A terror-filled day of mass murder in the eastern United States imprinted itself on the world's consciousness - and became the prelude to a decade of further violence. openDemocracy writers reflect on the impact and legacy of the events of 11 September 2001.
* Paul Rogers * Mariano Aguirre
* Tarek Osman * Kerry Brown
* Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh * David Held
* Arthur Ituassu * Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
* Thomas de Waal * Krzysztof Bobinski
* Andrew Stroehlein * Keith Kahn-Harris
* Madawi al-Rasheed * Thomas Hylland Eriksen
* Martin Shaw * Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
* Sami Zubaida * Adam Szostkiewicz
* Volker Perthes * Rein Müllerson
* Patrice de Beer * Goran Fejic
* Jane Kinninmont * Cas Mudde
* Patricio Navia * Vicken Cheterian
* Pervez Hoodbhoy
The lost decade
What has been the biggest single impact of 9/11 on the public and political world?
The diversion of security thinking into a fatally flawed “war on terror” and the sidelining of far more important human-security issues - not least poverty, malnutrition and disease. In addition, it has meant the loss of an entire decade in beginning to react seriously to climate change. The combination of an economically-divided and environmentally constrained world is the core issue for the coming decade and the response to 9/11 has meant that we have lost precious time in facing up to this.
There has been so much loss. Have there been any winners from 9/11?
The main winner has been the military-industrial complex, especially in the United States, where substantial increases in the defence budget have brought in numerous examples of highly profitable new lines of destruction. Private-security contracting has also expanded massively, with many new contracts being available, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “terrorism industry” has extended its reach, in the process soaking up think-tankers and academics who were heading for difficult times after the ending of the cold war. For all these people and companies, 9/11 came not a moment too soon.
Did the events that day change you in any way you care to mention?
No real change as I’d been part of a small group of analysts who, sadly, had seen something like this coming for some years. Looking back over ten years, though, the most daunting consequences have been the human costs, with at least 225,000 people killed, twice that number seriously injured and well over 7 million refugees. That we failed to argue loudly enough against the war on terror, as its consequences were already becoming clear, is something for which we still bear responsibility. We did not try hard enough.
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010)
Also by Paul Rogers: "America's lost wars: the choice in 2012" (18 August 2011)
The inner change
The crime of 11 September 2001 and the Arab spring of 2011 have the same root: the failure of almost all Arab states in the course of the 20th century to improve the livelihoods of their citizens and deliver justice. As a result, millions of young Arabs came to experience the social and political conditions they were obliged to live under as as humiliating and regressive, and determined to change their lives.
The nineteen suicide-crashers of 9/11 - and tens of thousands of other young Arabs who intimidated their own societies across decades - chose to respond to these failures by inflicting nihilistic violence on their own countries and those beyond. They saw terror and aggression as the means to bring about change.
A decade later, a new Arab generation - from the 185 million-plus under 30 years old - chose a peaceful awakening. These young people are working to remove the domineering regimes that have long entrapped and weakened their societies. They are mature and courageous enough to realise that Arab societies’ problems are predominately internal. They understand that foreign powers, including the United States, exploited the Arabs’ failures - but that the main responsibility for creating these failures is internal.
They also have the biggest of all stakes in the region’s future: its members will benefit most from stability and progress, and lose most from chaos. The growth of the private sector and entrepreneurialism across the region is a crucial index of their potential. They choose to build, not destroy.
9/11, an act of intellectual and moral bankruptcy, represented a moment of Arab frustration. 2011 embodies the promise of a new Arab generation creating a world worthy of themselves, and in the process rediscovering the true potential of an old civilisation.
Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)
Also by Tarek Osman: “The Arab prospect: forces and dynamics" (9 May 2011)
A wasteland of buried reason
In September 2001, I was a proud New Yorker. As an Iranian who had emigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, I had experienced wars and revolutions firsthand. But I was still awestruck at the spectacular devastation downtown, the eerie silence uptown and the grieving relatives at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 where I volunteered after work.
