The World After 9/11

By Rajan Philips | 2002-01-01 12:00:00

Issues have changed greatly around the world in a few months.

The 21st century received a brutal beginning, thanks to the elusive Osama bin Laden and his death-craving followers. President Bush put it well: "All of this was brought upon us in a single day. And night fell on a different world." Worldwide responses to the September 11 attacks have come in ways that are both coalescing and conflicting. For governments everywhere, the 9/11 attacks have given a new justification for their being, and relief from decades of libertarian harassment. The new rationale for government and increasing public expenditure is supporting a global war on terrorism. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" was the American ultimatum to other world governments, and one by one every one of them, including past champions of anti-imperialism and non-alignment, fell in line behind the American-dominated coalition. Even countries on America's list of 'usual suspects' supporting terrorism, did not fail to condemn al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks. But their motivation is more self-serving than global altruism.


Osama bin Laden's trans-border terrorism gave America license unilaterally to take the battle to al-Qaeda and its Siamese twin, the notorious Taliban regime. The Americans chose the device of a coalition, rather than taking a genuinely multilateral approach through the UN, to ensure a free hand in prosecuting its military operations. These attacks were a turning point for the Bush administration just as the 1995 Oklahoma bombing helped President Clinton to turn around what was then a faltering presidency. President Bush has now found a new meaning and a single issue to rally the nation around.

After criticizing Clinton for his engagement abroad, the Bush administration was forced by the 9/11 events to forsake Republican isolationism and get involved in rebuilding Afghanistan, mediating between Israel and Palestine, and even between India and Pakistan. But in other areas of international commitment -- the ABM Treaty and the Kyoto protocol -- the new administration is determined to retract America's earlier positions and become a powerful lone ranger, self-sufficient in energy and self-protected by a missile dome. As well, despite the disappearance of budget surpluses, the Bush administration is using the prevailing patriotic fervor to push through of regressive tax cuts, Arctic drilling (for oil), and faith-based legislation. More worrisome is the evidence of creeping authoritarianism in the name of national security, including the unprecedented presidential decree to establish 'extra-constitutional' military tribunals to put on secret trial, for acts of terrorism, anyone not a United States citizen and subject that person to imprisonment or death penalty. This is a trend that is having milder copy-cat effects in other western democracies, including Canada.


The responses of other governments are mixed. Given their own experiences with Islamic fundamentalism, in Chechnya, Xianjiang, and Kashmir respectively, Russia, China and India are as implacable in their opposition to al-Qaeda and its long distance operations as are America and its Western allies. They see in the American operation in Afghanistan a convenient precedent for acting unilaterally. The governments in Muslim countries are not so clear cut. Of the three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who had been the staunchest benefactors of the Taliban regime, Pakistan has gone full circle. Pakistan's former military ruler Zia ul Haq, who was ostracized as an international pariah for hanging his civilian predecessor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, used Islamic fundamentalism and its fight against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan for his own rehabilitation in the Muslim and Western worlds. Its current military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, who provoked Western censure for overthrowing the corrupt but civilian government of Nawaz Sharif, has shrewdly severed Pakistan's ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in return for rapprochement with and financial aid from the West and, more importantly, to minimize the benefits that India was poised to reap after 11 September.


In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia had to choose between running with the hare and hunting with the hound, rather than doing both as before. The Wahabi Islamic sect has provided ideological immunity for the Saudi monarchy against republican infection from abroad, first from Nasser's Egypt and, later, from Khomeini's and post-Khomeini Iran. The Saudis supplied one-quarter of America's oil needs, then funded Wahabism from the Islamic Holy Land to far-flung Muslim countries. They used the continual war in Afghanistan to rid Saudi Arabia of restive young men, urging them to go to Afghanistan and Pakistan and fight for Islam. Until 11 September, the US, perhaps on account of its dependence on Saudi oil, turned a blind eye to the Saudi duplicity. Given that America's closeness to corrupt Islamic regimes is one of the popular Islamic grievances against America, it remains to be seen whether there will be shifts in America's relationship with the Saudi rulers.

