Ten Years after 9/11, Do the Arabs value Democracy more than We do?

The September 11 attacks have been revealed as a last gasp of a fading, cult-like twentieth-century vision, not as the wave of the future. They were the equivalent of the frenetic dashing to and fro of a chicken already beheaded. Al-Qaeda’s core assumptions have been refuted by subsequent events and above all in 2011 by the Arab Spring.

Al-Qaeda was grossly over-estimated in the wake of the horrific September 11 attacks. It was a relatively small terrorist group that spent less than half a million dollars on the operation. It should have been dealt with as a police matter, not as the enemy in a trillion-dollar “war” conducted by the Pentagon. It did, however, have a clever over-all strategy and political ideology. It adopted a form of pan-Islamism, a dream of making Islam a basis for a national idea, so that an Islamic superpower could be created, in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be provinces. This superpower would be a dictatorship, and would come into being through the actions of pan-Islamic guerrillas in each country who would violently overthrow the national government. The point of attacking the United States was only that it was seen to stand behind the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and so forth, making them impossible to overthrow.

All the major assumptions of Bin Laden and his associates have fallen by the wayside in the Arab world. First, it has been shown that dictators such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia can be overthrown by peaceful crowd action, emulating Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The cry in Tahrir Square last winter in downtown Cairo was “Silmiya, Silmiya!” — Peacefully, peacefully.

Second, it has been demonstrated that the leading edge in political change in the Arab world is relatively secular youth who support labor unions and dignity for working people– i.e. that the most effective revolutionaries are a kind of Arab New Left, not small cells of fundamentalist terrorists. Muslim fundamentalist political parties may benefit from the political opening achieved by the Arab New Left youth movements, but they have mostly tagged along behind the latter.

Third, it has been shown that the United States and Western Europe can be constrained to support the overthrow of even pro-Western dictators if the masses persistently come out and demand democratic change. That is, it is not necessary to attack the US militarily in order to achieve political transition in pro-American regimes such as that of Mubarak.

Just as the massive crowds of young demonstrators constrained regime members such as Rashid Ammar (chief of staff in Tunisia), Air Marshall Hussein Tantawi of Egypt, and technocrat Mustafa Abdel Jalil of Libya to defect to the reformers, so the same masses could convince President Barack Obama at length to demand the departure of Mubarak and of Qaddafi. Obviously, Western support can only be hoped for in the case of a likely transition to democratic regimes with moderate policies, such that domestic reform through moderation synchronizes with gaining foreign acquiescence in it.

Bin Laden had imbibed through Egyptian radical theorist Sayyid Qutb the Leninist notion that change requires vanguard fighters (tala’i`). But the masses showed that they do not need seedy vanguards to represent and potentially to hijack their movements. They are perfectly capable of asserting their own agency.

Fourth, it has been demonstrated that most publics in the Arab world see parliamentary democracy as the most suitable political system going forward. They are thus rejecting the Leninist critique of parliaments as mere tools of oppression by the rich and as ultimately undemocratic because only representative– a critique that had been taken into both leftist and Muslim fundamentalist Arab ideologies. The dream of direct democracy has over and over again revealed itself to be a mere illusion enabling a ferocious dictatorship. Qaddafi even maintained that he had stepped down from power and wasn’t ruling, an absurd assertion credited by his more gullible useful idiots in the West. No one has suffered more from the anti-democratic utopianism of the twentieth century, which most Arab countries implemented on becoming independent from their colonial masters (the British, French and Italians). But the age of dictators and Supreme Guides who incarnated at once the will of the people and the will of God is passing in the Middle East, leaving authoritarian movements like al-Qaeda in the dust of history.

Ironically, American politicians attempted to pull the wool over our eyes by saying that al-Qaeda hated us for our values. But it turns out that the Arabs are now the peoples sacrificing most for a rule of law, accountability, transparency, and parliamentary governance. One wonders, indeed, if they do not now value those things more than most Americans.

