This is an excellent moment to evaluate what has happened since September 11, 2001. Five years have passed since the dramatic attacks on the highly symbolic American targets, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The US Government has launched wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. A third war, with likely graver consequences, is threatened in the months ahead against Iran. In a speech given in Atlanta, Georgia in early September, President Bush declared that “America is safer” than it was five years ago, “and America is winning the war on terror.” Bush also insisted that this is not only a war against Islamic extremism, but is also “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” a struggle that “threatens all civilized nations.” The American president claimed that “today the civilized world stands together to defend our freedom..to defeat the terrorists” and thereby “secure the peace for generations to come.” A sober appraisal of the facts do not support the American president on any of these contentions.
Much of the world, including the peoples of the Middle East and countries long allied do not share such a self-congratulatory interpretation of the American role in the post-9/11 world. According to independent polls taken in a variety of countries the Bush approach to world order is not popular elsewhere. When asked if they approved of the American ‘global war on terror,’84% in Egypt, 77% in Turkey, and 74% in Jordan responded ‘No.’ Similar results were found among America’s traditional allies. 76% of those polled in Spain and 57% in France expressed their overall disapproval of the American response to September 11th. A reliable survey of world opinion also found that in recent years that far more people fear the role of the United States in the world than that of al Qaeda.
What has troubled thoughtful observers more than anything else has been the stubborn American insistence that the only viable response to the 9/11 attacks was to declare ‘war’ on a violent adversary such as al Qaeda, a shadowy transnational network without either a distinct territorial base or allegiance to any specific state. This mistake was further compounded by extending the orbit of the war far beyond al Qaeda to encompass all forms of non-state violence within the operative definition of the ‘terrorist’ threat. Such an extension of the conflict by the US Government encouraged such countries as Israel, Russia, and China to treat self-determination movements within and near their borders as belonging to the war against terror. Both the futility and injustice of treating the Palestinians, the Chechens, and the people of Xingiang as part of the same struggle as that unleashed by the 9/11 attacks was to distort and deflect a more genuine and focused pursuit of security for the United States, as well as give governments around the world an unconditional mandate to engage in uncontrolled violence and oppression against non-state movements seeking human rights and self-determination.
Additionally, two closely linked counter-terrorist policies were enunciated by President Bush that further escalated and spread the war zone: states that ‘harbored’ terrorists within their borders would be held as responsible as the terrorists, and would be regarded as legitimate targets for attack; and if a state does not join the US in the counter-terrorist war, then it will be viewed as an enemy (“You are either with us or you are with the terrorists). This logic was initially applied, with some plausibility, to justify attacking Afghanistan, and overthrowing its Taliban government. This seemed reasonable to many moderate oberservers at the time, although stretching the limits of international law, because Afghanistan did seem to provide a safe haven for the leadership of al Qaeda, as well as providing the site for extensive terrorist training facilities that led more or less directly to the 9/11 attacks. It did seem necessary at the time to destroy this al Qaeda base of operations to lessen the prospect of future attacks. Waging war against Afghanistan as a whole was always more problematic, especially if considered a precedent for future wars. It is true that the Kabul government had few friends among governments, and the Taliban regime had surely committed some severe Crimes Against Humanity that shocked the world. The American claim that it was rescuing the people of the country from oppression and famine seems much shakier after five years than it did at first. The latest reports indicate the highest ever production rates of narcotic drugs, a revival of the Taliban and armed struggle, and much evidence of corruption and warlordism arising from the American-led occupation. Beyond this, the main rationale for the war was the opportunity to capture the al Qaeda leadership so that it could not plan and carry out further terrorist attacks, a mission pursued so incompetently as to ensure failure. Five years later al Qaeda is still a potent force, although its operational base has mutated in some respects, relying on likeminded extremist groups around the world, and Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri are still at large.
But worse than Afghanistan, in many respects, was Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was undertaken despite the absence of a connection with the perpetrators of 9/11, a conclusion now even acknowledged by US governmental investigations. The argument that Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed an intolerable threat because of its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction never convinced either the UN Security Council, world public opinion, or most of America’s most trusted allies, and yet the invasion of this country went ahead. The attack on Iraq was widely regarded as illegal, immoral, and imprudent in the extreme. This impression was reinforced by the subsequent failure of the invaders to find any weapons of mass destruction, despite pre-invasions claims of hard evidence that such arsenals existed. Criticism of the Iraq undertaking also mounted as the brutality and incompetence of the occupation became unmistakably clear. Instead of liberation, what ensued under the American-led occupation seemed crudely abusive of the Iraqi people and their culture. Rather than diminish 9/11 kinds of activities, the Iraq experience has significantly strengthened anti-American violent extremism in the region. Three years after the invasion, Iraq remains ravaged and war torn, caught in an escalating spiral of violence that threatens to spill over its borders, dangerously agitating relations throughout the region between Sunnis and Shi’ias. In going forward with its Iraq policy, and refusing to acknowledge the failure of the occupation, the United States has damaged its credibility as a global leader, as well as weakened the authority of the United Nations and of international law generally. The precedent of recourse to war in a situation other than self-defense fundamentally rewrites the Charter restrictions on aggressive war that were such a central aspect of the laudable effort to construct a world order after 1945 that was less prone to war. This resolve to prevent future wars was led by American diplomacy after World War II, which also featured the punishment of surviving German leaders at Nuremberg for their role in planning and waging aggressive war.
