The hijackings and mass murders of September 11 were horrible and momentous, but the world did not suddenly change on that crystal-clear morning. Existing cracks in the US-led world order widened and deepened, and lurking insecurities strode forth from the shadows. The current spectacle of the world’s richest country bombing Afghanistan — where the average life expectancy is 43 — cannot resolve the crisis of global governance sharpened so painfully on September 11, whether or not the US achieves its military objectives of capturing or killing alleged mastermind Osama bin Laden and ridding the country of the thuggish Taliban.

In the US and abroad, opposition to the war, however nuanced, is kept outside the sphere of legitimate politics by the Manichean rhetoric of the Bush administration and the security forces of its client regimes. Most of all, the September 11 attacks highlight the inadequacy and danger of this approach to managing the contradictions generated by the imbalance of global power.

At home, reactionary agendas of all sorts received a shot in the arm. In Congress, only Barbara Lee (D-CA) balked at granting the most hawkish administration in years unlimited war and emergency powers. Defense Department boondoggles which might have met their timely demise before September 11 have been resurrected: faulty warplanes, like the crash-prone V-22 Osprey and the already outmoded F-22 fighter, might learn to fly again. The Pentagon could get a $66 billion increase in its budget over last year when all the boodle is tallied. The right wing of the Justice Department easily secured expanded surveillance and interrogation powers it has been seeking for years. Racial profiling shed its hard-won opprobrium in public opinion, Congress allowed law enforcement officials to detain immigrants for seven days without charging them and George W. Bush spotted loopholes in the 25-year ban on CIA assassinations. The hijackers helped the mandarins of the national security state cross several items off their wish list.

The economic stimulus package passed by the House of Representatives in late October (and in the Senate at press time) reveals the extent of corporate influence in the Bush administration. With thousands of people newly unemployed — including many rendered jobless by the World Trade Center catastrophe — in the shell-shocked economy, conservative Republicans rammed through a bill that distributes most of the stimulus in the form of retroactive tax rebates for multinational corporations. Common Cause projects that the top 14 corporate contributors of soft money to 2000 election campaigns would get $6.3 billion in refunded taxes if the House bill became law. (That’s nearly $19 to corporations for every dollar the US is spending on relief efforts for Afghan refugees.) Senate resistance may dilute the worst provisions of the House package, but the final bill will certainly be a giant step backward for social justice in the US.

The global outpouring of sympathy for the deaths of over 5,000 civilians gave the US a unique opportunity to mobilize genuine international support for what should still be the overriding US objective: finding the planners and abettors of the attacks and trying them through mechanisms of international law. The US could have classified the attacks as crimes against humanity and reduced the international cynicism that normally greets US invocations of that phrase. Even now, international opinion might support a carefully targeted US commando operation to capture planners and abettors hiding in Afghanistan, if convincing evidence of their guilt were to be presented. But from the moment that Bush declared the September 11 atrocities “acts of war” against “freedom and democracy,” the administration tacitly declared that US responses would not be based on procedural norms of legal justice. In doing so, the White House squandered an opportunity to build bridges. Instead, the Bush administration has generated a narrative of war dividing the world into two irreconcilable forces: “us” and “them.” “Us” means those who unequivocally support the US-led “war on terrorism.” “They” are those who question or oppose the war for any reason, including lack of sufficient information to blindly sanction bombing in Afghanistan. The image of the US as global bully, so readily exploited by bin Laden and his demagogic ilk, has been perilously enhanced. As details of Afghan civilian deaths from errant US missiles trickle into the press, the efforts of Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice to market the war on al-Jazeera appear mordantly insensitive to cold realities.

On September 25, the Bush administration scoffed again at international law when it announced support for the so-called American Servicemembers Protection Act, a brainchild of Jesse Helms designed to short-circuit the planned International Criminal Court, to which President Bill Clinton grudgingly signed on immediately before leaving office. Helms’s bill authorizes the executive branch to use “all means necessary” to remove US citizens or allies accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity from the Court’s custody. Meanwhile, Bush’s trade representative Robert Zoellick, seeking fast-track authority for a new round of World Trade Organization negotiations before the November 9 ministerial meeting in Qatar, averred that US-style neoliberalism “promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle” against terrorism. Developing countries which might have resisted a new round in Doha will now think twice, lest the US place them on the wrong side of the “us versus them” divide.