One unexpected change in America's Middle East policy may involve its relationship with Iran. The containment of Iran has been a consistent policy since the fall of the notorious American puppet, the Shah. Friday sermons by hard-line Iranian clerics have long been ending with the call of "Death to America!" However, there has been no love lost between the Iranian authorities and bin Laden's followers and the events of 11 September have been turning Iran and America into strange, but limited and tentative, bedfellows.

Elsewhere, governments buffeted by internal political violence are trying to make mileage with America's war against global terrorism. Ariel Sharon provided a brazen example of this approach by equating Palestinian uprisings to al-Qaeda's attacks and using the American example to crush Palestinian organizations in Israel. America tried to rein in, with limited success, both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. But America seems to be more disposed to allow the government of Philippines to crack down on Abu Sayyaf, a small Muslim separatist group in the archipelago. The governments of Malaysia and Singapore have apprehended several members of an al-Qaeda -affiliated group called Jemma Islamigu whose fanciful aim is to establish an Islamic state comprising Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

September 11 has also shown merchants of political violence that there are new global constraints to their territorial wars. The Irish Republican Army's decision to decommission its arms was certainly triggered by the events September 11. In Sri Lanka, circumstances conducive to peace have not evolved to the same stage as in Northern Ireland, but 11 September has produced a catalytic effect on the new Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with both of them requesting the government of Norway to facilitate a new round of talks between them.


The suicide attack on the Indian Parliament complex on 13 December, by Islamic groups with bases in Pakistan, led to an upsurge in tension and even the likelihood of yet another war between India and Pakistan, the old neighborly foes now capable of launching nuclear missiles at each other. For the United States, an Indo-Pakistan war so close to Afghanistan would have been a far worse detraction than the perennial Israeli-Palestinian skirmish. Fortunately, the US was able to prevail on Pakistan to arrest the two groups suspected of organizing the Delhi attack, and on India to exercise caution. Both the Indo-Pakistan flashpoint and Israel's anti-terrorism arose because both were instances where individual countries felt encouraged to act unilaterally following the American example. In the absence of an international, multilateral mechanism to deal with global terrorism, the United States becomes the world's default policeman, putting out regional fires if only to maintain the priority of its own agenda.

American unilateralism is met by suspicion in most of the non-western world. Each solitude harbors ugly misconceptions of the other. The post- 11 September rhetoric that emanated in both camps reveals the mutual lack of understanding. Bush and Blair spoke of good and evil, and of democracy, liberal values and tolerance, on the one hand, and their polar opposites on the other. They tried to differentiate between al-Qaeda terrorists and moderate Muslims, but the nuance was lost. Simplistic pop-commentators on both sides of the Atlantic attributed al-Qaeda terrorism to "inferior" non-western culture.


The collapse of the socialist second world, the attenuation of the nation state, the diminishing of the United Nations, and the undemocratic functioning of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, have all created a deep chasm between the centres of economic and political power, on the one hand, and the marginalized majority of the world's population on the other. The Durban conference on racism was a manifestation of this chasm but, unfortunately, it did not even come close to a proper formulation of the central question. Mediating this chasm is not the agenda of the al-Qaeda terrorists; instead, they have exploited the trans-border appeal of Islam and their oil-based resources to mobilize the marginalized against the West. The American response to the 11 September attacks has been three pronged: military retaliation against the perpetrators of the crime, financial retaliation to freeze the sources and movement of terrorist funds, and security measures to prevent terrorist infiltration into the country. As components in the fight against terrorism, they are not sufficient by themselves. Two missing dimensions are a multilateral framework that is more broad-based than NATO, and a political approach to address the social, political and economic frustrations in the non-western world that breed hostility. The Cold War provided a bipolar restraint against unilateralism by either of the two superpower camps. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the United States has done nothing to enhance the authority of the United Nations, and has either opposed or been indifferent to multilateral initiatives in regard to environmental protection, landmine and biological weapons regulations, or an International Criminal Court. The rest of the world can do little in these matters without US participation. It would be a grave mistake to interpret the Taliban's collapse in Afghanistan as a vindication of American unilateralism and isolationism and, worse, to extend this approach to Iraq or elsewhere.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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