The decade kicked off by the September 11 attacks has been a nightmare for the United States, from which we strive and fail to awake. The attacks themselves were an exercise in mass terror, and among the more effective such operations in modern history. They were intended to have one of two consequences. One possibility was that they would draw the US into the Middle East, as the Soviets had been drawn into Afghanistan, which would allow al-Qaeda and its allies to mire its troops in a fruitless and enervating guerrilla war. (It has been widely noted that the Reagan administration had been unwise to enlist radical Muslim organizations in the anti-Soviet jihad in the first place, giving them the idea that they could take on superpowers.)

Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan visited Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996:

” It seems Osama bin Laden had a long-term strategy. He told me personally that he can’t go and fight the Americans and their country. But if he manages to provoke them and bring them to the Middle East and to their Muslim worlds, where he can find them or fight them on his own turf, he will actually teach them a lesson.”

The other possibility was that the US would decide that imperial micro-management of the Middle East was not worth the cost, and would withdraw from the region, thus allowing the overthrow of their clients among the Arab governments. The entire ideology was never more than a crackpot vision, entirely unrealistic and all the more violent for that. (A corollary is that one reason the US was not attacked again on that scale is that 9/11 was bait, and George W. Bush took the bait.)

The US public responded nobly to the attacks, but US elites replied with perfidy. Americans pulled together, so that feelings of racial alienation declined. They were careful not to blame Muslims in general, and remembered that American Muslims were among the victims. They were ready to sacrifice to make their country safe.

Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, however, saw the attacks as “an opportunity.” They were an opportunity to assert American dominance of the oil fields of the Middle East, and therefore, they reasoned, of the energy future of the entire world, ensuring the predominance of the American superpower throughout the twenty-first century. They thus followed a successful overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan with a disastrous military occupation of that country. They coddled the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. They threw international law into the trash compactor and invaded and occupied Iraq, kicking off a massive insurgency and then a civil war, and leaving the country a political basket case. They left hundreds of thousands dead and some 4 million displaced. In northern Pakistan and then in Yemen and elsewhere, a covert program of drone strikes was carried out lawlessly and with no oversight; because it is done by the CIA and is classified, our elected officials cannot even confirm that it exists, much less conduct a public debate as to its legality, constitutional validity, or wisdom.

The political leaders of the United States refused to look in a cleared-eyed way at the roots of Middle Eastern anger at Washington, and they missed the opportunity to deprive al-Qaeda of its recruiting tools. Had the US moved the region quickly to a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, it would have resolved 80% of the dissatisfaction with the US. Had it lifted the blockade on medicine and chlorine in Iraq, it would have forestalled charges of being implicated in the deaths of half a million children. But the Bush administration believed in beating people into submission, not in working toward political compromises that might repair the American reputation.

At home, our politicians, bureaucrats and even many judges actively pursued a profound betrayal of the US constitution and its bill of rights, virtually overturning the fourth amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure of private correspondence and effects. Nearly a million Americans were put on a travel watch list and their travel often interfered with, most of them for no reason other than that they had attended peaceful demonstrations. The US government advocated for torture, assassination, and extra-judicial kidnapping. Via Abu Ghraib it became the world’s largest purveyor of prison pornography. A vast and labyrinthine national security state was constructed that appears to be under no one’s control, and the intelligence estimates of which are too numerous and too closely guarded for them ever to be given practical effect by our legislators.

The al-Qaeda masterminds of September 11, now mostly deceased or incarcerated, imagined that they would destroy the US as an imperial power and would go on to take power in the Middle East. They were wrong on both fronts, being megalomaniacs and having no sense of reality. They were reduced to irrelevancy in the region, however, by leftist youth movements such as April 6 in Egypt.

In and of themselves, they had little impact on the United States, perhaps taking a point off economic growth in 2001-2002. Their danger for the US was that they were used as a pretext by a coterie of powerful American nationalists tied to right wing billionaires, who, like termites, were eager to gnaw away at the foundations of the rule of law, individual rights, and basic liberties on the domestic scene. In that regard, September 11 was not primarily an event in US foreign policy, but rather a launching pad for domestic forces of the worst sort, who could neutralize public opinion by constantly frightening them with alleged Muslim terrorists. The US took a turn to the far right ten years ago, toward a praetorian state of perpetual war, a society where workers were forestalled from unionizing, a society where the government routinely spied on phone records and emails, a society where warrantless surveillance became routine, a society where basic rights such as habeas corpus were placed in doubt, a society that hid from itself its own methods of empire– torture, disappearance, bombing raids on civilian cities with no shred of international legal justification.

