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.