Friday, July 21, 2006

Reflections on September 11th: America’s Place in the World

I was sitting in my sixth grade class on November 22, 1963 when the principal came in to announce that the president had been shot. There was some anxiety and nervousness that something important had just happened but we were not quite sure how we should react. On the bus ride home, the bus driver speculated the shooting had something to do with what he called the Civil Rights “agitators” in the South. When I got home I walked into the door and saw my mother talking on the telephone with someone. She was sobbing. It had just been announced that President Kennedy had died.

The memory of what I saw, what I heard and what I felt that afternoon and the next few days is something I will never forget. There was a feeling of shock, sadness, anxiety, anger, and confusion but it was not personal. It was communal. The whole community was confused and we all grieved together.

Almost five years ago, everyone reading this and most people across the world, experienced a universal shock and outrage followed by sadness and anxiety by the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Everyone has their own memories and impressions of those horrible and sad events. We have had the opportunity to grieve together and express our feelings to one another in public and in private. Special anniversary remembrances will be held for years to come.

Attacks on our nation can be transformative events. One has only to think how the attacks on Pearl Harbor or Fort Sumter set off a chain of events that changed our nation, and the world, forever. It became a cliché following the 9-11 attacks that the world would never be the same or that everything had changed since 9-11. I believe that on the contrary that little has really changed at all. After almost five years, it has not made the United States necessarily better or stronger. Nor has it made Americans more civic minded in the long run. Nor did our uninspired national leadership use the opportunity of the moment to make bold initiatives the public would have rallied behind – such as a national energy policy aimed to not only make us less dependent upon foreign oil but less dependent upon fossil fuels of all types, foreign or domestic. Such an initiative would have had profound symbolic and practical significance because of the overlap of issues regarding oil, the Middle East, and these attacks. It was talked about at the time but we got a tax cut instead – the first tax cut, by the way, during a time of war in our history. Of course, this is what happens when we have a national leadership that does not value Americans as citizens but values them as investors and consumers. Sadly, our national leadership does not even view this as a missed opportunity.

Think of what we were asked to do following the attack on Pearl Harbor and how we responded. Thousands volunteered to serve in the military and fight the war. There were scrap metal drives, rationing, victory gardens, and war bonds. Housewives went to work in the factories to enable war production. Taxes were doubled to pay for the war. In other words, individual and communal sacrifices were asked for and received with the goal of winning the war. Compare that to what happened following September 11th.

I believe we are facing the same demons we faced in the twentieth century. The twentieth century will be remembered that following the First World War totalitarianism rose to challenge liberal democracy around the world. The attacks of September 11th, 2001, are a variation of the fascist threat we faced a little over half a century ago. The twentieth century also is a history of American successes in foreign policy coupled with bungling and failures – particularly in the Third World before, during and after the Cold War.

Let’s explore two issues related to this “9-11 era” we live in. First, I would like to discuss a little about how Americans are viewed by a certain groups who have come to despise the West. Second, I would like to explore a little about how we, as the United States, act and react on the world stage.

The United States draws strong reactions both home and abroad. People seem to love it or love to hate it. According to George Packer, “America is seen by much of the world as an empire without actual colonies, perhaps the most dominant since Rome. To Americans this view is bewildering…..They elect presidents who have barely traveled abroad, eliminate the U.S. Information Service and shut down cultural centers in foreign capitals, resent being the ‘world’s policeman,’ and pride themselves on their ignorance of other countries.”
But bewilderment or not, perception becomes reality and it is in response to this reality people act. There are many reasons that color different people’s varied views of the United States but for this discussion let’s focus just on the issue related to the 9-11 attacks.

Following the attacks there was speculation as to the motives of the attackers. Some argued they represented the poor and exploited from the Third World. Yet, many or most of the attackers were well educated and from middle class families. This argument also failed to explain why individuals or groups from far more impoverished areas such as Africa have never lashed out at any of the Western countries responsible for exploitation. Then there were those who argued this is a result of policies by the United States. U.S. policy in the Middle East has certainly been the subject of controversy since World War II but so has the policies of other Western nations as well as the former Soviet Union. And there have been nations which have received far worse treatment from the United States than those in the Middle East such as Vietnam from the 1950’s to the 1970’s or, closer to home, Mexico for two centuries. Yet, neither of these countries or others has seen fit to attack and kill innocent Americans on such a scale.