Some critics trace the debt and budget crisis to the Bush wars, but in a $14.5 trillion a year economy, the $1 trillion spent on the wars over a decade was not decisive. The real cost of the wars of aggression was a decline in the standing of the US abroad, a gutting of the UN Charter and international legal norms, and a de facto repeal civil liberties at home. The American people, however, are resilient and strong. The American system of government is flexible. If we are supine and abject, our children will not be. Already, federal government intrusion into our lives is being questioned on the right and the left alike. With hard work and a bit of luck, perhaps over the course of a generation, we can get our Bill of Rights back. And if government officials drag their feet too much in returning our inalienable rights to us, the Egyptian and Tunisian youth have already shown the way forward.

30 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    Good to see you are back on form.

    Suppose Mr Obama loses the election next year and we find the President of the US is a dippy floozy or a trigger happy Christian Zionist puppet, what do you suspect the next Neocon Zionist adventure might be?

    These must be questions that are being asked in many capitals around the world.

  2. Prog Cole said: “Some critics trace the debt and budget crisis to the Bush wars, but in a $14.5 trillion a year economy, the $1 trillion spent on the wars over a decade was not decisive.”

    I disagree. First, I subscribe to the Stiglitz-Bilmes cost estimates of the war(s) which are considerably higher than $1T.

    In addition to the marginal cost of the invasions in Asia, Homeland Security spending has increased dramatically. The cost of compliance with the new rules is millions of wasted hours each day by airline passengers in the security theater. Local, state and federal police departments have become paramilitary organizations — i.e., one local city of 15,000 even has an armorer hummer with specially trained skin head cops with automatic weapons. These people are not fighting crime, that are pretending to be special ops using tax money, addding to societal costs and decay.

    The US spending has become even more militarized and “securitized” than during the cold war in inflation-adjusted dollars. There is an enormous opportunity cost to having half of the engineers and computer scientists employed in these wasteful “industries”. The USSR spent something like 15% of GDP on the military/security state and it broke them. If we believe the fictional GDP numbers of the US, we are closing in on that value (I do not believe the US GDP or DoD numbers are accurate).

    The local, state and federal resources sucked into the post 9/11 hole have been at the margins. These is far less left for crumbling infrastructure, education at all levels, social welfare which would make the US more competitive in the global economy.

    The loss of civil liberties is appalling and can go without further comment.

    IMO, Bin Laden may be dead but he will have won, as the US crumbles like all failed empires of the past.

      • Prof. Cole said: “Some critics trace the debt and budget crisis to the Bush wars, but in a $14.5 trillion a year economy, the $1 trillion spent on the wars over a decade was not decisive.”

        Is that $14.5 trillion a year economy the federal budget, or the total economy. It seems that the $1 trillion spent on wars in the past decade needs to be compared to the expenses by the govt., what it can allocate through revenue. My understanding is that Fed. budget does not equal $14.5 a year. but well under 4 trillion (according to the 2012 proposed budget of $3.729 trillion, as found on wikipedia), and perhaps less without social security payments, which are funded separately. Whether that $.1 trillion/year over 10 years might have a substantive impact enhancing our current (from an unemployed worker’s perspective) depression, though not the cause, seems more likely.

        • Prof Cole,

          I understand Stiglitz and Bilmes estimated included everything going out 60 years. But then isn’t this how the repubs and Obama account for Social Security and Medicare in order to justify their shredding of the social safety net?

          link to costofwar.com has the MARGINAL cost (i.e., what has been directly appropriated by Congress for the wars, in excess of the DoD base budget) as approximately $1.25T. This is just the expense of having the troops and contractors over there blowing stuff up, killing people and paying protection money to warlords.

          Can we believe that if 9/11 had not happened, or the invasion(s) not proceeded on such a grand scale, that the DoD budget would have more than doubled in the past 10 years? What would the DoD budget look like if it had been handled as a police action instead?

          What about the budgets of the “intelligence” services? The sticker price in the budget is not what is actually spent. The black budgets are embedded in literally every other federal department. Is it $100B a year? What would those numbers be if not fo5 9/11? Would the NSA be building multiple $2B data centers for domestic spying which rival Google’s if not for 9/11?

