11 May 2007 9/11 AND ITS AFTERMATH
I was never convinced by the almost universally voiced conviction at the time, that the events of 9/11 changed the world. I could not see them in the same light as the end of the Soviet Union symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the end of apartheid in South Africa symbolised by Nelson Mandela walking out of prison. Nor do I now. For both these events ended decades of oppression affecting hundreds of millions of people. What 9/11 did was to unleash the war-monger in GW Bush, with terrible consequences for the world, but I am optimistic that the damage he has caused will begin to be made good at the 2008 US presidential election, particularly if a Democrat wins.
The simultaneous 9/11 attacks were the most devastating terrorist strikes ever and the first instance of the US being hit by an enemy on continental home soil since the 1812 war with Britain.
Hysteria seems to be part of the American psyche. It can be seen in the whooping and hollering of chat-show audiences and in the behaviour associated with the conduct of celebrity trials. Those of OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton come readily to mind. It can also be seen time and again in the way American authorities tend to meet threats of violence, actual or perceived.
One has only to recall what happened at Waco in 1993, or the numerous incidents of so-called friendly fire by the military dating back at least to World War 2, or of shoot-outs in a hail of bullets by police. By contrast, the British and Australians tend to respond in a more measured, detached manner, their police usually using a single shot or just a few bullets to thwart a felon, while their troops do not seem as trigger happy as the Americans in battle.
The American reaction to the utter shock and enormity of 9/11 was true to form. As a nation Americans are notoriously ignorant of the world beyond the USA because many of them are not that interested in it. Most people in the rest of the world aren’t quite so parochial because of the inescapable impact on their lives of America’s commercial and cultural exports. Hysteria is not conducive to having a sense of perspective. Taking their cue from the president, the American people reacted to 9/11 as if no other civilian population had ever been subjected to deadly attack. I remember thinking at the time that now the Americans know what it feels like to be attacked by an enemy on home soil. The response of key European leaders such as Blair, Chirac, and Schroeder echoed that of Bush. In my view this was a miscalculation with potentially devastating consequences because it ruled out the possibility of placing the 9/11 attacks in an historical perspective and bringing the comfort of a shared experience, whether of war or terrorism on home soil, to the American people.
It is possible that the Americans may have resented being told at the time, that what they went through on 9/11 was not unique and that immense death and destruction befell the inhabitants of numerous cities in Europe and of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War 2. That the best response to terrorism is that life must go on and that people must be vigilant. Perhaps the European leaders shared Bush’s sense of panic that 9/11 heralded armageddon, that there was more to come, that it could happen anywhere and that there was no protection against it.
For whatever reasons, Bush’s response to 9/11 was allowed to set the tone for all that followed, starting with his declaration of war on terror and his “if your’e not with us your’e against us” curbing of dissent. The war on terror is as unwinnable as the war on drugs. Had Bush been more measured and astute in his response he might have seen the folly of confusing defeating terrorists with defeating terrorism. Bush’s curbing of dissent had the immediate effect of snuffing out any attempt to explain 9/11 in terms of the part played by America’s attitudes and past actions. It would be several years before the media in the US would dare to persistently question and criticise the actions of the executive branch of government on its conduct of all aspects of the war. Meanwhile freedoms were eroded in the name of homeland security, extra-judicial detention was established at Guantanamo Bay following the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, torture was condoned as a means of gaining evidence from suspects and Bush, leading a cobbled together coalition of the willing, invaded Iraq citing spurious reasons to justify his decision.
It seems surreal to contemplate that while I was having a ball in the avant garde art scene of late swinging ‘60s London, the neocons were starting to put together an agenda that would capture American politics more than thirty years later. Their influence now appears to be rapidly waning, due to the botched invasion and occupation of Iraq which, instead of enhancing America’s standing in the world as they intended, has severely diminished it.
I opposed the Iraq war because I was lied to about the reasons for waging it. Bush, Blair and Howard peddled the lie that Saddam Hussein was a danger to the people of their respective countries which was palpable nonsense. On the contrary, I considered the war-mongering Bush to be a far greater danger to the world than Sadam, whose scope to extend his murderous actions beyond Iraq’s borders had been curtailed by the no-fly zone maintained by the US and Britain since the 1990-91 Gulf War. But regime change was not given as a reason for attacking Iraq. As the UN weapons inspections continued, the existence of Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction became more of a mystery. Their reach, had they existed, posed no direct threat to the US, UK, Australia or the other coalition countries. The link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, seeking to make Sadam a key player in the war on terror, was considered speculative at the time it was cited as a justification for invasion. If al-Qaeda, the true focus of that war, was, as many claim, let off the hook in Afghanistan following the defeat of the Taliban, it would have relished Bush’s preoccupation with Iraq all the more as an opportunity to inflict further damage on the US. Perhaps there was a reason which could never be admitted: that GW Bush wanted to avenge what he felt was the humiliation of his father in the first Gulf War.