Anti-Americanism, of course, is sometimes the result of specific American policies, American actions or perceptions of American policies and actions whether true or not. However, it is also important to understand that anti-Americanism frequently is also a stand-in for the West in general and particularly as a reaction against the Enlightenment. It is this latter dehumanizing picture of the West which Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call “Occidentalism” in their book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. They quote a Taliban fighter who said the Americans would never win because “they love Pepsi-Cola, but we love death.” Americans and liberal democracies in general, are seen as weak, soft, and addicted to pleasure. This is a view not only prevalent among certain segments of the Muslim world but could also have been said by Germans or Japanese during World War II and the decade which preceded it. In fact, Buruma and Margalit call this a cultural cross-contamination of bad ideas from Europe to the Middle East. What we face in Al Qaeda and like minded groups is a loose knit fascist ideology with roots in the religious fanaticism of an Egyptian organization founded in the 1920’s and modern fascist philosophy out of Europe in the aftermath of World War I.

Paul Berman explains in his book, Terror and Liberalism, that while Communism and Fascism were both totalitarian movements with many similarities in the twentieth century, there was at least one difference relevant for this discussion and that is there tended to be a uniformity among Communist groups around the world whereas fascists and fascist-like movements were very parochial and rooted in local traditions. Thus, for example, Spanish fascists idealized the Roman Catholic Church, in Italy it was the ancient Roman Empire, and in Germany it was the pure Aryan race. What they did share in common were apocalyptic visions of liberating certain people as the expense of others, mass movements obsessed with the purity of death, rule by a hierarchy of strong men, and a hatred for modern society and liberal democracy. The Middle East was not immune to this and developed two variations of fascist movements – one idealizing a Pan-Arabic unity, of which the Baath Party of Iraq represents on branch, and the other idealizing Pan-Islamic purity, which has given rise to Al Qaeda.
In 1924 Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, which replaced the Ottoman Empire, instituted a number of reforms to modernize Turkey including the abolition of the institution of the Caliphate thus separating religion from the State and declaring Turkey a secular state. By the twentieth century, the Caliphate was purely a ceremonial office without power but in the Middle Ages and before it was office of power and influence in the Muslim world.

In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt reeling in horror at Ataturk’s reforms. They wanted the Caliphate restored and not just as a ceremonial office. The power of the Muslim Brotherhood grew and when the nationalist Pan-Arabists, under the leadership of Gamal Nasser, overthrew the Egyptian king in the 1950’s there was an attempt at a coalition. However, the relationship went sour and the organization was banned after an attempt on Nasser’s life. The ban did not kill the organization but rather forced it underground in Egypt while many of its more public leaders went into exile in Saudi Arabia spreading their ideology through Saudi universities. Osama bin Laden was a student of one of the more prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders who then chaired the Department of Islamic Studies at a Saudi institution of higher learning.

The first video after 9-11 made available of bin Laden in which he bragged about America being filled with horror included the statement, “Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more that eighty years, of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated.” What was the event eighty years ago causing humiliation and disgrace? It was the creation of the modern secular state of Turkey and the abolition of the Caliphate. Thus, we have become the target of angry Islamists disgusted with the whole post Ottoman Arab order

In the world view of people who fear, and hate, the modern democratic world with its fluidity, openness, and assertion of individual freedom and equality we have come to represent the modern. American hypocrisy is only a minor concern. Their hatred of America is not over American failures to live up to its principles but its principles. In other words the opposition is because the United States is a liberal society, not because it fails to be a liberal society. And the most dangerous part of liberal society is the separation of church and state. To the fundamentalist Islamist the separation of church and state is like separating the head from the body. The West in general and the United States in particular support and encourage this modern concept and thus are seen as a threat.

Al Qaeda has gone on a rampage around the world not only against the United States but many symbols of Western life. In August 1998, the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are bombed killing over 300 and injuring at least 5000. On September 11, 2001, hijackers slam jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a fourth hijacked jet crashes in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000. On October 12, 2002, nearly 200 people are killed in bombings in a nightclub district of the Indonesian island of Bali. On May 12, 2003, four bombings kill 35 people in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In November 2003, on separate days, 27 are killed in bombings in Istanbul, Turkey at a London-based bank, the British consulate and two synagogues. On March 11, 2004, bombings on four commuter trains in Madrid, Spain kill 191 people. On July 7, 2005, bombings on three London subway trains and one bus kill over fifty people. A week later a similar attack is thwarted.

Al Qaeda got its start within the international volunteers’ movement fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It defined itself as a broad movement without ethnic identity – it was Islamist, not Arab. Al Qaeda received its inspiration for the September 11th attacks from a like minded group that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 killing six people. The World Trade Center had become a symbol of godless institutions of the world community.