          We can also directly attribute the ultra-loose monetary policy of the Greenspan Fed from 2001-2005 directly as a response to 9/11 — which in turn led to subprime and the financial crisis. How much has the financial crisis cost “developed” economies?

          On a fully-allocated basis, the number spent on wars far exceeds the $1.25T marginal cost.

          Ultimately the point is 9/11 accelerated process of the decline of the US. The country is on the road to bankruptcy. Let’s wait until the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and compare notes then.

  3. Excellent post but I feel you’re sugarcoating the American response a bit with regards to American Muslims. Hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims (and Sikhs) skyrocketed over 1000% percent. While Bush on 9/13 visited a mosque to show that Islam was peaceful and shouldn’t be targeted, Congressman Cooksey made comments about people with diapers on their heads. I give politicians the credit for trying to calm the public, including Giuliani for saying don’t attack innocent New Yorkers on account of this)

    • I was making a distinction between the vast majority of decent ordinary Americans and the bottom-feeders among their political leadership who decided a buck could be made from promoting hatred of Muslims.

  4. A very direct and cogent commentary on events as usual. I might differ, however, regarding the tension between direct and representative democracy. I do think that the “Arab street” movements grow out of frustration not only with dictatorship but also with representative systems on the part of educated Arab youth in the cities. There are a lot of political crises to come in this part of the world as the young and old, rural and urban, women and men come to terms with one another.

    • The Arab masses knew very well they weren’t being represented by those phony elections. But they were not demanding direct democracy; they were demanding free and fair parliamentary elections rather than the simulacrum.

  5. (note to self: Read, print, study, prepare to discuss amongst selves.)

    Thank you Professor Cole for a more reality based, less emotional and self-serving discussion of the events of September 11, 2001 and the aftermath.

  6. When there’s something as dramatic as 9/11 it stands to unleash forces unforeseen and perhaps unstoppable: the course of history stands to be changed or at least deflected from its prior momentum. Here, I fear it simply accelerated things.

    Autocratic grasping, greed, and will-to-power has been relentless since at least Thucydides wrote about it, and neo-liberal thinking had already been gaining momentum and currency, when 9/11 afforded these forces their golden opportunity.

    My own read is that economic pressures in the US, and the world, have built to the point that The People do not have the wherewithal to make a difference, short of True Revolution (and, I’m sorry, the Egyptian “revolution” doesn’t qualify). Real revolution means fundamental change in a system, and as sordid as life has become in the developing world, it’d stand to get worse to make a fundamental change. Maybe it can be done: something along the lines of kicking heroin. Even in the US, real change is unlikely, as liberal/progressive elites stand to be effectively managed by that trillion $ (domestic, internal) security establishment you alluded to.

    Aggravating the situation, as societies get larger, herd and group behavior kicks-in, in addition to whatever power the otogarchs have been able to grab directly. So, we have the bureaucratic rationalizations behind torture (could any responsible politician defend NOT torturing if that might allow NYC to be vaporized?). Personal judgement is set-aside, even absent peer/social pressure; its a function of human nature. And then, there is the phenomena of how the more important a issue becomes, the higher up in an organization the decision is deferred, where political appointees with progressively less nuanced background and preparation inflict their collective inadequacies and weaknesses on the rest of us.

    Maybe the neo-classical economists are right, in their essentially Hobbsian vision, of the world sorting out between the deserving rich (them, naturally), and the rest, left to rot outside their gated communities. The only course is finding a full and autonomous community which can think and be something more.

  7. Right on! We want real democracy and neither war nor terrorism. We all just want to live and live well!

  8. [Some critics trace the debt and budget crisis to the Bush wars, but in a $14.5 trillion a year economy, the $1 trillion spent on the wars over a decade was not decisive.]

    In 2008, Stiglitz gave the following calculation for the Iraqi war alone: link to washingtonpost.com

    Obama did not really use these numbers, so for his supporters it comes to a trifle: $1T/decade vs $14.5T / year!

    • Stiglitz’s estimate is of the long-term cost of the wars including health care for wounded veterans for the rest of their lives. It isn’t an estimate of the direct cost 2003-present, which is much lower. You can’t argue that future veterans health care expenses caused our current economic crisis.

