The 9/11 attacks themselves are an indictment of the Bush administration’s record in defending the US. Of course, the foundations of the intelligence failures that made this atrocity possible were laid long ago and tolerated by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Nonetheless, Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, Randy Beers and others have made a very cogent case that in its first eight months in power, the administration neglected terrorism as an issue and focused instead on threats from Russia, China and other allegedly hostile states.
This failure to make the mental and intellectual adjustments necessary to combat decentralised terrorist groups operating in the midst of populations has continued to undermine the administration’s “war on terror” to this day.
The war to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan was entirely just, legal, appropriate and necessary. However, the failure to make any use of Nato’s offer of help gratuitously offended the members of that alliance and laid the basis for future clashes. The unwillingness to risk American troops in combat, and the reliance instead on utterly unreliable Afghan allies, twice allowed large numbers of al-Qaeda forces to escape (at Tora Bora and Shahikot).
While the shift in attention from Afghanistan to Iraq may or may not have harmed Afghanistan itself, it has certainly distracted the US from wider issues in South Asia, with a direct and vital bearing on the long-term Islamist threat. This is above all true of Kashmir, which remains a source of instability and radicalism in Pakistan and a potent object of opportunity for terrorists desirous of provoking a new round of Indo-Pakistani tension and even conflict.
This act of omission by the Bush administration, however, pales in comparison with its disastrous acts of commission. These are many, but might be described as aspects of the same problem. This is that the administration has wilfully, wantonly refused to even recognise the very first task of any geopolitical strategist, or any commander fighting a partisan war against an ideologically motivated enemy: that of dividing, as far as possible, the enemy camp.
Instead, the Bush administration has done just about everything possible to unite the greatest possible number of different kinds of Muslim against the US. First, in its fanatical desire for the conquest of Iraq, it conflated al-Qaeda style Sunni Islamist extremism and Ba’ath Arab secular nationalism (or in this case, quasi-Fascism). These two forces had always been bitterly opposed, and it has been shown again and again in recent months that there were no serious links between them.
Then, in an even more bizarre and utterly gratuitous move, it lumped Iran - and by implication Shia groups supported by Iran - in the “axis of evil” with Iraq, despite the fact that Iran and Iraq had fought one of the bloodiest wars in recent history. The “axis of evil” rhetoric also left many ordinary Americans with the idea that Iran has also been somehow linked to al-Qaeda and Sunni Islamism.
In abandoning the official stance of all previous administrations and giving sanction to aspects of Israel’s settlement policy, the Bush administration has also taken a line which is bound to unite much of the Muslim world in hostility to the US.
The crown was set on all this by the invasion of Iraq. This war has cost more than a thousand American and British lives, and given al-Qaeda and its allies opportunities of which they could not have dreamt while Saddam was in power. In their incredible, criminally negligent failure to make preparations properly to secure Iraq’s civilian nuclear sites, the Bush administration may have allowed material for a radioactive bomb to fall into the hands of terrorists.
The US is now faced with the unenviable choice of on the one hand a premature scuttle, leaving behind an anarchy which would be the perfect breeding ground for terrorists, and on the other hand a prolonged occupation. Such a long-term US military presence may in the end stitch together a kind of Iraqi confederal state, but only at the cost of numerous US casualties, further damage to US prestige in the Middle East and to US hopes of spreading progress in that region, and further recruits for al-Qaeda-style extremism. And all this was completely unnecessary in the context of protecting America from terrorism. If all this amounts to the Bush administration “making America safer”, then I’m a hairy Ishan.
The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. His latest book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was published this month by Harper Collins in the UK and Oxford University Press in the US.
To pin the September 11 attacks on the Bush administration or even the US is strange. The effort to do so is similar to the ongoing effort in the US media to assign blame for the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. The twin towers’ collapse, we have heard for a couple of years now, were the result of inadequate work by Leslie Robertson, the engineer. There was, it was said, a problem with the famous pinstripe design of the structures. Even after a lengthy review by professionals determined there was no big structural error, a citizen group, “Skyscraper Safety Campaign”, assailed building designers and told the New York Times that “it is far, far, too premature to come to any conclusions that it wasn’t the fault of the building.” Mr Robertson, one would presume hearing all this, must fear for his head.
But he is the wrong culprit. For of course it was never the fault of the buildings, whether the Robertson designs were flawed or not. September 11 and the deaths that attended it were the fault of individual Islamic fundamentalists and the states that harboured them. No society can entirely prepare itself for terrorist attacks, especially not the first ones; and it is not a society’s fault if terrorists are clever enough to find its way around what defences do exist. In the same way it is misleading to argue that either the Bush administration or the Clinton administration caused the actions of al-Qaeda.