9/11 was a global event which generated global empathy and solidarity for the United States. Flags few at half-mast all over Europe, as Le Monde’s Jean-Marie Colombani proclaimed: “We are all Americans”. Across the world, even in countries riven by war, ravaged by famine, or cursed by oil, people genuinely sympathised with the victimised land of plenty.
Even then, however, I was greatly worried by the awareness that every action calls for a reaction - and that history will judge them together. That worry grew in subsequent weeks and months as the sheer shock-and-awe of the attacks raised emotions that were then used to justify - and threaten - revengeful shock-and-awe wars waged in the public’s name. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were to dominate the decade, and provoke intense debate over whether they were legitimate acts of self-defence, regime-changes justified in the interests of democratisation, or imperial wars for control of territory and resources.
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Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh directs a programme on human security at the masters of public affairs at Sciences-Po, Paris, and is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO). She is co-author (with Anuradha Chenoy) of Human Security: Concepts and Implications (Routledge 2008), and editor of Rethinking the Liberal Peace: External Models and Local Alternatives (Routledge, 2011)
Also by Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh: "Afghanistan: peacekeeping without peace" (25 October 2009)
The costs of restoration
In a large perspective, beyond the horrible events of that single day, the most significant consequence of 11 September 2011 is that both the nation-state and the international system of states were able to rise to the challenge, and once again show their capacity to adapt and survive.
9/11 questioned the very ability of the state to guarantee the security of its citizens - the heart of what defines the state’s proper purpose. Suddenly, the most powerful and best armed state on earth could not anymore protect the lives of its people (and those under its jurisdiction) from a foreign threat. The United States’s response showed its ability to restore itself in this role, and the US along with other powerful states reorganised themselves to meet the new situation - though in the process, and amid the international mess caused by George W Bush's administration, proved that the threat could not be vanquished permanently but only contained.
The costs of this restoration - political, legal, human and moral - have been huge. The cases of Guantánamo and the intervention in Iraq (to name but these) have inflicted deep wounds on democracy and international institutions, and undermined the credibility of the language used in international democratic discourse (concerning justice, legality and freedom). Even now, the true extent of these costs is very difficult to measure.
But the way they are being exacted can be seen, for example, in the limits imposed on western governments’ ability to support democratic forces and moderate voices in the wake of the Arab spring. This might become more significant as the nation-building process continues, and in the turbulent contexts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. More broadly, it is surely not by chance that as the US and other strong states retrench, weaker states have become the preferred targets of transnational terrorism.
Arthur Ituassu is professor in the department of social communication at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro. His website is here
Also by Arthur Ituassu: "Brazil, the United States, and Chile: military ghosts" (21 August 2009)
Thomas de Waal
The victory of fear
Fear is the biggest legacy of 11 September 2001. Terrorism is one part destruction to a hundred parts terror. The loss of life on 9/11 was appalling but that in itself was a small part of Osama bin Laden’s goal. The bigger goal was to sow fear and change attitudes by creating a satanic spectacle; and in that, it has to be said, he achieved success.
It was understandable in the short term for the United States government to fear that al-Qaida might be plotting more attacks. But once Osama and his cronies were thrown out of Kabul and taking shelter in the caves of Tora Bora, the organisation was clearly on the run. President Bush ground on and missed the opportunity to echo FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
The story since is dismally familiar. In western countries fear has become institutionalised, almost routine in the bureaucratic imposition of “security procedures” that have stultified everyday life.
The other depressing aspect of 9/11 was how governments round the world instantly recruited the “war on terror” to seek support in their struggles against their own “terrorists”. The nature of the conflicts in Chechnya or Kashmir or Gaza did not change but the perception of them did, spreading more darkness than light. Only now are local conflicts slowly emerging from the shadow of 9/11, again to be understood on their own terms. That puts a grimly positive spin on the latest reports from Libya: if renditioned Libyan rebels can ally with the western powers who formerly betrayed them, then pragmatism is now out-trumping 9/11 eschatology.
