November 15, 2006
It has been 18 months since I sent you “Defining the enemy…”, my little attempt to make sense out of the September 11th attacks by Al Qaeda. You also asked for my opinion on the success of the United States in the War On Terror, and I’ll give you that right now, it’s a simple answer. September 11th, 2001 was a terrorist pinnacle, nothing committed by terrorists before or since can claim the same audacity, the same potent symbolism as that wrought by two commercial airliners being smashed into the world’s two largest skyscrapers, bringing them down a quarter of mile to form an apocalyptic pile of rubble. Bin Laden, and everyone inspired by him, fully expected the entire United States of America to follow suit and collapse into a pile of fear and chaos in the weeks and months after September 11th. When that didn’t happen, in fact Americans even surprised themselves with their own resiliency, then the War On Terror was settled. Al Qaeda, or any other permutation of terrorism, could no longer dare to hope to be responsible for the downfall of the American Empire. Terrorism was proven once again to be a strategy for failure.
What I find more difficult to explain (and far more interesting) is why the United States has put so many resources and so many lives into the continuation of the War On Terror, when the other side has already lost. Defining the Enemy, Part 1, was understanding the terrorists, Defining the Enemy, Part 2 is my attempt to make sense of the American response.
Defining the enemy, Part 2…
The Unconscious Empire Strikes Back.
Before December of 2001, Osama bin Laden was looking forward to watching Al Qaeda lead the war to bring about the destruction of the United States. I am sure he was convinced that once Americans were paralyzed with fear, their economy and their government would collapse. Of course that would only be the first steps in the eventual defeat of the Great Satan, but I am also sure that bin Laden put a lot of faith in Allah picking up the gauntlet, and that Allah would use His divine powers to finish what bin Laden started. If it took the sacrifices of suicide bombers and even bin Laden’s own martyrdom, to invoke Allah’s intervention, there would be a magnificent reward awaiting them in Paradise. It may very well be that Allah is simply more patient than bin Laden, and the divine destruction of the Great American Satan is still coming, but early indications (half a decade) are that the terrorist attacks have completely failed to accomplish their objectives.
In spite of spending hundreds of billions of dollars in response to the September 11th attacks, and in spite of oil hitting $75 a barrel, the U.S. economy is in better shape today than it was in the summer of 2001. Americans aren’t hiding in their basements waiting for the next terrorist attack. You might argue that Al Qaeda has been successful at goading the United States into overextending itself in Afghanistan and Iraq, but fighting a war you can’t win is not the same thing as actually losing the war. It is not as if the U.S. had to pull troops from a more important battle to fight terrorists in the desert, and if the U.S. found itself in a more important war somewhere else, it could pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq with little delay. I strongly suspect that the current generation of terrorists will be dead long before the United States of America succumbs to the attacks of maladjusted and disaffected Muslims. You might want to check out the September 2006 issue of Atlantic Monthly, where James Fallows interviews a bunch of War on Terror experts; they can’t agree on tactics or root causes, but they all make the same point that the United States is not going to be overrun by the current crop of terrorists.
Even the great terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden, is reduced to passing along commentary on American elections, recommending books to read and half-heartedly eulogizing a disobedient maverick in his own organization. He has been rendered into an impotent heckler, watching history from the sidelines. Whether those sidelines are located in South Waziristan or in Hell isn’t important, bin Laden doesn’t call the shots for the terrorist side anymore. No one does, attacks by Islamic terrorists against Western society are unfocused, erratic and far more lethal to the lives, rights and well-being of other Muslims than to the infidels around them. So my question is, why doesn’t the United States simply accept that the world is more dangerous now, and scale back to a anti-terrorism strategy that looks more like law enforcement than full-scale warfare?
Thinking like Americans
Personally, I think the reason the United States retaliated with such force has to do with the psychological effect the September 11th attacks had on Americans from all walks of life. Being brazenly attacked on home soil with domestic airliners was a traumatic experience for every American that I know. There hasn’t been anything like this in the United States of America since the War of 1812. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor isn’t comparable; for most mainland Americans, Hawaii doesn’t feel like home. For just a moment, Americans felt helpless and scared, and for the vast majority of Americans that was an extremely uncomfortable experience.