Let’s now turn to the how the United States acts and reacts on the world stage.

I was born in 1951 and as a baby boomer for most of my life the foreign policy of the United States has been defined by and argued within the context of the Cold War. The United States and allies achieved a great success in the containment of the Soviet Union in Western Europe by the combined use of hard power – NATO – and soft power – the Marshall Plan, student exchange programs, support for labor organizing and other programs to build democratic institutions.

The Cold War success in Western Europe was as important as the victory over the Axis powers in 1945. If there was doubt in anyone’s mind about the importance of this success the erection of the Berlin Wall serves as reminder that it was built not to keep West Berliners out but to keep East Berliners in like the bars on a jail cell door.

However, the Cold War also had a corrupting influence on our thinking and judgments. For example, after WW II, instead of encouraging France to exit from Vietnam the possibility of a Communist government put us on the side of the French and, when they finally left in defeat, in place of the French. Following WW II, there were many liberation movements to expel the old colonial powers. These were movements we probably would have been supportive of but because the leadership of many of these movements were Communists we confused the two often ending up supporting oppressive governments to oppose liberation movements or those feared too closely associated with the Communists. Most liberation movements were suspected of being linked to Communist and all Communists around the world were seen as a monolith guided by the Soviet Union. The result was clumsy policies in the Third World which made enemies out of potential friends and many times putting us on the side of oppressive governments. In Vietnam the result was a disaster.

An example brings to mind that other September 11th – September 11, 1973 when the armed forces of Chile overthrew the Allende government. What was suspected at the time, and later confirmed, was there was American support behind the scenes of the overthrow of this democratically elected government of Chile. General Augusto Pinochet seized power and during this reign over 3000 people disappeared. Operation Condor was a terror campaign conducted by the Chilean secret police against Chilean dissidents around the world and included a 1976 car bombing on the Embassy Row in Washington, DC killing the former Chilean ambassador to the United States during the Allende years and his American assistant. Until September 11, 2001, this was the most infamous act of international terrorism to take place in the United States.

The Cold War abroad represented the best and the worse of American judgments and action and set the stage for the post-Cold War period.

Before discussing contemporary foreign policy it is important to understand differences are not just between liberals and conservatives. In fact, there is no unified liberal or conservative vision in this post-9-11 era on how the United States should conduct itself beyond its borders. There are, at a minimum, at least four different schools of thought and there are probably more. The four I will mention I have borrowed from an essay by Laura Secor in the book, The Fight Is For Democracy, edited by George Packer. She breaks the different schools down into four categories: Liberal Internationalists, Neoconservatives, Realists, and Anti-Imperialists.

The Liberal Internationalists generally believe American foreign policy should be promoting democracy, human rights and social welfare. They believe the sheer extent of American power carries with it a universal obligation. If innocent people are victimized, particularly in cases of genocide, and the United States has the means to protect them, then there is no escaping the responsibility – military action is not only justified but a moral requirement. It is a break from the pacifism of the Vietnam era and the Third Worldism of the Cold War era. This school of thought represents the heirs of Woodrow Wilson and their vision is most often articulated in the pages of the New Republic magazine.

The Neoconservatives are also idealistic and use much of the same rhetoric as the Liberal Internationalists. However, there is a fundamental difference. While the Liberal Internationalists believe the United States should use its power to promote what is good for the rest of the world, the Neoconservatives believe promoting American power is what is good for the rest of the world. Also, the Liberal Internationalists are more inclined towards multilateral efforts whereas Neoconservatives not only are willing to go it alone but almost prefer it because working with allies often means compromising. In fact, the trend in the last few years, promoted by Neoconservatives, has been to disengage from international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Court. The views of this school of thought are most often articulated in the Weekly Standard magazine.

The Realists believe the United States should only do what is in its interest. They do not believe in values, only interests. There are no friends, only temporary allies. Thus support for Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran, which he started, then turning around and going to war against Saddam Hussein three years later when he invades Kuwait, then leaving him in power when he is defeated in that war, then encouraging the Iraqi people to rise up against him, and then doing absolutely nothing to support the Iraqi people when he crushes this rebellion is no contradiction to the Realists but simple adjustments to policy made to maintain the balance of power which is perceived to be in American interests. This school of thought was dominant in the foreign affairs departments of American universities for many years as well as among our professional diplomatic corps.