Thomas de Waal is a senior associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington. He is the author of The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010). His earlier books include Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (NYU Press, 1999) - with Carlotta Gall; and Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (NYU Press, 2003)
Also by Thomas de Waal: "The lightness of history in the Caucasus" (4 November 2010)
A new American reality
In September 2006, I wrote an article that sought to gauge the atmosphere in the United States five years after 9/11 (“The war in American hearts and minds”, 10 September 2006). At the time, I was struck by the way that a dark and destructive conflict mentality - something I had become accustomed to in places like Serbia and Kosovo during fourteen years’ away from the country of my birth - seemed to have become entrenched in American society.
“This is what wars do”, I wrote then. “(They) push people into mental corners, where us-and-them thinking works in two pernicious ways: it makes people unwilling to accept other points of view, and utterly blinkers them to facts that do not fit the prevailing group-think. The result is that the very ability to reason gets squeezed, sometimes until it disappears entirely.”
Five years on, it is clear that things have changed enormously in the second half of the post-9/11 decade.
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Also by Andrew Stroehlein: “The war in American hearts and minds” (10 September 2006)
The memory of violence
Osama bin Laden and the United States may have been interlocked in a secretive and incestuous relationship that started in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but ten years after 9/11 the rest of us refuse to be drawn into their ungodly affair. We remain spectators as (in a repeat of the pattern) the ex-emir of jihad, Abdal-Hakim Belhaj - who fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s under the banner of al-Qaida, founded the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1990s, was captured by the CIA in 2004 and returned to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya - now becomes the beneficiary of a supportive Nato umbrella of bombs.
Yes, America and jihadis may occasionally fall out with each other; but each time it seems that they can mend their relationship and renew collaboration. For the majority of Muslims who have been victims of this dubious partnership, the memory of 9/11 will remain a testimony of how far political violence, cynicism, opportunism, and treachery can go.
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Madawi Al-Rasheed is professor of the anthropology of religion at Kings College, London. Her books include Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia's Political, Religious and Media Frontiers (C Hurst, 2008); and A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2011. Her website is here
Also by Madawi al-Rasheed: “The Saudi complex: power vs rights” (19 April 2011)
The great interruption
The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 had a huge impact on world politics in the following decade, but they did not mark a fundamental change like the 1989-91 upheavals or 2011’s extraordinary beginning of transformation in the Arab world. Indeed looking at 2001 in the light of these more important turning-points shows the limited character of the actions and the modest historical significance of both major protagonists in the subsequent conflict, al-Qaida and the George W Bush administration.
9/11 was an appalling mass murder and marked a quantum-leap in spectacular atrocity politics. Al-Qaida so effectively turned the Hollywood disaster-movie genre against the United States that it became, for a few years, an indispensable actor in world politics; yet the tactic reflected the organisation’s underlying political and military weakness. This has been cruelly exposed in its failure to execute a further major atrocity attack after the Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bombings, and underlined by the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
9/11’s main effects were to prompt President Bush to declare the “global war on terror” and enable him to invade Iraq. But Bush’s overreach also exposed the exaggeration of US power which its apparent victory in the cold war had encouraged. He in turn dissipated the worldwide support for the US after 9/11, provoked a low-grade genocidal civil war in Iraq itself, and left office one of the most discredited presidents in history, his principal legacy the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Any western success against al-Qaida was down to intelligence and policing, not war or the detention and torture with which Bush besmirched western democracy.
Bin Laden and Bush had in common that they attempted to short-circuit democratic change in world politics, the former with terror attacks and the latter with militarised regime-change. The main effect of their different but mutually reinforcing forms of substitutionism was to interrupt the twin processes of democratisation and legitimate global institution-building which had gained momentum after 1989. But with the fading of al-Qaida and neo-conservatism alike, the Arab revolts have shown a new birth of mass democratic movements and the possibilities of synergy with more responsive action by western governments and United Nations institutions.
In the light of 2011, it is hard to understand how bin Laden ever gained a significant following among Muslims - or Bush among western democrats. Yet during the “great interruption” of the 2000s, superficial journalism and scholarship followed superficial politics in embracing the notion that terrorism was the greatest threat to world society and the struggle against it the great challenge of our times.