I know that many Canadians, like yourself, sincerely expressed their solidarity with Americans right after those attacks, and you may believe that you felt the same type of anxiety that Americans felt, but you are mistaken. Even the British, Spanish and Australians can’t really relate, because terrorist attacks on their countries did not strike at the heart of their national identities, and the element of bewilderment was already gone. You cannot understand the way that the United States has conducted this War On Terror unless you understand that no one else thinks and feels the same way as Americans do about terrorism.
Of course, Americans simply assume that everyone else thinks and feels the same as themselves; which explains why so many Americans are perplexed by world events, but that is a different phenomenon, and I’ll get to that later. What I want to do here is analyze the American mindset, and how it produced a response that had little to do with Al Qaeda’s tactics or motives. Simply put, the United States decided to fight this War On Terror on American terms to put American minds at ease, with only a peripheral link to the activities and characteristics of the enemy. No other nation would have been able to get away with such a misdirected counterstrike.
Why was the United States so taken aback by the September 11th attacks? The answer is that Americans simply don’t realize that their lofty position in the world comes with a price. The United States of America is a target of hate, fear, and jealousy for almost everyone who feels cheated out of a life of material well-being, personal security and honor. That even applies to people living in the United States. When those that hate the United States feel confident that they can bloody the American nose, they act out. They take potshots at the United States because they think they can get away with it. On the receiving side of those potshots, instead of accepting the occasional bloody nose as the price of success, Americans want to believe that they can teach their attackers a lesson, and live quiet, secure lives ever after. It is the gap between what Americans desire, and what they have to settle for, that makes the War On Terror steam on down the track, even though no one can see a successful end to it. I have no patience for the non-stop, single-minded anti-American crowd, but unless most Americans are willing to give up their wealth, power and freedom, the United States is always going to have enemies.
The American Empire
Not every American refuses to consider himself a citizen of the most powerful empire in the history of mankind, but just the word “empire” by itself is enough to set most Americans on edge. The problem with empire is its evil connotations; Americans don’t like to think of themselves as aggressors, oppressors, transgressors or anything other than a fair-minded, righteous, peace-loving people who just want to be left alone. The national myth of the United States involves a rebellion of commoners against an oppressive emperor. The writers of the Constitution of the United States of America made deliberate provisions to prevent the President from becoming too much of an autocrat. There are numerous examples where the scope of American influence has been widened through force of arms, and in almost every instance the justification used domestically is the liberation of an oppressed people. That was the justification used for the wars against Mexico and Spain, and it was the argument used for the first Gulf War. Liberating oppressed people was also the fall-back argument for the invasion of Iraq, after Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize into enough of a threat.
This American penchant for altruism is accepted as self-evident truth by most Americans. That is why anyone who refers to the United States in imperial terms is assumed to be anti-American. However, national mythology can only ignore reality for so long. The United States of America currently has cultural, economic and military influence that exceeds that of any empire that has proceeded it, so regardless of what Americans see when they look in the mirror, the rest of the world sees an empire.
Personally, I think it is a good thing that American imperialism leans so strongly towards benevolence. If allowing Americans to remain blissfully unaware of their place in the world is the price the rest of us have to pay to enjoy their benevolence (and avoid the nastiness that inevitably comes when a self-aware empire enforces its own interests), then I don’t see why Americans need to change anything about themselves. I’m writing this to help you better understand current events, that’s all. For yourself, and all the rest of us who aren’t Americans, I think an approach of letting sleeping dogs lie is well-advised.
The one-way mirror of foreign relations
Think of the borders of the United States as a one-way mirror. When Americans look through that mirror, instead of seeing the world as it is, they see a reflection of themselves, so when they step out into the outside world, and the picture immediately changes, Americans are confused. Even highly placed people in positions of power have trouble grasping the idea that what is in the best interests of the U.S.A. is not necessarily in the best interests of its friends and allies. It is also a mystery to most Americans why their enemies still hate them after receiving a dose of American benevolence. When the outside world bites the American hand trying to feed it, Americans get upset, and their natural national response is to teach the outside world a lesson it won’t forget.