Finally, there are the Anti-Imperialists. These are people mostly identified with a segment of the anti-war Left but not entirely. Certainly Patrick Buchanan and his magazine, The American Conservative, representing old fashioned right-wing isolationism also are very much part of this camp. Anti-Imperialists believe borders are sovereign and the United States has no business going to war anywhere unless it is directly attacked. Even then there is reluctance. I remember hearing people in this camp argue against the war in Afghanistan even though it was clearly a war of self-defense. “Swatting at flies with a sledge hammer” was the phrase I heard a number of times. They view national sovereignty as a bulwark against American hegemony and view humanitarian justifications for wars as fig leaves covering up ulterior motives of imperialism. Despite much of the idealistic language this camp uses about peace there is a side which can be as cold-blooded and cynical as the Realists and, surprisingly for a position more often than not associated with the Left, a defense of the status quo. To avoid war at any cost means turning a blind eye to oppressive regimes and the abuse of human rights. Don’t look to them to support General Wesley Clark’s recent call for NATO troops to intervene in Dafur to stop the genocide there.

These different schools of thought do conflict on the issue of the use of force. This raises the question: When is war just, if ever?

According to Michael Walzer in his book, Arguing About War, there are two elements to just war theory: “that war is sometimes justifiable and that the conduct of war is always subject to moral criticism.” The first is opposed by pacifists who argue no war is ever justified. The second is opposed by realists who argue anything goes in war. This puts just war theorists in opposition to both pacifists and realists.

Walzer argues there should now be a third element that there should be justice after the war. With the rise of failed states and re-emergence in some parts of the world of feudalism ruled by warlords or charismatic leaders, there comes an obligation to think of nation building as a necessary part of postwar politics. This is an issue to think about in regards to our current situation in Iraq.

The justification for war to stop genocide is perhaps an easy call. War to defend democracy is also easy to call to make but what about the promotion of democracy? I do not recall that we have ever gone to war exclusively to promote democracy but it often becomes a secondary cause when engaged in a conflict for other reasons such as Afghanistan. The argument then often heard in opposition is that this or that country or culture is incapable of democracy.

But we have to ask ourselves: Are Western freedoms only for Westerners? According to Paul Berman, it was argued in the nineteenth century liberal democracy was derived from Anglo-Saxon culture and for racial reasons would never go beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. There were always arguments as to how some fault line prohibited democracy. It was argued that democracy was a North European and Protestant and could not be transferred outside that zone. Indeed, until the 1970’s the notion of Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal embracing democracy seemed ridiculous but they did as did the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe a generation later. It was argued democracy was only doable in white societies yet Nelson Mandela became a world symbol for the creation of a liberal democracy in South Africa. It was argued democracy depends on Christianity yet the Hindus and Muslims of India live in the largest democratic state in the world. The same argument was made about East Asians but by 1989 South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines were all moving in democratic directions. The same argument has been made about the Muslim world but Turkey already started its democratic journey almost a century ago and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country as well as Arab countries such as Morocco and Bahrain have been making democratic soundings.
The same argument is heard about impoverished and backward countries but following the fleeing of the Taliban, Afghanistan started on the road to recovery with the selection of a Hamid Karzai, a man with democratic aspirations for his country. The year after the initial hostilities, the United Nations estimated 3 million children, many of them girls, enrolled in school for the first time. The year after, nearly 2 million Afghan refugees returned to their country who had fled the chaos of Soviet occupation and Taliban rule. The invasion had increased the population of Afghanistan by nearly 10 percent.

So what about American foreign policy up to and following 9-11?

During the 1990’s the United States was involved in two wars in the Balkans in efforts to stop widespread genocide and other violations of human rights.
In 1992, many Western nations recognized the independence of Bosnia, a mostly Muslim country with a Serbian minority, breaking out of the disintegrating Yugoslavia federation. The dominant country within Yugoslavia, Serbia, attacked. Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia, was assaulted by Serbian snipers who eventually killed thousands of helpless civilians including children. The Serbs began the systematic roundup of Muslim boys and men, executing many and placing the others in concentration camps. Rape was used as a weapon against Muslim women and girls.

The United Nations responded by imposing an arms embargo on both sides even though the Serbs were already well armed and the Bosnian Muslims were not. The U.N. also sent peacekeepers to Bosnia to establish safe havens for Muslims fleeing the Serb violence. In one safe haven, Srebrenica, the Serb forces marched in past the outgunned U.N. peacekeepers. They then systematically selected 8000 Muslim boys and men between the ages of 12 and 60 and slaughtered them all – the worse mass murder since World War II. By the time the conflict had ended, over 200,000 Muslims had been murdered, over 20,000 were missing, and over 2,000,000 had become refugees. This is what happened to Muslims in the heart of Europe just a decade ago.

