Think Again: 9/11

The attacks on the United States were neither a clash of civilizations nor an unqualified success for al Qaeda. They were, however, a clash of policy that continues to this day. As al Qaeda struggles to strike again, the United States wrestles with a confused war on terror that won't end until Americans are forced to choose between Medicare and missiles.

"September 11 Changed Everything"

"September 11 Changed Everything"

No. The massive forces of international trade and globalization were largely unaffected by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. China’s emergence as a new economic giant in East Asia continues, with all its economic, diplomatic, and military implications. Decades-old flash points remain. China and Taiwan still stare at each other suspiciously across the strait. The conflict between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan over Kashmir shows no signs of resolving itself. North Korea’s cycle of provocation and retreat with the United States and Japan hasn’t changed fundamentally since the Clinton administration.

Even within the Middle East, there is more continuity than change. Al Qaeda’s strike didn’t answer the questions of Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon and of the long-term impact of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution on the region. The world’s reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf is as strong as ever. The sclerotic but stubborn Saudi and Egyptian regimes linger on. Israel is still battling militants in southern Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. For all their visibility and drama, the 9/11 attacks left untouched many of the underlying forces and persistent tensions that shape international politics.

"9/11 Was a Victory for Al Qaeda"

Probably. Post-9/11 terrorism — from Bali to Madrid to London — has become the province of small, local groups who are emulating al Qaeda but not in direct contact with it. These cells can learn a few tricks on the Internet, and they can certainly inflict pain, but they cannot hope to accomplish much. At most, they can carry bombs onto trains.

The economic and social disruption of these operations is limited, which is why al Qaeda itself would not bother with them. The core al Qaeda leadership prefers terrorism that has a powerful psychological and political impact. Attaining that level of impact has now become very difficult. The 9/11 hijackers exploited conceptual gaps in U.S. security procedures: American experts did not expect hijackers to be capable of piloting jetliners, and they did not expect them to commit suicide. It would be very difficult to accomplish such an advanced operation again. The organization’s command and control has been severely disrupted, and security agencies around the world are watchful.

But al Qaeda is not out of the game entirely. In February 2006, its operatives almost succeeded in bombing the Abqaiq oil refining facility in Saudi Arabia, which would have caused an enormous short-term spike in the price of petroleum and widespread fuel shortages. But the fact that a once porous Saudi security apparatus foiled the attack highlights al Qaeda’s limited capabilities.

"9/11 Was a Clash of Civilizations"

False. The notion that Muslims hate the West for its way of life is simply wrong, and 9/11 hasn’t changed that. The exhaustive World Values Survey found that more than 90 percent of respondents in much of the Muslim world endorsed democracy as the best form of government. Polling by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has found that about half of respondents in countries such as Turkey and Morocco believe that if a Muslim immigrated to the United States, his or her life would be better. The one area where Muslim publics admit to a value difference with the United States and Europe is standards of sexual conduct and, in particular, acceptance of homosexuality. In other words, Muslims reject what might be called Hollywood morality, just as do American conservatives and evangelicals. Those differences alone do not drive people to violence.

If it is not a clash of civilizations, what is it? It is a clash over policy. Bin Laden has expressed outrage at the "occupation of the three holy cities" — Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem — by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia (now ended) and the Israeli possession of Jerusalem. Before the Iraq war, polling consistently showed that Muslims were most concerned about the United States’ wholehearted support of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. The bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq has now created another point of tension: The Muslim world does not believe that Iraq will be better off because of the U.S. intervention. Autonomy and national independence appear to be part of what Muslims mean by "democracy," and they consider Western interventions in Muslim affairs a betrayal of democratic ideals. September 11 and the American response to it have deepened the rift over policy, but they haven’t created a clash of civilizations.