In the days of mutually assured nuclear annihilation, American foreign policy had to always keep its eye on the communists, who were far more powerful than any terrorist threat that exists today, so there were formidable constraints on American foreign policy. Offsetting Soviet influence in the Middle East was more important than establishing a beachhead for democracy. Dealing with missiles stationed only a leaky boat trip away in Cuba was more pressing than showing the world the superiority of American ideals.
When President Reagan won the Cold War by allowing the Soviet Union to fall apart, much of what had previously restrained American foreign policy was removed. In the new world order, if a proposition like invading Iraq makes sense to certain Americans, the disapproval of other countries is no longer going to present a major roadblock. As long as American foreign policy is successful, its critics (and enemies) can’t get much traction, and have absolutely no impact on the decision making of the U.S. government (except perhaps to inspire the U.S. government to thumb its nose at its detractors). Sudden, somewhat unexpected success in Afghanistan only made it easier to march on Baghdad without considering the consequences of making a mistake.
On the other side of this mirror, the rest of the world is staring intently at the United States, and developing an inferiority complex. People on the outside of American society begin to lose sight of what they can do for themselves to improve their own societies. Soon enough, they can only see those things in life which Americans have that they don’t. It doesn’t matter if the gap between themselves and American society is measured by differences in living standards, political freedom, or sexual morality, the fact that a gap exists is enough fuel to feed feelings of envy, jealousy, fear and anger in people who have stopped seeing themselves as being capable of bettering their own circumstances. Instead of building a better home for themselves, they want to tear down some of those nice American homes they can’t stop gawking at.
It may be a long step to go from simply blaming the U.S. for your own feelings of inferiority, to actually going up to one of those American homes and setting it on fire, but the terrorist attack will only happen if the attacker sees a clear link between the United States and his own deeply ingrained sense of deprivation. (See “Defining the Enemy, Part One.”)
The war that never ends
This leaves me (and everyone else) with a dilemma. The rest of the world isn’t going to meekly accept American hegemony in their daily lives, and the rest of the world certainly isn’t going to openly acknowledge the superiority of American society. On the other hand, American society isn’t going to feel secure as long as it has enemies who openly attack it, and without a guaranteed rest from its enemies, American society will continue to be driven to exercise control on the world around it.
Cliché or not, we all live interconnected lives in this global village, so neither terrorists or Americans can run from this conflict. There is no middle ground, and no grounds for a diplomatic solution. The United States can still afford to move about, stamping out insurrections here and there for decades, but no matter how many resources are put into the fight, there is no peace to be won.
Before the end of 2001, President Bush gave the world a quintessentially American definition of the War on Terror. In fact, he named it, and by doing so, set the stage for a war conducted on American principles. However, that definition neglects broader conflicts in the world around us. There is a very nasty cultural conflict going on in the Arab world, that started long before September 11th, 2001, and which sets the tone for not just the War on Terror, but for all conflict in the Middle East.
The combined effects of rapid modernization, incredible oil wealth for some and abject poverty for others, the changing status of women in Arab societies, and a baby boom that came a decade later than the one that radically altered western societies, is producing cultural upheaval that is tearing apart not just Arab nations, but Muslim societies everywhere, including those located in western nations. As the world’s dominant cultural force, the United States becomes the common enemy in what would have been primarily an Arab conflict, had the world not shrunk so much in the last few decades.
I’m not as pessimistic about this family feud in the global village as you might think, based on what I’ve written here. Nonetheless, I have no hope that the current American strategy will accomplish what Americans so desperately want, a safe, secure future that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. And whether you like it or not, countries like Canada have no option but to be deeply involved in this whole mess. The War on Terror is only one facet of a bigger conflict, and in that conflict there is no safe ground for neutral countries to stand on.
This letter is getting too long, I’ll have to send another letter to give you my thoughts on how this bigger conflict is going to pan out. I promise it won’t take another eighteen months to produce the next letter.