Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts September 11: Before and After

September 11: Before and After

Before we can see clearly the way ahead from the horrible events of September 11, we need to look backward to sources— for if we do not understand how these events came about, we will be hard pressed to prevent recurrences. Indeed, there are many sources for the events of September 11, some remote and some more proximate, some across the sea and some here at home. The purpose for naming them is not to engage in recrimination; there will be time for that later. The purpose is prophylaxis aimed at the future.

Starting at home, it is clear that in some respects the events of September 11 are the bitter wage of several policy failures. Osama bin Laden and those of his ideological ilk are furious at the United States for desecrating the land of the two mosques— Saudi Arabia— by its military presence. Clearly, that presence would not be necessary in its present extent were it not for the Ba’athi regime next door in Iraq. That Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath are still there is not, in my view, the result of the error made in February and March of 1991— namely, the failure to march to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War— but that the United States under the two Clinton Administrations was both feckless and unimaginative when it came to understanding and acting against Ba’athi Iraq. Every Middle East expert worth his or her salt said at the time that a prolonged U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf would be a constant and deepening social abrasion within those countries that would eventually come to haunt the United States. They were right. Had the Ba’ath problem been ended earlier, too, the sanctions regime against Iraq would have ended with it, and with both the pretext— for that is all it is— for those who accuse the United States of state terrorism by “killing over a million” Iraqi civilians.

Of course, if one goes a step farther back in the chain of causality, it is undeniable that the greatest failure of imagination in U.S. policy concerns energy. The United States would not have gone to war to free Kuwait, it was said at the time, if Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Iraq exported artichokes instead of oil. However morally uncomfortable it may be to admit the truth of this, true it most certainly is. That the United States, Western Europe, and the economically vibrant parts of the Far East are all dependent on imported oil is a collective failure of science policy in the first degree. Had it not been for that failure, the nature of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia would be dramatically different today — in the direction of far less significant.


The Saudi Role

Speaking of Saudi Arabia, it is clear that the nature of Saudi society and the Saud regime are the key seedbeds for the terrorism of September 11. Saudi Islam is Wahhabi Islam, and Wahhabism is not traditional Islam. Wahhabism is, in essence, an 18th century Arabian revitalization movement, since attenuated but hardly neutered, that was designed to purge Islam from the accretions of the previous half dozen or so centuries and return it to an imagined pure, original form. Wahhabism is more aggressively evangelical, more ascetic, more scripturally literalist, more xenophobic, more intolerant, and more militant than other forms of Islam. In the name of Wahhabism, Saudi citizens and the Saudi government have spent roughly $10 billion a year, year after year, proselytizing the faith all over the world. It would be wrong to say that all of this money supports terrorism, but it does inculcate attitudes and sustain institutions that, in combination with other factors, do promote terrorism. It is no coincidence that no other worship services other than Islamic ones are permitted in the Kingdom. It is no coincidence, either, that the government oppresses its Shi’a minority, mainly in al-Hasa province. And it is no coincidence that the high fervor of Wahhabism, now spreading rapidly among younger Saudi clergy, has become so much a threat to the ruling Saud family that the Saudis are involved in a very dirty deal: they allow wealthy Saudis to fund extremists, including Osama bin Laden, in return for a pledge that acts of extremism will not be undertaken on Saudi soil or against Saudi interests abroad. For years the regime, the government-controlled press, and the pliant and comfortable intellectuals in the Kingdom, such as they are, have been directing the growing resentment, fanaticism, and violence of that society away from themselves, toward Israel and the United States.

American experts on Saudi Arabia, radical Islam, and the Middle East — including those in the U.S. government— have known about all this for years. Successive U.S. administrations have done nothing; they have been too afraid to raise such a sensitive issue with the Saudi government, lest U.S. economic interests in the Kingdom suffer. This cowardice has got to stop.

Saudi Wahhabi evangelism has succeeded wonderfully in two places in particular: in Pakistan, particularly its ethnic Pashtun areas, and from there to Afghanistan, in the form of the Taliban. That success explains why Saudi Arabia was one of only three governments to maintain diplomatic relations with the Taliban (recently broken under U.S. pressure). The Taliban could not have formed and come to power without Pakistan’s aid, particularly the aid of Pakistan’s Inter- Service Intelligence (ISI) service, which is suffused with Wahhabist true believers. With bin Laden and some 7,000 Arab mercenaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s ISI was able to train its own terrorists to operate against India in Kashmir. Over time, bin Laden’s Arab legion has become the shock troops of the Taliban in its war against the remaining Afghani opposition. Bin Laden himself has also become an important financial supporter of the Taliban, from money received from wealthy Saudis and others (bin Laden’s family inheritance has long been exhausted), and also an ideological influence within the Taliban, in recent years pushing it to ever farther extremism. It is bin Laden’s influence, for example, that led to the destruction of the Buddhist shrines in Bamiyan, and that also has caused a widening split within the Taliban leadership and among its veteran mujahideen rank-and-file.