"The War on Terror Has No End"

That’s the plan. The Bush administration has defined the struggle vaguely precisely so that it can’t end; George W. Bush clearly enjoys the prerogatives of being a war president. So, the administration has expanded the goals and targets of this war from one group or geographical area to another. There is an ongoing counterterrorism effort against al Qaeda and, more broadly, the Salafist jihadi strain of Sunni radicalism. Then there is the struggle to empower the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and to crush permanently the Pashtun-centered Taliban. In Iraq, the goal is to ensure the primacy of the Kurds and the Shiites over the Sunni Arabs. And then there is the effort to contain or overthrow the secular Baathist regime in Syria and the Shiite ayatollahs in Iran. Even North Korea sometimes gets included in this sprawling campaign. It is less a coherent war than a hawk’s wish list.

If the "war on terror" is indeed all these things, then it could drag on for decades. More likely, the American public will not tolerate such a costly grab bag of initiatives for much longer. If there is no major attack in the United States, pressure will build on Washington to stop fiddling with the politics of Kandahar and Ramadi, much less those of Damascus and Tehran. At some point, the American public will have to choose between paying for Bush’s ongoing wars and Medicare. And that will be the true end of the war on terror.

"9/11 Radically Changed U.S. Foreign Policy"

No. American policy has changed only at the margins. The attacks temporarily removed constraints on U.S. political elites, allowing them to pursue their policies more aggressively. As we now know, President Bush and his advisors wanted to undermine Saddam’s regime well before September 11. Absent the attacks, the administration might have employed a limited bombing campaign, a covert operation, or a coup attempt. The attacks suddenly made a years-long land war in the Middle East politically palatable. But that energy has now dissipated, and it has left behind little fundamental change in U.S. policy.

Despite talk of a "war on terror," Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, the Persian Gulf monarchies, Morocco, and Pakistan remain close U.S. allies. Relations with Libya were warming in the Clinton era, and the Iraq war didn’t alter its trajectory. American support for Israel remains steadfast. And Iran and Syria were in Washington’s sights well before 9/11.

It is possible to imagine a response to 9/11 that would have been dramatically different. The United States might have allied with the Baathist secularists in Syria and Iraq, and with the Shiites in Iran, to counter the extremist Sunni threat. Instead, all Washington’s old friends in the area (including the three regimes that had recognized the Taliban — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) are still friends, and the old enemies are still enemies.

The most dramatic changes, of course, are in Afghanistan and Iraq. But both countries have effectively been fighting civil wars for 25 years, with the United States backing the losing side (the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq). After 9/11, the Bush administration transformed the losers in those conflicts into winners. But the civil wars continue, with the unseated groups now playing the role of insurgents. The change is significant, but the transformation is far less complete than what was imagined in the spring of 2003. The administration’s plan for liberalization and democratization in the Middle East has yielded little beyond a failed state in Iraq, an unstable Lebanon torn between Hezbollah and Israel, and polite but noncommittal noises from allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"The Next 9/11 Will Be Even Worse"

It’s anyone’s guess. Al Qaeda’s efforts to acquire nuclear material have been amateurish. In 2002, U.S. agents in Afghanistan seized canisters from Taliban and al Qaeda compounds, only to discover that al Qaeda operatives had likely been duped into purchasing phony nuclear materials. The organization has pursued other tools of mass destruction, but without much success. Al Qaeda agents were reportedly planning to use poison gas in New York’s subway system, though it appears that Zawahiri mysteriously called off the operation. Perhaps the experience of the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist group in Tokyo deterred him; its 1995 attack killed 12 people rather than the thousands the terrorists had hoped to claim.

Still, it would be irresponsible to minimize the threat. Technological advances are allowing small groups to wreak major damage, and al Qaeda has often attracted skilled engineers and scientists. Breakthroughs in DNA research, for example, could lead to designer viruses that would be a terrorist’s dream. The Internet has created new vulnerabilities as major engineering infrastructure, from dams to nuclear plants, has come to rely on it. The world’s financial systems are increasingly vulnerable as well. Governments, universities, and corporations must ensure that emerging technologies don’t go astray. Al Qaeda may not have fundamentally changed the world on 9/11, but that is no reason to give it a second chance.

Juan Cole is professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of the blog Informed Comment.

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