If there was an error overall it was the error of western nations, which, in the 1990s, insisted that getting along was the best policy towards the regimes of the Middle East. In retrospect we can see that efforts at conciliation only gave Osama bin Laden time to build up al-Qaeda. While President Clinton was trying to coax Yassir Arafat back to the table, bin Laden was already at work. The instantaneous US withdrawal from Somalia, a sort of replay of Vietnam in fast-forward, reinforced bin Laden’s conviction that the US would not fight back in a sustained fashion. It is hard to find anyone, left, right or centre, who does not believe Saddam’s removal in 1991 would have spared the world much tragedy. This was yet another error, the error of the first President Bush.
We can get to more specifics next round, but my own attitude is that the Middle East’s troubles today start in economics. The principal reason there is increased tension between the western model and the fundamentalist model is that the western model is succeeding so well and the fundamentalist model failing so spectacularly. The housewife-directed talk by both presidential candidates - “I will make America safer for you” - is condescending and misleading. The idea that the US truly can make itself safer - or that Britain or continental Europe can - will to some degree remain a false hope until the quality of life and the amount of liberty in places like Syria, Iraq and Iran improves. When you write that you are unhappy with the US for conflating Sunni and Shia, or fascist Saddam with fundamentalist bin Laden, you gloss over the fact that economically speaking the plights of citizens in regimes dominated by these groups are often the same: near hopeless.
One answer - an answer that comes out of public choice theory and the work of economist Mancur Olson among others - is that oil is a big problem here. State oil companies don’t merely fund dictatorships; they also stomp out competing forms of capital, including intellectual capital. That means in practice that they ensure no venture capital flows to software companies, they insist on making other businesses subordinate to the oil industry and they suppress education of anyone who might compete with them. To my mind it is no accident that countries with state oil companies often have a high illiteracy rate among women.
The women’s issue, per se, tends to belong to human rights groups. I see it economically. The oppression of women in many of these countries is such a suppression of competing capital. It is wrong to see that oppression in legal or religious terms alone. Countries that suppress women make themselves poorer. This also true of course in economies that are not oil-based; as Alex Kerr noted in a penetrating book about Japanese troubles recently, just over one in five Japanese women goes to college, and that fact cost Japan mightily in the 1990s. Economists have sought to quantify exactly how much potential growth Japan has foregone by keeping women in subordinate positions; the loss in the world of fundamentalism in terms of growth is more dramatic.
Until citizens in the economies of the Middle East have a chance to trade in peace and become wealthy on their own, they will be susceptible to the arguments of the new fundamentalists.
The writer is a senior columnist on political economy for the Financial Times
I can’t quite understand how the unfortunate Mr Robertson made his way into this exchange, or how you can even seem to suggest that concentrating on the threat from al-Qaeda before 9/11 might not at least possibly have made a difference in preventing these attacks - after all, there is the highly detailed report of the 9/11 Commission to demonstrate the opposite. Beyond that, however, I don’t actually disagree with much that you say. Of course, the responsibility for 9/11 rests with Al Qaeda and their allies, and they must be fought to the death, without compromise. Like you, I know that no anti-terrorist defences can ever be foolproof.
I also agree entirely that the ultimate root cause of Islamist and Arab nationalist extremism is the relative socio-economic decline of much of the Muslim world over the past 400 years or so; though not only in this decline as such, but also in the way in which western powers, including Israel, have exploited this decline, and the profound sense of humiliation and impotence this has created among many Muslims. In the long run, you are quite right that only the economic transformation of this region can radically reduce the terrorist threat.
But this will take at best a very long time. The economic miracles in South Korea and Taiwan took a generation to bring these countries to the point where they were considered fully part of the developed world. China, Thailand and other countries have been growing steeply for a generation, but are still far from having escaped conclusively from poverty and underdevelopment. And most of the Arab world, and several other critically important Muslim countries like Pakistan, do not seem to be anywhere near even beginning such a process of transformation. Nor do the free trade and economic development strategies pursued so far by the Bush administration even begin to compare in scope with US assistance to East and South East Asia during critical periods of the Cold War. The Greater Middle East Initiative, aimed at helping democratise the region, may not help at all in its economic transformation, and could in certain circumstances promote instability and radicalism.
So while greater help for economic reform and development is indeed essential, the US and its allies obviously cannot wait for this to work. In the meantime, they need a sensible geopolitical strategy which will help us as far as may be possible to isolate and weaken the terrorists who actually carried out 9/11 and are plotting more such attacks; not one which has been a tremendous help to our enemies, as they themselves openly declare.
