Wednesday, September 07, 2011

September 11 retrospective: Chances missed

Anatol Lieven wrote about the risks and opportunities in the American and Western response to the 9/11 attacks in Strategy for terror Prospect 10/20/2001, which he says was written "a few hours after the attacks." (A somewhat revised version of this essay was included in James Hege, Jr. and Gideon Rose, eds, How Did This Happen? (2001) that somewhat confusingly makes it sound like it was written after the October 7 start of the Afghanistan War.)

Even in retrospect, I still think this was a true statement for the immediate aftermath of 9/11: "On the assumption that the perpetrators are identified and traced to some physical space a ferocious military response will be necessary. Not to do this would be to betray the victims and display weakness." It was, as he said, "the worst terrorist attack in history and the worst attack of any kind ever directed against the American mainland."

But this observation now looks like a description of opportunities terribly squandered:

A hardline response from the US is appropriate in the short-term. Moreover it would be wrong to execute any significant policy shifts that could be construed as a victory for the terrorists. ... Above all, a new US policy needs to be shaped by three linked realisations. First, that since the end of the cold war, there has come into being the basis of a unified world system in which the world’s other leading states are partners, not enemies, and in which all these states are under threat from similar forces. In other words, there really is the makings of an "international community" - or would be, if the US could stop acting as if it alone constituted this community. The community is based on shared adherence to western-led modernity. The only categorical opponents of this modernisation project are indeed religious maniacs - who are not to be found in Moscow or Beijing. Second, that with the exception of certain middle eastern states, the real threat to the world order comes not from states, but from below: from alienated populations. And third, since the US cannot occupy and police the Muslim world in the struggle against Muslim terrorism, it is essential to have the co-operation of leading Muslim states. This is something which was already emphasised by the aftermath of the attacks on Khobar Towers and the USS Cole. [my emphasis]

He didn't get the following exactly right. But he was correct in identifying the core problem, the fact that the American military establishing really has a strong self-perpetuaing dynamic, as John Kenneth Galbraith patiently insisted for much of his adult life:

The failure, until now, to move away from the cold war has its roots not only in various forms of inherited bigotry, but also in very strong interests within the US security establishment. This establishment was a product of the cold war, and it needs a cold war-type enemy: huge, identifiable, and, most importantly, armed with either high-tech conventional arms or with old-style nuclear missiles. Hence the endless insistence on the danger of a restoration of the Soviet Union. [my emphasis]
We need to be fair to Lieven on this. Who knew that the national security establishment and the many private firms that profit from it could recreate and bogeyman called "Al Qai'di," one based only in small part on the real existing organization lead by Osama bin Laden in 2001, that could serve as well or better than the nuclear-armed Communist Soviet Union to justify military spending at higher levels than the peak of the Cold War?

He made the following pragmatic observations that are also a reminder of opportunities lost:

One way of combating the kind of attacks we saw is of course better security in the US; but this will not necessarily prevent a terrorist attack, as long as that terrorist is prepared to die. In the end, the key to fighting this war successfully has to be good intelligence - and given the difficulty that American agents have of penetrating the world of the Islamist extremists, for such intelligence the west desperately needs Arab and Muslim allies. The Saudis in particular will have to be persuaded to drop the decades-old strategy begun by Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Ibn Saud, according to which the House of Saud has turned a blind eye to Saudi-based radicalism beyond the borders of the kingdom, as long as the radicals do not cause trouble within Saudi Arabia itself.

The help of leading Muslim states will also be essential if there is to be an invasion and occupation of some part of the Muslim world. For, in their different ways, the US bombardment of targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the Nato bombardment of Yugoslavia, have shown the inadequacy of long-range bombardment when it comes to destroying enemies on the ground, who are dispersed and hidden in a friendly civilian population. [my emphasis]
It's not that these aspects were entirely neglected. On the contrary, most of the real successes in the "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) have come from police and intelligence work, not from blowing up Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and whereever else the US military may be operating without public knowledge. It didn't come from creating a sado-masochistic torture regime in Guantánamo and our "black site" prisons, either, although many Republicans including Dick Cheney were happy to know that such twisted acts were occurring.

It's worth noting here that the United States, even with a government more deeply concerned with human rights and encouraging democracy abroad than either the Cheney-Bush or the Obama Administrations, has limited ability to pick and choose which government we deal with. I can't see that the diplomatic isolation of Cuba and Iran for decades has in itself yielded useful results.

What the US should have been doing and should do now is cooperate with governments, even nasty ones, on anti-terrorism while taking very seriously basic human rights concerns. Torture is a crime. And despite Obama's irresponsible and illegal decision to give effective amnesty ("Look Forward, Not Backward") to American torture perpetrators, the torture issue isn't going away. Dick Cheney may be doing a profitable book tour. And there's no guarantee of which individuals will eventually be put before a court on torture charges from that Adminsistration. Torture goes to the hear of the rule of law. There will be an historical and legal reckoning for the Bush Administration's torture crimes. The tragedy and shame is that it should have come from the American government itself. A large portion of the American Constitution will remain in abeyance until there is a real reckoning with the torture crimes.

One reason for the emphasis on conventional military action in the American response to terrorism is what Lieven himself says at the start of this essay, that the 9/11 attacks were "a very serious act of war, conducted by a formidably cruel, brave, fanatical and well-organised enemy with a terrifying capacity for both savagery and self-sacrifice." (my emphasis) I thought that at the time. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder used the phrase "act of war" immediately after the attacks in offering his unlimited support for the US in responding to it. (Schröder soon found that applying limits was indeed necessary!)

In retrospect, this understanding was wrong. It was a spectacular act of terrorism by a small, fanatical group acting on behalf of a demented religious ideology, not on behalf of a state. But by framing it immediately as a war, it lead to the consequences we now no so well. And we surely don't know all the consequences, since a pathological attitude toward government secrecy prevailed during the Bush Administration and, tragic to say, has been intensified under the Obama Administration.

Lieven also points to that perenniel failure of American foreign policy, the need to have a real peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. While noting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major problem for US relations with the Muslim world, he reminds us, "To blame Muslim-based terrorism on Israel would be unfair and inadequate." It is part of the cause of such terrorism, even far removed geographically from Israel-Palestine. He points to severe development problems in the Arab world as having created the breeding ground for jihadist appeals. BAsed on his own research and reporting from Pakistan, he describes the appeal as follows:

In these depressing circumstances, adherence to a radical Islamist network provides a sense of cultural security, a new community and some degree of social support-modest, but still better than anything the state can provide. Poverty is recast as religious simplicity and austerity. Perhaps, even more importantly, belief provides a measure of pride: a reason to keep a stiff back amidst continual humiliations and temptations. In the blaring, stinking, violent world of the modern "third world" Muslim city, the architecture and aesthetic mood of the mosque is (like the Catholic churches in central America described by Graham Greene in The Lawless Roads) the only oasis, not only of beauty but of an ordered and coherent culture and guide to living. Of course this is true ten times over for a young male inhabitant of an Afghan, Chechen or Palestinian refugee camp.
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