We can now see that, however necessary is continuing vigilance against terrorist attacks, counter-terrorism was and is no more than a sideshow of world politics in the 21st century. It may, however, still be an uphill struggle to take the measure of the daunting challenges of democratic change, global equality and legitimate international order: not least because these are posed not just by the heroism of protesters on the Arab street but by the deepening crisis of a dysfunctional world economy.
Martin Shaw is professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at Roehampton University, London, and an honorary research professor of international relations at the University of Sussex. Among his books are War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern SocietyThe New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here (Polity, 2003)
Also by Martin Shaw: "The global democratic revolution: a new stage" (7 March 2011)
The identity-politics trap
A few days after the 9/11 attacks I was at a dinner-party at the house of middle-eastern friends. Most of the guests were exiled veteran communists. The discussion turned, inevitably, to the recent cataclysmic event. I was soon astonished and dismayed by the tone of veneration of Osama bin Laden, whom my companions clearly saw as a hero - even as they simultaneously cast doubt on whether it was the jihadists under his command who really were responsible.
This was, of course, the contradictory position taken by many admirers at the time and subsequently: bin Laden didn’t do it, it was the work of the CIA and the Jews, and yet it was still deeply gratifying - an event that lifted those who were not even responsible to the ranks of heroes and prophets.
The depressing ethos of that dinner-party was widely shared. In that particular case it was a phenomenon of the bankruptcy of a particular section of the left which, at the collapse of the Soviet world and its affective associations, had turned to various narrow nationalisms and a third-worldist anti-west stance.
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Sami Zubaida is emeritus professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. Among his books are Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2nd edition, 2009); Law and Power in the Islamic World (IB Tauris, 2003); and Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2010)
Also by Sami Zubaida: "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)
The west, not the world
The world has undergone enormous changes since 2001, and yet the statement so popular with policymakers and journalists after 9/11 - that “nothing will ever be as before” - has not proven true. The rise of China, India or Brazil, the financial and sovereign-debt crisis, and the uprisings in the Arab world have certainly done more to change the world than the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
The attacks did have an impact on national and international politics. But a decade later, it’s possible to see where this impact was of a more limited, temporary nature, and where it had longer-lasting effects. Three features stand out: United States unilateralism; regime-change policies; and the securitisation of foreign policies in the US and Europe, particularly in relation to the middle east and the Muslim world.
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Volker Perthes is director of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und PolitikGerman Institute for International and Security Affairs / SWP) in Berlin. He has published widely on Iraq and the middle east (
Also by Voker Perthes: "Iran, 2010-11: four scenarios and a nightmare" (15 January 2010)
Patrice de Beer
A broader perspective
The largest longer-term effect of 9/11 has been a twofold shift in the world balance of power. It ended the time when western countries could live in peace far away from wars in poor distant lands, protected by a Pax Americana; and it heralded the strategic weakening of the United States, a process accompanied by the emergence of China as the second largest world power.
The strike by Islamist terrorism on the heart of the empire can be seen as a watershed in world history. Yet there had been precedents (including a car-bomb attack on the World Trade Centre itself in 1993, and France too had been hit by jihadists in 1995). In this broader perspective, 9/11 can also be seen it as but an element (albeit exceptionally bloody and spectacular) in a chain of events which started in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Reagan’s manichean world vision underpinned his administration’s support for any force, even the most extreme, ready to fight communism. This included backing (and providing with top-range weapons, such as Stinger SAM missiles) the Afghan mujahideen through a network led by a little-known young Saudi named Osama bin Laden. Reagan even dedicated the launch of a space-shuttle to a group soon to be referred to as Taliban. The then United States ambassador to India, John Gunther Dean had courageously warned the state department of the risk of arming potential Islamist terrorists; he was recalled in 1988 and declared insane, leaving him to resign from the service.
