurpassed superpower in the world. In terms of hard power no country comes close, the soft power of the US had suffered. If you are the most powerful country and you have to use your power, you better use it succesfully or you have damaged you soft power, your power to convince without resort to military means. Speak softly and carry a big stick, is what Theodore Roosevelt used to say. Bush spoke loudly and wielded America’s big stick unsuccesfully. A lot fewer countries are now afraid it will be used. Iran, to name just one country, is not afraid of American intervention. Soft power is based on the illusion of power, not on using it and certainly not on using it unsuccesfully.
America’s position as leader of the world has suffered serious damage because presidents tell a story to the world that the audience at home does not want to buy. What happens to your credibilty on the world scene if human rights and budget discipline are of no concern, if regulation of the banks or environmental policy have become irrelevant? Who will listen to you? The American president is pretty powerless at home – I admit, it is a complicated story for which I have not the time tonight – and the inevitable result is loss of respect abroad.
The financial crisis of 2008 has undermined America’s economic authority and the credibility of the western economic model. Chinese authoritarians can now claim that they have a competing model to democracy and free markets. All this is not necessarily a disaster for America of the world, as long as the United States plays its cards in a smart way, is nimble and subtle and uses the American organized international systeem in a sophisticated way.
Last June, retiring US secretary of defense, Robert Gates, for all practical purposes declared NATO pretty useless. The lackluster performance in Libya was the last straw. Lack of money and especially lack of determination made the US, despite complaints about ‘leading from behind’, once again the only nation living up to the task at hand in Europe’s backyard.
The fact that the Europeans called for help in a campaign in Libya that they are incapable of conducting alone has reinforced the American view that the European arm of NATO is feckless and unreliable. Disarray and recriminations within NATO hobble the single most effective potential tool for western military intervention overseas. As Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times concluded, the Gates speech effectively marked the end of the American ambition to turn NATO into a global, military arm of a unified western world. The Americans have flirted with this idea ever since the onset of the ‘war on terror’, but, as the Afghan war has worn on, so the military effort has become more and more heavily dependent on the US.
This is more than just an end to American hopes. It is an end to the era liberal interventionism. It began in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union leaving the US the only superpower. Victory in the first Gulf war lead George Bush to call for a new world order. Since then western governments have chastised themselves over the failure to protect different groups, form the Kurds and the Shia in Iraq in 1991, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 to the dithering and clumsiness in the Balkans. You could argue that interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone showed it could be done.
The bitter experience of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, both a direct result of 9/11 have shifted the debate on military intervention once more. President Obama promised a more cautious attitude and practised it in Libya.
In the future the United States will not be the eager sheriff, getting involved with every and any disturbance in the world, it will not even be leading from behind. The impatient debate in Congres about Libya and the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates indicate that presidents will have to think twice before they intervene militarily. In a perverse sense thís is the result of 9/11 and the misbegotten wars that America fought in the following decade. A new isolationism is not entirely unthinkable, giving Osama Bin Laden in death what he could not achieve in life.
As far as direct consequences of 9/11 this is it. The end result, I would argue, is not much different than it would have been if 9/11 had never happened, at least not in terms of the long term trends. Those trends were the ones that have determined the current situation and they were already under way in 2001 and they will be there for a long time. Think about the world position of China and to a lesser extent India and Brasil, and the lack of progress in Japan. Somewhat more suprising is the crisis in the European Union. At the beginning of the decade one would have expected a world power in European shape, right now it looks pretty dicey.
Long before 9/11 American interests and attention had already shifted to the Pacific, putting the decadent Atlantic allies in second place. By now that is definite. Europe is an afterthought for Americans.
‘The American moment’ as it was called by the no regrets neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer in 1990 lasted all of that decade. In retrospect it was, after the fall of the wall, a last flickering of the American Century, now definitely ended. Sure, the United States is and will be the sole superpower, no matter how you define the term. The mistaken superiority that bewitched Krauthammer and his neoconservative friends, made it easy to hide the weakness in America’s position. That is what 9/11 ended. It exposed the rot. No matter how you look at it, 9/11 was a direct hit for the US. It was not an attack on the western way of living, or freedom, nor were the jealous of our wealth, as some politicians liked to think. They were an attack on the role of the United States in its role as supersheriff of the world and on the somewhat conceited American self image. It was forbidden to say so, but yes, the United States had asked for such a reaction, or at the very least, it should not have been surprised that America’s enemies would bring battle to the homeland. You cannot play a role in the world and expect the world to leave you alone. Being convinced of your own good intentions does not guarantee that your actions are morally justified, let alone that others see it that way.
Authority is slow to build. You have to work at it for a long time. Just like trust authority comes, as the saying goes, on foot and leaves on horseback. It was the genius of Osama Bin Laden to puncture the American baloon of arrogance and self confidence. The sound of horseshoes has long since faded away. Authority gone means authority lost for a long time, possibly forever.
The results of 9/11 must have been gratifying for Bin Laden. It did not lead to the hoped for islamic uprising, leave alone to some kind of khalifate. But it exposed critical weakness in the west and his small investment in the attacks lead to huge costs for especially the United States. He could not have expected that incompetence, impatience and failed analytical intelligence, plus lacking leadership, topped with a crisis of the existing economic world order, would multiply the direct results of his venture. Osama Bin Laden scored on 9/11 but the world since then has been shapen by the spectacular own goals that the west produced.
The world after 9/11 is not a stable one. This is not because Al Qaida, some failed states or other terrorists have us by the throat. It is because the west put itself in a bind. It is quite possible that the boom-bust economy of the past decade had nothing to do with 9/11, or you could argue the contrary, especially as to the excesses of the unregulated free market and the irresponsible public financing of the Republican administration under George Bush. President Bush might not have been re-elected in 2004 had it not been for the post 9/11 atmosphere and maybe, just maybe, the economy would have been in better shape. Certainly the several thousands of dollars in war and security spending could and maybe would have been better spent.
The financial crisis in 2008 has arguably played a bigger rol in undermining confidence and self confidence of the west than those three planes on that September morning. The combination of both, of 9/11 and the crisis of 2008, will turn out to be quite desastrous. For this was a smart observation of Osama Bin Laden: the west is its own worst enemy. Only sensible and patient leadership can save anxious and scared citizens from their self fulfilling nightmares. Polarisation and diviseness, plus a sense of long term crisis, are now so pervasive that we do not need terrorism to crash the whole construction. We can do it all on our own. Republicans showed it with their black mail damn the country screw the president policy on the debt ceiling. European leaders show every day that the one thing the are not able to do is to lead. Never mind terrorists.
The post 9/11 world has become an uncertain place, sometimes a place that invites profound pessimism. The attacks on 9/11 exposed the rot in the United States, in the west. They were not the cause.