The West, led by the United States, eventually did rally and halted the Serbian aggression in Bosnia and again later in Kosovo. However, Muslims must wonder if the West would have acted faster had the victims been Christians.
When the United States was attacked on September 11th by the forces of Al Qada who were protected by the Taliban government of Afghanistan, we had no choice but to defend ourselves by going after the Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. This “war against terrorism” was clearly defined and necessary.

There was an out pouring of solidarity with the American people. “We Are All Americans” read the headline in Le Monde. Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO –invoked Article V of its charter for the first time asserting that an attack on one nation was an attack on all. It was NATO that invaded, fought and remains in Afghanistan to this day. As noted above, it is one of the few wars, if the only one, in which the result of conflict actually increased the population of the country.

Finally, we are facing a tough situation in Iraq today. American policy has whipsawed back and forth in the Gulf region of the Middle East. Iraq launched a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran and from the mid-1980’s onward had the support of the United States. For many, this signaled not only a support for Iraq against Iran but also for the brutality of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

With Iran somewhat neutralized after eight years of war and over one million dead, the United States then turned against Saddam Hussein when he launched a war against Kuwait. With a huge international coalition the Iraqi invasion was repelled but the Iraqi tyrant was deliberately left in place after his defeat. To make matters worse, the United States actually encouraged a rebellion against Saddam Hussein by the Shia Arabs in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq but the U.S. and allies did not follow-up to assist. As a result over 20,000 Kurds were killed and 30,000 to 60,000 Shia and Marsh Arabs there killed. In addition, hundreds of thousands had to flee the country.

The defeat though left the establishment of two large no-fly zones over the country and the imposition of trade sanctions supposedly softened by a food-for-oil program so the population would not bare the hardship aimed at the leadership. However, the no-fly zones meant we were in a non-stop low-level state of war with Iraq for over a decade as the shooting never really stopped and the food-for-oil program turned out to be corrupt with the people suffering anyway and the leadership profiting from the oil program.

Also, at the conclusion of the Gulf War it was discovered Iraq had a very advanced program for the development of weapons of mass destruction. As part of the peace agreement it was required that Iraqi facilities be available for outside inspection. There were for a number of years until the Iraqi government kicked the inspectors out of the country and would not let them continue their work.

You will recall the events of the past few years of how the war against terrorism was defined to include Iraq, our invasion, and the successful toppling of Saddam Hussein followed by a one-year occupation by the Coalition Provisional Authority which made one bad decision after another reflecting the type of management by our federal government we got a close view of in New Orleans following Katrina. It didn’t have to turn out this way but it has set the stage for the current state of affairs.

There are similarities to the current situation in Iraq and the Spanish-American War just a little over a century ago. That short war saw the expulsion of the Spanish from Cuba, the Philippines and other island colonies. That was a good thing because the Spanish were oppressive rulers. However, this good deed by the United States became compromised by what was done next. Guam and Puerto Rico were annexed. Cuba was not annexed but the United States meddled in Cuba affairs for years creating a deep-seated anti-Americanism tapped into by Castro following his overthrow of the government in 1959. The United States attempted to annex the Philippines but unleashed a nationalist backlash by the same people who had welcomed the U.S. expulsion of the Spanish. The insurgency lasted over a decade.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein was certainly a good thing because he was a terrible, terrible tyrant and his failed state contributed to the rise of disillusionment in the Middle East. However, without the proper and timely commitment of troops and resources by an administration trying to fight a war on the cheap we may have traded a failed state of one type for another.

The likelihood of civil war in Iraq is significant and we face tough decisions about American troops in Iraq. Are our troops making the situation worse or are they preventing the situation from getting any worse and the country sinking into a Lebanon type civil war which could last years?


Our world is complex and messy. Our country is not the center of the universe and many things happen over which we are not responsible or can control. We can do all the right things and the outcome may still go all wrong.

But given our place in the world, it is important that we take the responsibilities that come with power seriously and try to do the best we can. We are not an empire – we are a democracy. As a democracy it is not our place to rule the world but it is our responsibility to provide leadership. The United States has the capacity to employ our economic and military power towards good ends around the globe helping building liberal democratic institutions and supporting the well-being of all our fellow human beings. If we are committed to freedom and equality of opportunity at home we should not refrain from supporting it abroad.
This post is an edited version of a presentation given at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, Virginia on September 11, 2005.

1 comment:

Vivian J. Paige said...

Wow - just wow! An incredible post! Extremely informative. Thanks for sharing.