The same mindset, both moralistic and cynical, was evident in Washington’s support for Saddam Hussein’s against revolutionary Iran in the 1980-88 war. By the time George W Bush arrived in the White House in January 2001, Saddam - following his invasion of Kuwait and the war of 1990-91 - had long become the enemy. The neo-conservatives around Bush were by then eager to stoke the view that Saddam’s weapons-programmes and support for terrorism made him a grave threat. Even under Bill Clinton’s presidency, in January 1998, leading members of the Project for a New American Century (including Donald Rumsfeld) wrote a letter to the president advocating Saddam's military overthrow.
These currents re-emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 in an ideological strategy that used the legitimate response to al-Qaida and its Taliban allies as a pretext to wage a campaign against other adversaries. The result was to lead the US into a bloody and hopeless quagmire in Iraq, even as its combination of uncompromising support of Israel and arrogance towards the Arab world lost it friends and influence. Even with Barack Obama in the White House, it could still take decades to recover from the gunship diplomacy of the Bush era, which shares some responsibility for fuelling the terrorism and hatred that has lasted across the decade.
The 9/11 attacks also brought one of globalisation’s dark sides into view. The freedoms of travel, exchange and communication were heralded in the 1990s as an unqualified benefit, but they also allowed (inter alia) the spread of extreme Islamism as Saudi-funded preachers, schools, and ideas gained adherents in many countries who went on to wage their own struggle against the infidel west. This and all the other ingredients of 9/11 - from the events which led to the tragedy to those that have followed - have made me even more wary of ideologists, whether religious or political.
Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde
Also by Patrice de Beer: "The scandal of France: power and shame" (8 June 2011)
The detours of history
In the past decade, many in the west have allowed al-Qaida to have far too much influence over the way they think about the Arab and Muslim worlds. Al-Qaida has always been a minority organisation that has portrayed many of their co-religionists as infidels and has carried out plenty of violence against Muslims and other local citizens (notably in Iraq, where the death-toll among Iraqis from local bombs vastly outweighs that of the coalition forces).
It’s true that small groups can wreak immense damage by using high-tech weapons (or other deadly tactics, as on 9/11) in urban centres, as well as by spreading fear through the media. But this capacity should not have distracted western governments so much that they failed to attend to the needs and aspirations of millions of ordinary, peaceable people in the middle east.
The irony is that in their efforts to fight or at least contain this violent minority, western policymakers have worked closely with governments that are perfectly happy to deny basic political rights to the majority of their population. Out of their own fear, western countries have been complicit in torture and repression.
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Jane Kinninmont is senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. Her work has been published in The World Today, the Economist, Foreign Affairs, and other publications. She is the author of a collection of poems, Seven League Stilettos (Ragged Raven Press, 2004)
Also by Jane Kinninmont: "Saudi Arabia's women pioneers" (8 May 2006)
Chile 1973, America 2001
For two countries, Chile and the United States, 11 September is a day that evokes destruction and symbolises all kinds of negative images, memories and legacies. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States propelled the country into a war mood - abroad and at home - that has lasted for ten years. The Chilean 9/11, in 1973, was a military coup that overthrew the democratic government of Salvador Allende and replaced it by a brutal dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet; it was to last seventeen years.
The character of the respective 9/11s was very different. The United States was attacked by foreign terrorists. In Chile, political divisions led to democratic breakdown and authoritarian rule. The nature of the traumas caused by the two events, and their long-term consequences, also differ greatly. The American 9/11 was a shattering national and global event (partly thanks to media coverage), and had far greater repercussions abroad than Chile’s military coup; though the effect of the Once de Septiembre on Chile’s history, politics and national life has in comparative terms been much larger than 11 September on the United States.
This is apparent in the way that Chile has ultimately been able to transform its 9/11 into a “never-again” moment. The suffering, pain and death caused by the 11 September 1973 coup stands as a permanent warning of the damage that can be caused when the national political elite fails to compromise. This date in Chilean history reminds Chileans of the destructive consequences of heeding voices of polarisation and extremism; and that compromise is a much better option than never-ending confrontation.