Having opposed the war, I had to accept the fact that I was willing to consign the people of Iraq to their fate at the hands of the planet’s most monstrous tyrant and that did not sit well with me. Once the war started, my feeling was that what it needed to achieve above all else, was the toppling of Saddam. It was only after his fall from power was welcomed throughout the world as the one bright spot to emerge from the gloom of Iraq, that regime change became a justification of the invasion.
The war has highlighted a succession of abject failures by the US, its allies and the world community. The world has no mechanism for getting rid of tyrants, other than relying on their victims to rise up and overthrow them which is much easier said than done and occurs infrequently. The most recent instance which comes to mind is the overthrow of Ceausescu in 1989. During the cold war, the USSR crushed popular movements for liberalisation in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968. There was no uprising to stop Idi Amin, Pol Pot, the killers in Rwanda, or in Srebrenica and to date there has been no uprising to topple the generals in Burma, Mugabe in Zimbabwe or the Janjaweed in Dafur. NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo to halt Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians was a one-off event.
It is unrealistic to expect the UN to take the lead on this issue. The ‘duty to protect’ doctrine, which states that national sovereignty can be overridden to stop crimes against humanity is apparently official UN policy, but, as such, it does not appear to be worth the paper it is written on. The UN is a deeply flawed organisation and has an abysmal record of failure in preventing atrocities from occurring. For a start, the unfortunate countries governed by dictators and tyrants are members of the UN. Next, the competing self-interest of all the nations of the world is hardly likely to produce a reliable policy on freeing people from tyranny. Plus, the structure and laborious decision-making procedures of the organisation do not lend themselves to taking swift action to prevent an imminent tragedy. The Australian led intervention in East Timor against the pro-Indonesia militias, also in 1999, was the exception that proves the rule.
Related to this issue is the surprising failure since the end of World War 2, of the liberal democracies to have formulated a common policy to support people’s aspirations for freedom no matter in which country they may live. I believe such a policy could have been a precursor to an internationally accepted mechanism for taking on tyrants. Admittedly, it is one thing to formulate an enlightened policy of this kind, it is another to adhere to it.
Perceptions of how to respond to people’s cries for freedom change according to the political climate at the time. During the Cold War, which was a continuation of the Korean War by other means, the west’s focus was on confronting communism either by trying to prevent non-aligned nations from siding with the communist bloc or by supporting anti-communist authoritarian right-wing regimes mainly in Central and South America and in the Middle East. It generally supported Soviet dissidents, publishing manuscripts that were smuggled out of the country. But, as with China today, there was an obvious limit to what the west could do to support cries for freedom in the USSR.
Since the Soviet Union’s demise the liberal democracies have been in a better position to help those seeking freedom from oppression and have still failed to respond with a united policy. Such a policy might have proved more workable than during the Cold War. The cornerstone neocon policy, first tried out in Iraq, of exporting western democracy and pluralism to countries governed by an authoritarian regime, in order to enhance America’s standing in the world, is not what I have in mind. A concerted policy now would need to allow for cultural differences in supporting cries for freedom. It would not arrogantly seek to impose western ways on people who regard them as alien and in certain instances abhorrent. The issue is one of upholding principles, such as freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, accountability through the ballot box and judicial independence, and not imposing ready-made content, such as the Westminster system, the Code Napoleon or sexual permissiveness.
The whole world has gone west to a significant degree. Islamic extremists rely on the technology invented by the west to further their anti-western agenda. Third world arch- nationalist dictators drive around in Mercedes and wear Savile Row suits. And western, primarily American, consumerism and popular culture have conquered the world. Yet this western penetration has not obliterated planetary diversity. The earth is made up of nations with distinctive identities, languages and customs, with characteristic landscapes, biodiversity, architecture, art and food. Alas, too many of them are under authoritarian rule. In the end, this crucial policy failure by the liberal democracies may simply reflect a failure by their leaders and people to sufficiently value their own freedoms.
Iraq was invaded on the orders of political leaders acting selfishly, concerned about the security of their own people thousands of miles from the battlefield. Other than in the US, a majority of people did not share their leaders’ concern. They opposed the invasion and exposed the reason for the invasion as a lie. Had regime change been the declared causus belli because of Saddam’s abominable treatment of his people, those leaders would have been acting altruistically. It is just possible that inspired by an altruistic rather than a selfish motive, the invaders might have been better received and the aftermath of the invasion less tragic. With regime change to help the Iraqis as the declared intention, the lead-up to the invasion would have been very different, most notably the language used by the coalition leaders. They would still have had to attempt to carry their people with them on the issue. The invasion would not have occurred without the most meticulous planning for the post-invasion situation. It is even conceivable that under changed circumstances France and Germany might have agreed to join the coalition. Their participation would have strengthened the project, their refusal to help the Iraqi people by removing Saddam would have damaged their international standing.