      • Of course, $1T or $3T depends on the calculation. The point is, this is the cost of response to 9-11.

        Another critical point is the destructive role of Bush tax cuts.

        In the end, Spiegel makes an explicit claim that 9-11 triggered the US decline. Gregor Peter Schmitz explicitly blames Bush and neocons for this: link to spiegel.de

        Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with Obama’s position. In fact he honors 9-11 together with Bush. IMO, this is the main problem.

  9. NO, Arabs do not favor democracy more than we do, but all citizens value it equally, and all governments try to subvert it in the interest of the power of big-money.

    USA (pols, media) refuse to look at how we offend and injure other people, because to look at it is to spoil our USA-ONLY-IMAGE of nice guys.

    Americans love their “democracy” but do not know that it was stolen from them by the government-for-sale system that works so well in the USA to [1] make government responsive to big-money interests and so unresponsive to people’s needs and [2] make the slogan-word “democracy” a lie (in the USA).

    Egyptians and Palestinians and others also like the slogan and have high hopes and fervent desire of getting an actually democratic government. (So do I, here in USA, or if not high hopes then at least fervent desire).

    In the 19th century, when empire and colonialism were WELL RESPECTED in England, Europe, USA, media and pols could still tell the truth about their doings in the world to their own citizens.

    Now, imperialism and colonization are still in great favor with some powerful governments (USA, Israel prominent among them) but not in favor with USA citizens and so USA’s media, busily protecting the government against the citizens, must conceal what we do (and what Israel does).

    So, NO, Arabs do not favor democracy more than we do, but all citizens value it equally, and all governments try to subvert it in the interest of the power of big-money.

  10. Lenin was not exactly in the vanguard of the Russian revolution. He came in late (with foreign help) and radicalized the revolution, making himself dictator. It is very likely that there will be individuals and groups doing the same in Arab countries – those which are not taken over by the military.

  11. My thoughts and hopes on 12 September were that the US would take the sensible option of treating this as a police matter, rather than bombing thousands of innocent Afghanis simply as a revenge move.

    Some hope.

    Of course then I didn’t know that plans had already been made to invade Afghanistan. I note that you refer to the illegal invasion of Iraq, but make no mention of the equally illegal bombing of Afghanistan. I suppose that was the start of Bush Inc’s decisions to make US and International Law “quaint”. There was no UNSC permission to start an unprovoked war there, neither would such a sanction have been granted.

    And what I foresaw then was that American actions would infest the rest of the “first” world and that is exactly what has happened. Just about every European government has moved to the right, we (the UK) and Spain have suffered terrorist attacks which would otherwise not have occurred, and the world has been forever changed for the worse.

    As for the restoration of your Bill of Rights, give me a break. Historically far-right (and indeed others of a different stripe) never give back what has been taken. Never. And although I hear much from Americans, both friends and not, about taking rights back the Police State you have permitted to come into being is way ahead of you.

  12. It seems that in taking the bait George W’s desire to go to war, especially into Iraq to make up for Daddy’s pusillanimity, was also a gift for which Georgie was highly thankful, and continues to be. He had been hankering for the opportunity since back in the 90’s. It also seems the always incipient super-nationalism of Americans in general, the desire to show that WE after all are indeed “the greatest nation on the planet,” coincides with the 9/11 official knee-jerk attack responses in the 9/11 decade. Bush’s approval ratings soared, etc. etc. Drive anywhere downtown today to find flags waving on every corner and recall the orgiastic celebrations of Bin Laden’s death, few questions asked. Revenge after all is highly stimulating in many ways. In other words, the complexities of cause move beyond simple analysis as in Al Qaeda laid the bait and the yahoo Bush took it toward supra-rational, unconscious, subconscious, deeply limiting human factors. Difficulty in responding to and assessing policy, in the face of surging righteous emotion and desire for vengeance, has also been one of America’s most virulent problems. For example, right now, where is the agency, the voice, that questions and urges pause to programs we continue after a decade many Americans now routinely denounce as a fiasco of failure? Where today is the agency questioning why we’re in Afghanistan and the middle east, plus questioning the legitimacy of our military programs as “defense” versus profit-seeking by the “military-industrial-complex” or military-corporatists? Or political posturing from special interest politicians melded with corporatists? I submit that empowering a “democracy” or a “representative government” needs a strongly self-critical agency raising the vital questions, and potentially influencing the course of events. But from where, how? Lone voices within a rabid lobbying culture are too easily dismissed. A problem we’re having right now is FOCUS in terms of assessment and what to do. “Democracy” is fading into myth beneath an assault of Neo-Machiavellianism.