Even more immediately, we need a strategy for Iraq and Iraq’s neighbours which will allow the US and Britain to extricate themselves from the occupation without a disastrous loss of military prestige, and without leaving behind an anarchy which would be the perfect breeding ground and hiding place for terrorists. And permit me to repeat once more that we would not be facing either of these disastrous possibilities if the Bush administration had not wantonly got us into Iraq in the first place.
The strategic follies I have listed have been compounded by a well-nigh criminal incompetence in the actual handling of operations. In Afghanistan, this led to Tora Bora and Shahikot. In Iraq, there have been a long series of errors. These include the deliberate exclusion from the pre-war planning process of State Department experts on pacification and reconstruction; the unbelievable failure to secure Iraq’s civilian nuclear sites; the failure to deploy enough troops to give any realistic chance of controlling the country; the dissolution of the Iraqi military; the reliance on Chalabi and failure for months to recognise the importance of Sistani; the culture of - at best - ambiguity concerning torture which led to Abu Ghraib, and so on and on.
Any one of these errors should have been a matter for high level resignations or sackings. All of them lie fairly and squarely at the door of this administration.
I too believe that the US administration and Britain could have handled the war in Iraq better. The biggest mistake was not applying the Powell doctrine - Colin Powell’s thesis that overwhelming force was the best way to attempt to take over a country. Instead, the US sent in too few troops - probably because the administration was spooked by the memory of Vietnam. I do not believe however that Iraq is a cast-in-stone disaster. There is time to rectify mistakes. And not through a retreat, which is what you’re counselling. But rather by taking the Iraqi elections and democracy in Iraq generally as seriously as we can. Extricating ourselves with dignity at this stage is not possible.
The bigger point however is that focusing the blame for this situation on the US is wrong. As I noted before, economic hopelessness is a root cause of extremism and oil takes countries away from democracy. (By the way, and speaking of countries moving away from democracy: did you see your think tank colleague Fiona Hill’s excellent recent work on Russia’s petro-empire)?
But the simple absence of democracy is itself also a problem. Right now I’m reading an interesting new book by Israel’s minister for Jerusalem, Natan Sharansky, whom some readers once knew as the Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky. The thesis of your name-brother, the other Anatol, is that while countries sometimes have to deal with authoritarian regimes (Pakistan) it is dangerous to do so for extended periods. The better way to proceed, he says, is to revive the old cold war partnership between the human-rights camp and the security hawks.
Still, the growing belligerence of regimes and the new terrorism is essentially a consequence of those regimes, not the US or Europe. Such regimes strengthen themselves by scapegoating third parties - the US, Europe, Israel. All these facts are fairly obvious to just about anyone - except perhaps those who are blinded by their hatred of the US. Terror and tyranny beget terror and tyranny, and each year we tolerate them makes the tension greater. As Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident, wrote in the Guardian in 2001: “Attribution of all of the ills of one’s own world to either the great Satan, America, or the little Satan, Israel, has been the driving force of Arab politics since 1967. As a powerful undercurrent of Arab culture and politics, it has been around much longer than that. After 1967, however, it became the legitimising cement upon which such murderous regimes as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were built.”
The language barrier used to make the level of rage in these countries easy to spin, ignore, or discount. We had to take the word of diplomats about what was going on. Now however we have memri.org, the website that translates into English, mostly without comment, the press, radio and TV from Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries in the region. The value in this website is that it exposes the level of hatred that has been routine in those countries for decades now. While writing this I checked the site. Posted there was an editorial from Al Riyadh, a government-sponsored paper of US ally Saudi Arabia. The editorial is called “Bush the Nazi”; it allows that Bush is perhaps less a Nazi than the Israelis and notes that Madeleine Albright, the Democratic President Clinton’s Secretary of State, had Jewish roots - and so presumably is also a demon.
In other words, some of us may tell ourselves that a change to a President Kerry may make a huge difference and vastly increase the chances for global stability. But to many in the Arab world the distinction is a nice one. And one they make only when they find doing so useful. When, for example, they feel they have a chance of widening the rift between Europe and the US.
The US and Britain could have done some things differently, but essentially they have recognised a truth - that someone had to make the effort, however difficult, to try to introduce the paradigm of democracy into that region. Just this week Tony Blair was castigated (yet again), this time for repeating his old convictions and saying: “I believe we are right to be in Iraq”. The prime minister may be under fire in Britain for standing up in this fight, but to many in the US his argument seems honourable and logical. Mr Blair will never know how many Americans are grateful to him for his leadership in the face of the Iraq challenge. He has done more to remind Americans of Britain’s capacity for leadership than any figure since Churchill.