In light of all this, consider the wisdom of the United States seeming to target bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network first and foremost, which are emanations of this Saudi- Pakistani-Taliban connection, while claiming at the same time that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are our allies. Perhaps these alliances are tactical necessities only for the first part of the war against terrorism. Perhaps the war represents a chance for moderate elements in Pakistan to wage a determined civil struggle against the Talibanization of their country. Perhaps, too, the Al-Saud will see the error of its ways and change its modus operandi with regard to its internal opposition. But this much is clear: without the replacement of the Taliban regime with one more responsible and responsive to the needs of the people of Afghanistan, without the elimination of the seething Wahhabi madrassas in and around Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan, and without a sea-change in Saudi internal practices, it will be impossible to “drain the swamp” and really put an end to the kind of terrorism we suffered last month.

There are other sources of the disaster, too. The failure of the Clinton Administration to understand that globalization generates resentment as well as economic growth was breathtaking. The triumphalism of its rhetoric— particularly the foolish repetition of the “indispensable nation” mantra — its arrogant double standards, and its self-absorbed use of force in the Balkans had the effect of adding gratuitous resentment to that which one must expect to be directed toward a socially anti-status quo liberal power. This did not cause bin Laden to do what he did, but it has made it much more popular worldwide — even in Greece, where soccer teams have taken to burning the American flag in public to the wild applause of their fans.

Then there are the intelligence failures and episodes of rank bureaucratic incompetence, not just in the CIA but also in the FBI, the INS, and the FAA. This cannot be blamed on the Clinton Administration alone; these problems predate 1993, and Congress is complicit in nearly all of them. Even the current administration deserves some criticism: when in mid-February the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (a.k.a. the Hart-Rudman Commission) warned in dramatic and graphic terms that mass-casualty terrorism was coming and that we were not ready for it, the administration shelved the report. When a few Congressmen and a Senator or two tried to promote the Commission’s homeland security recommendations, the administration fobbed off the effort by creating a study committee under the auspices of Vice President Dick Cheney. It was supposed to report on October 1. If the administration had taken the Commission’s concerns and recommendations seriously from the beginning, it is unlikely that the attacks of September 11 could have been prevented— but not impossible.


The Israel Factor

A word about what is not a source of the September 11 attacks is also in order, given the ugly rise of Israel- bashing we are beginning to see.

Osama bin Laden hates the United States mainly for what it is, not for what it does. As he sees it, what it does is a natural consequence of what it is: decadent, immoral, materialistic, and sexually perverse. This is just as true as the fact that Khalid Islambouli did not murder Anwar al- Sadat because he signed a peace treaty with Israel, but because he was, in Islambouli’s eyes, “Pharaoh,” an apostate of the worst kind. Apostates naturally do such things. Bin Laden cares deeply about the desecration of Saudi Arabia. He cares next about the desecration of Iraq, which, as Bernard Lewis pointed out long ago, are the two most sacred pieces of geography to a Wahhabi Muslim. Amazing as it sounds to us, the U.S. humanitarian mission to Somalia in 1993 was interpreted in bin Laden’s addled, insular brain, as an attempt to flank the Hejaz as a prelude to a “Crusader” attack upon it. Last and least in his view comes Palestine and Jerusalem. Bin Laden’s fatwas are pronounced against Crusaders and Jews, in that order. Insofar as he hates Jews, he hates American Jews as much as he hates Israeli Jews for, in the common versions of Islamist conspiratorial cant, bin Laden believes that Zionists control America. The World Trade Center was not chosen as a target just because it was a general symbol of American wealth. Bin Laden’s logic, while delusional, is straightforward: if the Zionists control America and the vehicle of control is international finance, and if the World Trade Center is the heart of international finance, then the building must be full of Jews. What an excellent place, then, to kill a great many prominent “Zionists.”