The most commonplace observation since the attacks, through the start of bombing and the anthrax scare, is that “everything has changed.” Other commentators, noting the “us versus them” rhetoric, and the sheepish tone of most domestic dissent to the war and its attendant rollbacks of democracy, observed that the post-September 11 geopolitical climate recalls the early Cold War. Rushing to construct a viable coalition to “defend democracy” from al-Qaeda, the US has shored up its alliances with notably anti-democratic leaders — Musharraf in Pakistan, Sharon in Israel, Mubarak in Egypt — and even found a new dictator to coddle in Uzbekistan. With the world’s attention focused on caves in the Hindu Kush, these leaders (as in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere) may seize the anti-terrorist mantle to crush legitimate political opposition. Authoritarian rule may be particularly strengthened in the Arab world. In the US, commentators are largely unable to transcend a narrow nationalist discourse in their prescriptions for a just response to the September 11 events: the US must pursue planners and abettors of the attacks not because killing civilians is a crime, but because the US must defend itself from the outside world. When even Richard Falk, long-time champion of international law, justifies opening Operation Enduring Freedom in not so dissimilar terms in The Nation, the Cold War comparison seems an accurate description indeed of the present moment. For many reasons, however, both the sentiment that everything has changed and the Cold War comparison lack analytical utility.

Rather than ushering in an entirely new era, the September 11 attacks and the war on terrorism mark a flashpoint in the ongoing crisis of the unipolar world order. The US presides (or pretends to) over a world racked by poverty, growing inequality, sectarian strife and environmental degradation, but seems scarcely disturbed by the contradictions. In the 1990s, US unilateralism showed itself in the pursuit of unpopular policy goals like harsh sanctions on Iraq, generous military aid to Israel and compulsory structural adjustment for indebted economies, matched by the obstruction of more popular initiatives on everything from the International Criminal Court to environmental protections to arms control.

The current US retaliation depends for domestic support on extrapolating the hijackers’ presumed antipathy beyond two of the most visible symbols of American corporate and military power. Precisely this transformation occurred in the media within hours: these were not attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but attacks on “all of America.” Those who died on September 11 were certainly normal people just going to work, but it would be naive to ignore what these buildings signify to the many people in the world who live on the other side of the US superpower equation. Saddening displays of resentful glee in the Middle East and not so subtle shrugs of ambivalence across the developing world bespeak a widespread feeling that the US is an overweening empire that finally tasted the violence and despair endured elsewhere as a matter of course.

Media analysis has been dominated by the dubious terms proposed in the early 1990s by Samuel Huntington: “the clash of civilizations.” War debriefings, administration spokespersons, editorials and talk shows return to the theme that the roots of the conflict are to be found in Islam. In turn, imam after imam has been coerced to step forward to denounce bin Laden and insist that Islam is not a religion of violence. But crucial as it is to reject racist representations of Islam, which contains a robust array of intellectual, theological and cultural traditions, it should be important to avoid apologetics that deny any connection between the perpetrators and Islam. As Khaled Abou El Fadl argues in this issue, the language of extreme violence and intolerance repudiates the indeterminacy and generosity of the classical interpretive tradition. Moreover, he contends, this repudiation finds echoes in contemporary Islamic discourses much nearer the mainstream, including a state-sponsored discourse in Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, it is important to recognize the degree to which Islam has been a register of political opposition, not only to the despotism and corruption of various Arab regimes, but also to US and Israeli hegemony in the region. The question usually asked — “What in Islam has led to these events?” — needs to be replaced by another: “What about the modern history of the Middle East has led political opposition to take a decidedly religious form?” Part of the answer is to be found in the politics of state-building and modernization in the region. “Moderate” secular states — such as Algeria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey or Iran under the Shah — began with the premise that Islam was a problem to be overcome or coopted. In such countries, numerous laws confining, suppressing or monopolizing the public practice of Islam helped to transform religion into the focal point for political struggle. That Islamist activists under these regimes have been jailed, exiled, tortured and executed for their beliefs has done little to advance the cause of secularism.

