(Fading) Superpower Games

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America has taken upon itself this last decade to reshape the world in its own disfigured image. Will it spend the next decade recoiling from the result?

On September 11, the United States marks the tenth anniversary of the single most shocking incidence of violence perpetrated on its shores. You’d have to have been a New Yorker, or at least have been in the city at the time, to have viscerally experienced the horror of the attack, to have felt the ash on your skin, to have felt your eyes smart and your throat constrict from the smoke billowing into the sky, to have smelt the burning. For us, though, not American, not Western, we were transfixed by the sheer spectacle, by the audacity of an attack on the tallest towers in Manhattan’s gleaming, priapic skyline, the imposing symbol of American commercial power. 

Living in Bombay at the time, removed from the emotional impact of the thousands of personal tragedies, from the sorrow that engulfed New York City, I remember debating with friends that very night, over seekh kebabs at Bade Miya in Colaba, behind the Taj hotel, how the United States would respond to 9/11, to this first major challenge to its post-Cold-War hegemony. My hope that it would respond with restraint was met, correctly as it turned out, with derision. Less than a month later, the United States, Britain and their allies invaded Afghanistan. As the bombing of Pearl Harbour prompted the United States, hitherto dragging its feet, to join battle in World War II, so 9/11 precipitated the Bush doctrine, a commitment to waging preemptive war to defend American interests, and, as a corollary benefit, spread democracy.

Now is the time to ask, in the week of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, as the United States is still involved in the longest wars in its history, what impact 9/11 has had on the world and what impact it has had on the US itself. On May 1, late on a Sunday night in Washington, DC, Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, assassinated by US Navy Seals in Pakistan. Young people, many clutching American flags, singing the national anthem and chanting “USA!” “USA!” spilled onto the streets around Ground Zero and the White House. It was a moment of national catharsis, or closure, to use the word Americans favour. In the unrestrained celebration was a sense of the national desperation for tangible success in what has been a dispiriting decade of war. 

The Pew Research Center, a Washington think tank, sent me a copy of a national survey it is about to publish that suggests Americans are divided over their country’s response to 9/11 even as they are united in their memory of the attack. The ‘events of that day’, begins the report, ‘retain a powerful hold on the public’s collective consciousness.’ It occupies as vivid a space in the American imagination as the Kennedy assassination and has just as thriving a conspiracy culture around it. According to the Pew survey, 97 per cent of Americans, eight or older at the time of the attack, remember exactly where they were at the time of the attack, compared to 81 per cent for bin Laden’s assassination. Even a decade after the attack, 75 per cent of Americans say 9/11 affected them ‘a great deal’, while 61 per cent believe the country has ‘changed in a major way’. 

Of course, the survey is not specific about how America has changed, in what ways its people consider their country different. I asked Dinesh D’Souza, the Bombay-born conservative writer and commentator, what he thought had changed in his adopted country since 9/11. “I believe,” he said, “two things have changed decisively: Iraq and Afghanistan have had a chastening effect, so there’s a reduced appetite for American adventurism and since 9/11 more Americans are aware of anti-Americanism around the world.” There is some support for D’Souza in the Pew survey.  Americans are so weary of the wars their government launched in Afghanistan and then Iraq that only 43 per cent of people ascribe their safety from further attack since 9/11 to good governance. In fact, 47 per cent of women believe the war in Afghanistan increased the chances of another attack on US soil. Meanwhile, 43 per cent of Americans believe foreign policy ‘wrongdoings’ motivated the 9/11 hijackers, up from 33 per cent in a similar Pew survey conducted in the weeks after the attacks. Republicans, the survey shows, overwhelmingly reject such a theory but fully half of self-described independents, affiliated or committed to neither party, accept that some blame for 9/11 lies with US actions abroad.

D’Souza also believes that a suspicion of Muslims lingers in America, a decade after 9/11. This is less clear in the survey, which shows that while 67 per cent of Americans are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the ‘rise of Islamic extremism in America’, only 39 per cent of Americans believe there is at least a ‘fair amount’ of support for extremism among Muslims in America, and only 25 per cent believe support for extremists among Muslims is rising. Meanwhile, 57 per cent of Americans reject the Huntingtonian thesis that 9/11 marks the beginning of, as the Pew survey words it, ‘a major conflict between the people of America and Europe versus the people of Islam.’ A separate Pew survey shows only 48 per cent of Americans believe relations between Westerners and Muslims are ‘poor’, compared to 62 per cent of French people, 61 per cent of Germans and similarly high percentages of people living in Muslim countries. But D’Souza is probably correct to sense a lingering suspicion. Certainly, the survey shows, among Republicans there is a significantly greater concern with the perceived rise of Islamic extremism in America and a belief that it is supported by American Muslims. In the Republican-controlled state of Tennessee, a bill was passed which, according to a recent New York Times op-ed, ‘equates Shariah with a set of rules that promotes ‘the destruction of the national existence of the United States.’’ Some dozen or so other states are considering making illegal aspects of Shariah law. In a country founded on principles of religious freedom, this is a worrisome development.