But we all know what happened and what is happening. Four years after the invasion, the opinion of many in the military, pooh poohed at the time by Rumsfeld, that the allied troop numbers were insufficient, has been borne out by the current increase to carry out the security surge in Baghdad. There was no meticulous post-invasion plan. The invaders were not universally received with open arms. Bush’s inept “mission accomplished” claim has come back to dog his presidency. The credibility of the neo-con agenda of imposing superior American values on politically backward countries was shattered by the atrocities committed by the Americans at Abu Ghraib prison. The much vaunted constitutional referendum and parliamentary election, touted as harbingers of democracy, remarkable occurrences undoubtedly, have the hollow ring of betrayal about them. Opinion is growing that the presence of the occupying troops is adding to, rather than diminishing the number of sectarian attacks in Iraq and that there is no military, only a political solution to the country’s woes. The troops are clearly unable to prevent the escalating and appalling daily bloodshed. Meanwhile post-invasion reconstruction languishes in spite of billions being given to major American corporations, such as Halliburton with close ties to Vice President Chaney.
The view of Bush, Blair and Howard that their citizens would be at less risk from terrorists as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was never believable. The situation was tailor-made for al-Quaeda whose aim is to undermine every coalition effort to unite, reconstruct and democratise post-invasion Iraq and to make life hell for the allied combat troops. The Shias, Sunnis and Kurds have their own separate agendas. The Shias and Sunnis are engaged in a settling of scores and are taking out their mounting frustration on the allies; an already involved situation is exacerbated by the actions of foreign insurgents and the machinations of Syria and Iran. The elected government seems powerless to impose its authority.
And yet Bush, Howard and their apologists have the nerve to resort to emotional blackmail and incite fear by predicting calamity for Iraq and the west if the US and Australia were to follow Blair in announcing a phased withdrawal of troops – as if Iraq was a roaring success, with tens of thousands of mainly civilian deaths in the fighting and key parts of the country a hell on earth already; as if it represented a glowing endorsement rather than a profound loss of American prestige. Bush’s and Howard’s obduracy, their avowal to stay the course and thereby inflict further death and injury on American troops, removes their freedom to act independently of all the malign and conflicting forces in Iraq who are happy to exploit their fear of having failed by keeping them bogged down indefinitely.
However calamitous the Iraq denouement may be for all parties, (to date the conflict shows no sign of disrupting daily life in the coalition countries), its most damaging impact will be on the poor Iraqi people. For the allies it will mean having to admit that their invasion of Iraq was a failure; that at best it was nothing like the success that they had predicted and that at worst it was a disaster. Their continued presence does not improve, it merely postpones the outcome. I consider Howard’s posturing as a steadfast and upright leader to be unconvincing and offensive because it is based on his exaggeration of the importance of the Australian troop presence in Iraq. Their number is small and was never crucial to the success of the allied mission. They have not been assigned combat duties and unlike Bush and Blair, Howard has not been tested by having to face his people as their soldiers are repatriated in coffins, or by having to encounter angry and grieving relatives who have lost a loved one.
Following 9/11 the US Department of Homeland Security issued regular terror alerts without stating the reasons for them, as if to justify its existence and its enormous budget. The British authorities issued similar alerts as did their Australian counterparts, albeit less frequently. The alerts reminded me of the dire consequences predicted by the UK government following the unmasking of yet another Soviet master spy during the Cold War, which never appeared to make any difference to the nation’s daily life. In the case of the terror alerts it seemed that governments wanted to needlessly scare their own citizens so that they could reassure them about their ability to protect them from al-Quaeda.
These warnings have become less frequent in the last year or two because I believe governments are dealing with terror threats in the best way possible; by the extreme vigilance and diligence of the police and security agencies, leading to arrests and convictions in Britain, Australia and elsewhere. This inspires confidence rather than fear. The UK authorities have thwarted a number of deadly threats before and after being taken unawares by the home-grown suicide bombers who struck in London on July 7 2005. After 9/11, al-Quaeda and its ilk have struck in Bali, a soft target, Madrid, Jakarta, Kenya and a number of other places. But compared with the weekly, at times almost daily IRA bombings, the frequent ETA, Red Brigade and Baader-Meinhof attacks, they have not been very active, other than in Iraq. Al-Qaeda has inspired fear out of all proportion to the frequency of its deeds, presumably because it resorts to suicide bombing which the European terrorists never did. If they blew themselves up it was by accident.
Compounding the tragedies emanating from 9/11 has been GW Bush’s fixation on war, his answer to confronting al-Quaeda and states supporting terrorism. The defiant, life- affirming response to the London suicide bombings by the British has been more inspiring and noble. War seems to have consumed Bush’s presidency. It has provided him with an excuse for his failure to address global warming or global poverty and its associated diseases, with one notable exception. He has committed billions of dollars to fighting HIV-aids in Africa. His lack of success in Iraq has made his presidency a costly waste of time. At home, his response to Hurricane Katrina was widely criticised as inadequate. His fixation on war has limited the ability of other western leaders to make progress in dealing with poverty, disease and the lack of education in the developing countries and with global warming. And Bush insists on staying his crazy course in Iraq as the body count of civilians and American troops rises, with no end in sight.
Peter Kuttner May 2007