Another vital part of the answer is to be found, not surprisingly, in US Cold War policy in the region. During the 1970s and 1980s, the US was not embarrassed by the Saudi regime’s Wahhabism. To the contrary, policymakers quietly promoted it as a counterbalance to the popularity of Arab socialism. With a wink and a nod from the US, autocrats from Morocco to Pakistan, from Egypt to Yemen, eagerly sought Saudi support in smashing the Arab and Muslim left. Sadat’s policy of unleashing Islamist activists on Nasserist groups in the universities and Numeiri’s anti-communist Islamist politics were convenient in the fight against Soviet influences in the region. Finally, of course, the largest CIA operation of the 1980s — propping up the military junta of Zia ul Haq in Pakistan and funding, with the Saudis, holy warriors to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan — relied on the manufacture of Islamist insurgency in the region. The Taliban and bin Laden both drew succor from this tangled US-Saudi-Pakistani nexus. But religiously inflected anti-Western violence is not simply “blowback” from US adventurism in the Middle East. Cold War imperatives converged with the interests of regional players, particularly the Saudis, who gained so much in regional clout via the export of Wahhabi doctrines. In Afghanistan, both the Saudis and the Pakistani military sought to curb the influence of revolutionary Iran, an objective that also coincided with US goals. In the end, the hijackers who plowed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania are the human detritus of the failed strategies of the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and lesser regional players to contain both leftist and Islamist threats to the status quo.

Certainly, the responses of these players to the hijackings augur ill for regional stability. To the world’s misfortune, the White House is now occupied by men and women who believe that US unilateralism is a virtue as well as a necessity. The patina of evangelical Christianity coating the administration’s policy pronouncements is revealing: Bush’s use of the word “crusade” to describe the war on terrorism was more than just a public relations faux pas. If anything, the attacks bolstered the hard-line unilateralists in the Bush administration, and deepened their willingness to turn a blind eye to the excesses of allies who claim to be fighting terrorism. Administration hawks talk loudly of widening the war to encompass Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Saudi princes accept Bush’s assurances that media scrutiny of US reliance on the Kingdom’s oil will not diminish Washington’s enthusiasm for the US-Saudi relationship. Taking into account the simultaneous aid packages to Israel and pledges of support to “moderate” Arab regimes, US Middle East policy looks on track to maintain tightly and precariously managed conflict in the region.

Meanwhile, the generals in Islamabad will not cooperate with US-sponsored nation-building in Afghanistan unless they handpick the nation-builders. Scant days after Operation Enduring Freedom commenced, the phrase “moderate Taliban” had already crept into official US prognostications about Afghanistan’s political future. Neither these curious apparitions nor the US-backed Northern Alliance are likely to accommodate all the ethnic groups represented among Afghanistan’s four million refugees or ameliorate the now notorious persecution of Afghan women. (The frisson of American activism dramatizing the plight of women under Taliban rule must seem odd to Afghan mothers made refugees by US bombing.) More to the point, continued US-Pakistani interference in Afghan politics does not seem likely to contribute to long-term security in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Seen from the vantage point of containment strategies, the war on terrorism so far appears to be little more than a panicked exercise in crisis management.

As governments worldwide place national security above all else, the glimmers of internationalism espied in the 1990s are fading. Internationalist ventures — both official ones like the International Criminal Court and bottom-up surges like the post-Seattle global justice movement — face a newly ambient nationalism and a rejuvenated right-wing power structure. Public discourse continually asks why “they” hate “us” without stopping to ponder the categories. That the Bush administration has chosen this path is doubly damning: the September 11 disasters could have presented a rare chance to steer global power dynamics onto a distinctly less ominous course.

How to cite this article:

Elliott Colla, Chris Toensing "From the Editors (Winter 2001)," Middle East Report 221 (Winter 2001).

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