Certainly, a legacy of 9/11 has been a willingness to sacrifice foundational American principles at the altar of security. Even ten years after the fact, the Pew survey shows, 57 per cent of Americans support legislation that would require Americans to carry a national identity card of some sort on them at all times. Over half of the Americans surveyed (53 per cent) still believe there should be ‘extra airport checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle-Eastern descent.’ And while 24 per cent of Ameri- cans believe torture is never justified, 53 per cent believe torture is at least sometimes justified. In Pew surveys conducted five years ago, the figures stood at 32 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively, suggesting that 10 years of war, of detainee abuse, extraordinary rendition, the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay have created a public increasingly accepting of the ‘whatever it takes’ mentality.

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, writes that 9/11 transformed US methods from a ‘criminal justice approach to counterterrorism… to a wartime approach that emphasized detention, interrogation and assassination.’ He adds that the US also took a strategic decision that ‘America’s national security required promoting democracy across the Muslim world—by force of arms if necessary—rather than accepting the kind of stability that various dictators had promised to supply.’ Under Obama little has changed. Indeed, the US is now engaged in further nation building in Libya.

The events of what Western commentators describe as the ‘Arab Spring’ have inspired some extraordinary piggybacking by the US and its principal European allies, as if the toppling of corrupt longstanding regimes in Egypt and Tunisia (supported and, in the case of Mubarak, embraced by successive American governments) by its long subjugated peoples owed something to the American commitment post-9/11 to ‘spread democracy.’ Christopher Hitchens, a skilled polemicist, whose support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is unflagging, asserted back in March that the Arab uprisings would have been impossible without American action in Iraq. Hitchens seemed to suggest that the only reason Egyptians and Tunisians weren’t waving Iraqi flags, ‘as if in emulation,’ was because ‘the liberation of the country was not entirely the work of its own people.’

In some British and American circles there is an increasing belief that posterity will vindicate the decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Charles Moore, a former Daily Telegraph editor and Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, very recently wrote that it is ‘not imaginable that the West could have failed to respond violently to the attacks of September 11.’ Predictably, he invokes the spectre of Neville Chamberlain, appeaser of the Nazis, to bolster his claims for the necessity of the Afghan invasion. Moore is not so self-congratulatory as to claim the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were enabled by the West, but he praises them as the ‘sort of rebellions we recognize.’ ‘Young people,’ he intones, ‘using modern media, see freedom and want more of it.’ Earlier in the piece he writes that nobody ‘yet knows what the Arab Spring may mean,’ but the ‘faces on the celebratory posters in Tripoli depict David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy, not Osama bin Laden.’

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Center and a distinguished writer and analyst, told me that in his view “while the Afghan and Iraq wars have been very unpopular in the Arab world, the pro-democracy revolts are about the aspirations of the people in the region, not about their views of the US.” This may be true but from the murk of this post-9/11 decade, ‘our own low, dishonest decade’ as Pankaj Mishra put it, quoting Auden, America and its allies long to see the gleam of vindication in the revolts of the Arab Spring, hence the rush to co-opt it. Of course, the Arab Spring is a rejection of American hypocrisy that long before 9/11 employed the rhetoric of freedom and democracy to disguise the realpolitik that required doing deals with despots to safeguard American interests. This has long been the way of the great powers. See, for instance, how a case is made in the media for humanitarian intervention in Libya and those who talk of oil are excoriated as cynics. Inevitably, on September 1, barely days after rebel forces assumed control of Tripoli, a report in the Guardian quoted the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, as saying it would be “fair and logical” for French companies to benefit when Libyan oil contracts are doled out. The article described as a “race” the alacrity with which French and British oil companies had staked their claims.

Noam Chomsky recently wrote that ‘the succession of horrors across the past decade leads to the question: Was there an alternative to the West’s response to the 9/11 attacks?’ He says 9/11 should have been treated as the ‘crime against humanity’ that it was, that the US would have had moral legitimacy and worldwide support had it sought to apprehend those responsible rather than strike its obligatory blunderbuss pose. The speed with which the US went to war indicates this was never an option. The United States chose, in the aftermath of 9/11, to become a European colonial power, to rebuild first Afghanistan and then Iraq in its own image. That in the process the United States could no longer recognise its own image did not appear to be a cause for undue concern.

As we enter the second decade of the US project to remake the world after 9/11, it appears that any victory the US might claim will be pyrrhic. Ameri- can economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate, has estimated the cost of Amrerica’s wars in the trillions. He describes the war on terror as ‘the first war in history paid for entirely on credit.’ The result is the dire economic straits in which the US finds itself. Sep- tember 11 and subsequent wars have also created a new provincial political force in the Tea Party, its appeal founded on the atavistic desire to pull up the drawbridge and sequester America from a world largely of its own making. America has taken upon itself this last decade to remake the world in its own warped image. Will it spend the next decade recoiling from the result?