  13. The Al Qaeda gang has been irrelevant in Arab countries since at least 2007. Its doubtful that its ideology has ever had widespread support. And the popularity it had for a short while was more like that which a one-hit pop-singer might receive. The Arab Spring is proof of that irrelevance.

    Drone strikes are also conducted by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Unlike the CIA, JSOC is not subject to Congressional oversight. Its role has expanded under Obama. See Washington Post series Top Secret America.

    From what I’ve read & heard from the Iraq street, they’ve fallen out of love with their “parliamentary democracy” and would like an elected president who can get some things moving.

    “The dream of direct democracy has over and over again revealed itself to be a mere illusion enabling a ferocious dictatorship.”

    That statement has more holes in it than Swiss Cheese, if you get what I mean. For those that don’t, Switzerland is far & away the most “direct” democracy on this planet. Its last known dictator was Napoleon Bonaparte about 200 years ago.

  14. Do you suppose today’s celebration could be the mother of all fig leafs, intended to hide from ourselves the massive death and destruction we unleashed on Iraq and Afghanistan in retribution? (not to mention Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan)

    Tom Engelhardt present a very bold view of the anniversary proceedings that I think complements this blog.

    In the end I think the difference between bin Laden and us is that he was comfortable with ruthless violence but had a tiny secretive force, and we are comfortable with ruthless violence but have a huge, multifaceted, superbly financed and supported force that inflicts death and destruction with ease and little risk.

  15. Prof. Cole,

    I think you are mostly right about this, but I would disagree that al Qaeda failed to weaken the American empire or drive it out of the Moslem world. Recall that in the ’90s US fatcats were sneaking all over Central Asia looking to turn it into more banana republics for Exxon. When the US used 9/11 as an excuse to bully Russia with NATO expansion instead of using it as an excuse to aid Russia with its Chechen quagmire (culminating in Cheney’s famous dissing of Putin at the ceremony for the 60th anniversary of V-E Day), Russia moved harshly to reassert itself in Central Asia. We’ve really been powerless to stop it, and risk Russia moving actively to further burden us in Afghanistan as it easily could.

    Furthermore, with our military engaged far away in our revenge wars, Latin America erupted in radical populism, costing us almost all of our long-established, neoliberal-whipped banana republics. I can’t believe that we would have refrained from CIA operations, vicious sanctions and other forms of interference against the new egalitarianism of Latin America.

    Finally, I think the militants would make a strong argument that the wars also helped bring down Mubarak. Our actions in Iraq were terribly humiliating to Arabs even if they disagreed with al Qaeda, and the helplessness of their pro-Western autocrats to do anything to stand up to America certainly was added to their helplessness against Israel. A guerrilla would say that his job is to expose the true agenda of a government by putting it under pressure, and then trust the people to judge correctly.

    It happens that most of what al Qaeda wanted the people to choose, they rejected in favor of other choices not originally imagined. That’s how it is with revolutionary activity, though. A lot of countries have been destabilized by one type of radical, only to fall into the hands of another type of radical. Russia was terrorized by anarchists, including Lenin’s executed brother. Lenin was no anarchist, but he exploited the end of a long process that they began. The Communists tried very hard to take over the Weimar Republic, but the backlash against them put in place the parts that led to Nazism.

    My favorite example is that of the Japanese fascists, put in power by young officers whose families often had been ruined by the trade war that the US began with the Smoot-Hawley tariff act. Those officers really did blame white capitalists for everything and thought Japanese rule would somehow be better for Asia. While the Japanese army behaved very differently in Burma and Indonesia, where it was hailed as a liberator, than in the Philippines, where it was extremely cruel, it did accomplish one great thing. It destroyed the cult of white supremacy, the memory of tiny handfuls of white soldiers and technology massacreing vast native armies. Once Asians saw other Asians give Westerners the fight of their lives, the genie could not be put back in the bottle. Yet the de-colonized Asia that resulted was hardly what the Japanese fascists imagined.