Israeli-Palestinian problems have not been upper-most on bin Laden’s list, which explains why he perpetrated acts of war against the United States when the Oslo peace process appeared to be thriving. There is simply no correlation between Al-Qaeda’s activities and the tenor of Israeli- Palestinian relations. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as low on the list as one moves across the Arab world from east to west. As in Saudi Arabia, the anti-Israeli and outright anti-Semitic sentiment in the Levant and Egypt and much of North Africa is derivative of a controlled press, and of weak regimes deflecting hostility against themselves onto Israel and America. The version of modern history that much of the Arab “street” believes after decades of government press-spawned disinformation is truly bizarre. It explains why Palestinians in Nablus danced to celebrate the terrorist strike of September 11, and why it has been hailed in the Egyptian and Syrian press. It is easy to be angry at these revelers and hack journalists, but one should resist the urge. Put in their place, one would see that the great majority simply do not know any better. It is more appropriate, as Fouad Ajami has explained so brilliantly, to be angry at the regimes, and at the particularly Arab traison d’clercs that has made it all possible.

What this means, in essence, is that, yes, U.S. support for Israel is a source of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim worlds — indeed, as far east as Indonesia — particularly so during a time of increased Israeli- Palestinian violence. It plays at least indirectly into the popularity of Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia and outside of it. It does create diplomatic complications for the United States in trying to build a level of cooperation with Arab and Muslim governments that does not, in turn, threaten to undo those governments from within. But for bin Laden and the Taliban and the Wahhabist ulema in Peshawar, it is a marginal issue.

That being the case, the current U.S. administration’s rush to curry favor with Arabs and Muslims by sacrificing Israeli interests has been most unfortunate. Before September 11, Bush Administration principals, even the Secretary of State, insisted that the Palestinian violence had to stop before the next stages of the Mitchell Plan could proceed. After September 11, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came under intense pressure to stage a diplomatic pantomime with Yasir Arafat in order to facilitate U.S. coalition-building efforts. (It has to be a pantomime; who in his right mind could believe, after Arafat’s behavior since Camp David and his speech in Durban, that a genuine peace settlement is possible as long as he stands at the leadership of the Palestinians?) Sharon was reduced to begging first for just 48 hours without shooting, then 24 hours, and then for a meeting even under fire — which occurred when Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met in late September. Then, almost immediately after terrorist incidents in Israel on October 3 and 4 in which five Israeli civilians were murdered, President Bush stated his approval in principle for Palestinians statehood as rumors rose of a major U.S. initiative in the making that would, as one U.S. official put it, “have a lot in it that would please the Palestinian side.” About ten days earlier, the United States, in trying to freeze the assets of terrorist groups, deliberately left Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah off the list.

What message does such “diplomacy” send?

It tells Osama bin Laden that the way to drive a wedge between the Great Satan and the Little Satan is to bomb the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It tells Yasir Arafat that the Palestinian use of violence and terrorism gets good results from the United States. It also tells him that some people not quite in their right minds, notably at the Department of State and in many chancelleries in Europe, still think that Arafat is both willing and able to deliver a final peace on terms that an Israeli government— any Israeli government— could sign. It tells the Arab “street” that the United States shares its view that Israel is guilty of state terrorism, a common if ludicrous belief on that “street.” Both to bin Laden and to Arafat, and to all the other sponsors and shelterers of terrorism worldwide, it communicates strategic weakness and moral illiteracy.

In effect, those who argue that the United States should pressure Israel toward signing a final settlement with Arafat’s PLO for the sake of greater good are arguing that Israel should jeopardize its very existence so that the United States can ally with Arab and Muslim states some of which are complicit in terrorism, and whose likely assistance to the United States will run from dubious to temporary to marginal. Those who make such arguments bring joy to Osama bin Laden, who wants nothing more than to harm U.S. allies as part of the campaign to drive the United States from the Middle East. (That is also why, most likely, Al-Qaeda will strike against Turkey if given a chance, and why the refusal of Germany and other West European states to help Turkey in a time of economic difficulty represents such bad judgment.)

The Return of Realism

One conclusion that comes upon us from this brief discussion of the sources of the September 11 attack, and that acts as a kind of bridge from the analysis of the past to a focus on the future, is that those who have said that now, as of September 12, everything is different, everything is changed, and nothing will ever again be the same, are talking pure nonsense. As Owen Harries has put it, the attacks of September 11 were long predicted, long warned against, and were born out of a series of circumstances with which the world has long been pregnant. Moreover, the fact that this attack has ended the American illusion of invulnerability brings us out of our dozen-year long holiday from history, and places us not in a new context but in a very old one: the context of realism. Certainly one thing that clearly has not changed is the tendency of the press to both historical ignorance and irresponsible hyperbole.