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Patricio Navia is a political scientist who teaches and researches at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New York University. His areas of interest include democracy, inequality and political change in Latin America. He writes a blog in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, as well as fiction and poetry
Also by Patricio Navia: "The Chilean way: after the spotlight" (27 October 2010)
Winners and losers
Ten years after 911, who lost, who won? Here is my take. The losers are easier to list, because there are so many.
First, al-Qaida is a loser. It has been decimated and rendered leaderless after Osama bin Laden was shot and turned into fishmeal. With the Americans hot on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s tail, at most he can save his skin. But that too is unlikely. In Afghanistan al-Qaida is nearly out, the Taliban are almost fully in.
Second, Pakistan lost much. It was pushed over the edge after Pervez Musharraf cosied up to George W Bush. The dumping of Pakistan’s creation, the Taliban, had been too much to bear for a country with malignant mullahs, state-sponsored jihadists, and no firm foundation. Its streets, markets, mosques, churches, and shrines are now soaked in the blood of religious minorities, religious scholars, religious militants, religious thugs, ordinary people, policemen, soldiers, and nationalist separatists. You name it: anyone can be killed, for any reason.
Third, the United States has been seriously weakened. It has been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lost much blood and treasure. An analysis by researchers at Brown University in 2011 finds that the Bush wars have cost $2.3-$2.8 trillion so far. Interest payments on the war debt will add another $1 trillion dollars by 2020. This military spending has helped drive the American economy into its worst recession since the post-1929 years. America’s enemies could not have wished for a better friend than George W Bush.
I had to scratch my head many a time to find winners. But, yes, there are some.
First, there is the 9/11 tourist industry. Every day thousands perform pilgrimage at the lavish, flag-draped rebuilding of the twin-towers site. Perhaps their destruction has become for Americans what the Karbala tragedy is for Shi’a who, fifteen centuries later, mourn the killing of Hazrat Ali’s sons with undiminished intensity.
Second, scanner-manufacturers and equipment-makers for airport security are making big bucks. They have sold $14-$18 billion dollars’ worth, and hope for ever increasing business. Company stock goes up after new threats are detected, such as the “underwear bomber” or the airline liquid-bomb plot.
Third, the biggest 9/11 winners are Islamic extremists. Al-Qaida may be nearly gone, but its offshoots have spread far and wide, operating out of hidden, hard-to-detect decentralised cells. Their worldview resembles the Samuel Huntington crowd’s: one of clashing civilisations. Their next step? Well, a small group of “martyrs”, armed only with box-cutters, knives, and faith, succeeded in changing the course of world history. If it could be done then, surely it can be done again.
How am I personally affected by 9/11? Very little compared to many. But my city, Islamabad, has become a city of fear. Machine-gun bunkers are ubiquitous, while traffic barely trickles past concrete-blocks placed across its super-wide roads. Upscale restaurants, fearing suicide-bombers, have removed their signs although they still hope clients will remember. Who will be the next target? Girls’ schools, internet-cafes, bookshops, or western clothing stores with mannequins? Or perhaps shops selling toilet-paper, tampons, underwear, and other un-Islamic goods? 9/11 unlocked the tiger’s cage and now we all fear.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan
Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy: "Pakistan: the road from hell" (9 June 2009)
A perfect pretext, a terrible legacy
The spectacular terrorist attacks that the United States suffered a decade ago changed the world for the worse. They provided a perfect pretext for far-right political forces around the world to impose their agendas, in ways that weakened the political capital of their democratic opponents. The new hegemony established in the aftermath of the attacks imposed huge human, political and financial costs that are still being paid throughout the world.
Most immediately, the events of 11 September 2001 fueled the interests and ambitions of extremist and anti-liberal tendencies in the United States. They had been working since the 1960s to repel and turn the anti-authoritarian social wave that reached a peak in the anti-Vietnam war and feminist movements. These authoritarian tendencies found in the tragedy a political opportunity.
The orchestrated rallying behind the flag of a limitless “war on terror” became a dramatic turning-point in the field of civil liberties. Hitherto illicit activities turned licit and acceptable: censorship, surveillance, extra-judicial prisons, unfair trials and torture. These infringements or suppressions of freedom and democracy were, in an Orwellian narrative, justified as necessary to protect freedom and democracy.