    I think that is the role that bin Laden played, and it shouldn’t be minimized just to make mainstream America feel good about outlasting him. We’ve lost control of vast areas of the world since 9/11, and we are still in complete denial that our owners counted on the exploitation of those regions, and others we will soon lose, to keep our economy working without many people making actual goods, or possessing any skills besides marketing and fearmongering.

    The good news is, mostly the Left is winning in these places. The bad news is, America has long been pre-programmed to view the Left as an existential threat, and we will simply change fairy tales from the Moslem Peril one back to the Red Menace one, only now we are much more stupid, afraid of our own minorities’ numbers, and apocalyptically religious. We’ve still got thousands of nukes, and we haven’t learned a damn thing.

  16. I am somewhat confused as to where the Islamist political forces fit into all this. They were not mentioned in the article. Do they want parliamentary democracy? I believe that in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, Islamist movements (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood) will do better than people think today, and better than polls are showing at the moment. There are Egyptians and Tunisians who, at this moment, are convinced in their minds that they won’t vote for those parties, but at the critical moment, in the voting booth, they will change their minds and end up voting for them. Why? Because these parties will remind the voters that they are being watched from on high regarding whom they are voting for and they will be judged for eternity on that choice. This can be effective even on people who don’t consider themselves religiously-observant Muslims. They might think to themselves “why take a chance”?, or “I am generally not a good Muslim, but by voting for the MB I can make up for it and be rewarded from on high”. Don’t dismiss this way of thinking. It has worked in the past in places like Iran, Pakistan and other countries in which politicized religion is powerful.

    • It is an improvement on the past that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is sponsoring a civil party to contest parliamentary elections and says it will abide by the rules of that game. This is much better than an MB that wants to essentially make a coup and then rule via Supreme Guide. Most observers of Egypt suggest that the MB will get 17-33% of seats in parliament this fall. This outcome would not be so different than in the 2006 parliament.

  17. Dear Juan Cole,

    Thank you for a thoughtful understanding of recent democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East. I hope that you will devote a future post to the reconstitution of North African intellectual and university life. This morning’s NY Times story on Libya, for instance, notes the following developments in Tripoli: “In Tripoli, residents pitched in to clean up streets, and garbage trucks have reappeared in recent days. At the recently renamed Tripoli University — long called Fatah University after Colonel Qaddafi’s rebellion 42 years ago — students swept courtyards, sang the pre-Qaddafi national anthem and held meetings in each department to plan next steps.” Perhaps the juxtaposition of neighbors’ volunteering to clean up streets and students’ meeting to reconstitute departments is an accident of journalistic practice. But I see it as a revealing conjunction.

  18. An additional point about how 9/11 weakened America: economic policy. In 2001, the US was dealing with the burst of the tech bubble, and was flirting with recession. The attacks were used as an excuse to artificially resuscitate the bubble. Greenspan cut interest rates and used his great influence over the next several years to encourage the worst banking practices. This in turn created trillions of dollars in private credit. We keep forgetting the 2008 crash was a collapse of PRIVATE credit and asset prices that had been overvalued since 9/11. Greenspan and Bush simply held off that crash for seven years. I would argue that their excuse was that they could not let al Qaeda claim that it had caused a recession in ’01. But stringing things out for 7 years made it far worse, with a derivatives market tangled beyond comprehension, and China moving in as the world’s great saver while American savings vanished.

    If we’d created a war economy like we did in 1942, then at least much of the debt would have been used to create factories that could be converted back to peaceful uses, and infrastructure would have been improved and people would have gotten real jobs. That’s not how modern military spending works, though. It is meant to produce as few jobs as politics can bear, and create overspecialized gear to fight imaginary threats. The profits go straight to that real estate and stock bubble. (Much as they did in the UK and Israel, such that we could call it Neocon-nomics.)

    So the worst damage was not the actual size of the military spending, but the size of the fake civilian boom that had to be created to make the wars politically palatable. Whether al Qaeda planned it or not, we chose a very self-destructive economics for this conflict.

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