Many have observed that the September 11 attack has given the United States a foreign policy focus, comparable to that of the Cold War, that works as an organizing principle. As such a principle, all other interests tend to be subsumed beneath it. So, for example, rapid, if still shallow, changes in U.S.-Russian relations are made to seem more significant and permanent than they probably are. We now make common cause with detestable regimes, just as dealing with “friendly tyrants” was a justifiable lesser evil during the Cold War.

Some observers imitate another Cold War-era theme: Communism, many liberals believed, came from poverty and despair, so that economic advancement in the world abroad was the key to winning the Cold War; now many liberals believe that we should mount a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, as radical Islam is similarly attributed to poverty and despair that U.S.-led globalization has helped to create, or at least to worsen. The Cold War variety of this theory was plausible but mostly wrong; the current incarnation of the same theory is simply idiotic. Radical Islam has sprung from economic growth and upward mobility, not the other way around. The Arab terrorists of September 11 were none of them poor or uneducated or from the bottom rungs of their societies. So here again is something that has not changed: the incurable secularized Calvinism of American liberals.

The truth is that the essential characteristics of our age have not changed because of what happened on September 11. As I laid them out in the Fall 2001 issue of The National Interest (“The Present Opportunity”) there are three such characteristics, whose true significance emerges only when the three are seen together. First is the growing realization that, thanks to the actual sources of wealth in science-based economies, economic competitions no longer need lead to security competitions. Second is the preeminence of American power. Third is the enthronement of Wilsonian values as international best practice in all those parts of the world that “work.” Each of these characteristics reinforces the other two, and each corresponds to one of the three most popular names for the post-Cold War era: globalization, the unipolar moment, and the “end of history.”

September 11 has not changed the real sources of wealth and power in the world, and the exhibition of American vulnerability has not materially undone the new structure of the international economy. It has tarnished American preeminence but not harmed it seriously, and that tarnish will be wiped away as American wins the war against terrorism. It has, if anything, increased the global commitment to democracy, open economic systems, and limits to the unilateral and aggressive use of force and violence.

Before September 11, American opportunities outweighed threats. They still do. The attacks against us must be seen as an opportunity to extirpate terrorism as completely as possible, for if there is a next time, with biological or nuclear weapons, our dead will not be measures in thousands but hundreds of thousands. That is why we must do all we can to deprive terrorists of the aid and shelter that states provide. Individuals may be suicidal, but states are not; regimes can be swayed, and when they resist being swayed they can be destroyed. The Taliban must go. So must the Ba’athi regime in Iraq; even Senator Joseph Biden, a man not known for his strategic sagacity, realizes that Ba’athi Iraq will be the unconventional weapons K-Mart of the terrorist world if it is left to stand.

But beyond the war itself, we must look out for other, more subtle dangers. Will the events of September 11 cause us to define U.S. foreign policy interests in narrowed, more circumscribed ways, in which the opportunity for U.S. global leadership will be abandoned? Will it lead ultimately to the growth of isolationist sentiment? It could, especially if further deadly attacks on the United States occur over a protracted period. But there are few if any signs of this yet, and sound leadership can prevent it. Will it finally lead to a creative energy policy? To a sounder governmental structure for homeland security? To better intelligence and better qualified people wanting to be involved in such careers? To adjustments to the law to make homeland defense and serious intelligence capabilities possible? Quite likely “yes,” on all counts, and sound leadership can harvest all these, and other, opportunities.

What will happen in the days ahead? No one can say for sure, and the law of unintended consequences will surely be at work in any event. But, as Charles Krauthammer has observed, look at the new international line-up and, behold, it is very good. On the enemy’s side are fanatical but weak forces, supported and sheltered by not a single major power, or even a single state with a modern economy. On our side, for all near term practical purposes at least, is NATO, Japan, Russia, China, India, and scores of other countries. If we cannot win a war, even an unusual one, with a line-up like that, then we do not deserve to remain a great power. And if we lose, we won’t.

It may be, too, that the positive reshaping of U.S. relations particularly with Russia, China, and India can be nurtured toward something more substantive and long-lasting. That would be a major achievement of U.S. statecraft, for the only thing worse than a situation in which 6,000 Americans can be murdered on a single day is a situation conducive to war among the great powers. If the answer to September 11 turns out to be, in the fullness of time, the decisive deepening of peace among the great powers, then we will indeed have turned a great darkness into a greater light.