Most regrettable is the missed opportunity to react in a constructive fashion to the 9/11 attacks. Immediately after these attacks there was a world display of solidarity with the United States, including even demonstrations of support in Tehran and the Palestinian Territories. Had the United States taken advantage of this climate of opinion it could have pursued those charged with violent acts, including those of 9/11 by reliance on greatly enhanced law enforcement, sustained by much improved transnational framework of police and paramilitary cooperation. Looking back on the five years, most of the success in weakening al Qaeda, and preventing further terrorist attacks, has resulted from police and intelligence efforts. In contrast, the war paradigm has proved dysfunctional, wasting enormous resources and lives, undermining the legitimacy of the struggle, and inducing many young persons to opt for political extremism.
The recently concluded Lebanon War gives added weight to this set of conclusions. Israel launched an aggressive war against Lebanon, implicitly relying on the American doctrine that a territorial state will henceforth be held fully responsible and punished for the acts of non-state actors that operate within its borders. The real adversary of Israel was supposedly Hezbollah, which was historically a resistance movement dedicated to the removal of the Israeli presence from Lebanese territory. It should be recalled that Hezbollah was formed in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and its refusal to withdraw from the southern part of the country. As the 2006 war demonstrated anew, military superiority often cannot be translated into political outcomes when the adversary, as was the case with Hezbollah, was a well-entrenched, indigenous political movement, with a strong base of popular support. Israel managed to cause much destruction and suffering, but in the end Hezbollah was not defeated. It emerged stronger, and Israel’s military credibility was weakened. American support for Israel’s war, and its role in neutralizing efforts to obtain an early ceasefire in the UNSC added a vivid new justification to those forces opposing the post-9/11 tactics adopted by the United States, and now imitated by Israel with American backing.
The tactics relied upon in Lebanon represent more than practical failures. They represent a long step backward with respect to international law and morality. What Israel claimed it was entitled to do was to launch a full-scale war against a relatively defenseless state on the basis of a routine border incident. Because of the difficulty of using war as an instrument against armed resistance forces, the Israel/American policy relies on disproportionate and indiscriminate force to intimidate an adversary, inflicting massive doses of collective punishment on civilian societies. This is essentially a terrorist logic: inflicting so much suffering on the government and people of Lebanon that it will be compelled to decide on the basis of its self-interest that it must surrender to Israeli demands with respect to Hezbollah. But the logic backfired, and the political leverage of Hezbollah within Lebanon is probably greater than it was before the war began.
My main argument is that war and excessive force have been ineffective in achieving their goals and dangerously destructive of world order. The United States and Israel have persisted with such an approach in the Middle East since 9/11 despite this record of unsuccess. There are three main explanations. The first explanation has to do with the outlook of political leaders. Major states are governed by individuals with a military mentality who are not sensitive to the limits of power when dealing with the sorts of conflicts that exist in the contemporary world. Because of this constricted imagination, the more military efforts prove unable to reach their anticipated goals, the more ardent will be their pursuit. Instead of adjusting to the failure, and switching to more effective political means and police efforts, the tendency as in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza is to intensify the military approach, and expand the war zone.
The second explanation is the unwillingness of the leadership in Washington to address the legitimate grievances that give rise to political extremism. Far more expedient than attacking countries, would be exerting pressure on Israel to reach a fair outcome of the conflict with the Palestinian people. Ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, as agreed unanimously in the Security Council almost forty years ago, would diminish the appeal of extremism in the region, and greatly reduce the resentment of the American role that is so widely felt by the people of the Islamic world.
The third explanation is the most important, yet difficult to document. The response to 9/11 established a political climate that allowed the neoconservative foreign policy advisors of President Bush to implement their long advocated grand strategy in the Middle East in conjunction with the conduct of the global war on terror. This grand strategy pre-existed 9/11, and focused on the shift from Europe to the Middle East as the main strategic battleground to shape the future of the world. This outlook led to giving the highest foreign policy priority to gaining hegemonic authority in the region to safeguard control over its energy resources, to guide its ideological evolution, and to prevent anti-Western political behavior by its leading governments. Neoconservatives, in collaboration with right-wing Israelis, had believed for many years that their long-term interests in the region could only be protected by achieving ‘regime change’ through military intervention in a series of countries they regarded as problematic including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and most of all, Iran. 9/11 created the political mandate that had been previously lacking. Among the problems with this approach was an over-estimation on the role of military superiority, and the tension between a successful counter-terrorist policy and the grand strategy objective of controlling the region. But despite the setbacks in Iraq and Lebanon, this policy has not been abandoned by the Bush administration, and underlies the intensifying confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.
From these perspectives, there never should have been a global war on terror, and there certainly should not have been an American/Israeli partnership to reconfigure by force of arms the internal political governing arrangements in a series of countries perceived as hostile. Unfortunately, the region and the world are more dangerous than five years ago, and future prospects are not encouraging. Whether internal political change in the United States can generate a more constructive approach will determine whether the decline in global security of the past five years can be reversed in the next five.
Richard Falk is the Board Chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.