When the masters of the world started to act - and to think - in this way (for example, by discussing whether torture could be useful, rather than reaffirming total opposition to it) they found they couldn’t stop. The panoply of measures included the unlawful “extraordinary rendition” (transfer) of non-combatants (to avoid the Geneva convention) around a world-circuit of subterranean prisons. The survival of the offshore extra-judicial prison at Guantá namo in eastern Cuba, alongside other secret-state structures - a decade on, and under a new US administration - reflects the power and ambition of the legal and democratic reshaping of the post-11 September years.
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Mariano Aguirre is managing director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (Noref) in Oslo
Also by Mariano Aguirre: "Vietnam to Iraq and AfPak: traps of history" (11 April 2011)
The China factor
On 11 September 2001, I was working at the British embassy in Beijing. The news of the collapsing World Trade Centre towers came through late in the evening Beijing time, and carried on through the night. Most of the people I knew in China’s capital city stayed up through the night watching the events, mostly on CNN or BBC, in horror. At work the next day, the atmosphere in the embassy was sober. We knew, even before the serving ambassador was to say, that it would reconfigure the global diplomatic system, and the priorities of the United States and the powers around it.
In the short term, that is what happened. But my feeling is that the impact of the tragic and appalling events in New York and Washington was limited. Almost a decade later, Osama bin Laden was dead, and the revolting group around him largely tamed. The ongoing war in Afghanistan continues, but is connected to more complicated issues than the virulent anti-west hatred of a core of radicals around a charismatic but diminished and then destroyed leader.
Only a few weeks after the fall of the Twin Towers, a far quieter event happened in Beijing - China's entry, after years of negotiation, to the World Trade Organisation. It was covered in most of the broadsheet newspapers, but received nothing approaching the attention that the 11 September events did. In fifty years time, however, I am certain that historians will see this event as being far more significant.
The final embrace between China and the rest of the world, at least on trading terms, has already changed millions of lives. It will continue to do so, and fundamentally. In the last decade - as the “war on terror” has trickled to its various conclusions - the People’s Republic of China has risen to become the world's largest exporter, importer, holder of foreign currency, and second largest economy. For the first time in modern history a developing country stands in pole position to become the dominant economic force of the coming century.
The radicals around Osama bin Laden fought a doomed and vicious war, armed with weapons and the rhetoric of hate. In many ways they succeeded only in reinforcing the dominance (albeit temporary) of the United States and the west. The different contest that has shadowed it over this decade - over markets, factories and trade flows - will continue, and have a far more profound impact on the lives of every person on this planet. In a longer perspective, this - rather than the horror of 11 September 2001 and all that followed - will be seen as the true historic moment of our time.
Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of The Purge of the Inner Mongolian People's Party in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1967-69: A Function of Language, Power and Violence (Brill, 2004); Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007); The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (Woodhead, 2008); Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009); and Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State (Zed Books, 2011). His website is here
Also by Kerry Brown: “China goes global” (2 August 2007)
The end of the American century
9/11 was a crime against the United States and a crime against humanity. Yet in treating the criminals who perpetrated it as soldiers at war with the US and the west, it elevated their status and standing, and began the “war on terror”. The war was as ill-formulated as it was executed. The result: Kabul is an island protected by Nato, with much of the rest of Afghanistan in the hands of warlords and the Taliban; Iraq has been turned from an authoritarian state into a failed state, fragmented into regions. The cost in lives has been horrendous: hundreds of thousands have died, and millions have been displaced.
What the “war on terror” has disclosed is that the world’s mightiest power cannot conquer and pacify even relatively weak and divided countries. Initial victory proves illusory in the face of hostility to the victors and contested ideologies. The bombast of the US and the west has been disclosed. The rhetoric of the “coalition of the willing” about bringing democracy and peace to Afghanistan and Iraq is shattered by the reality of car-bombs and anti-personnel landmines. The killing goes on.
As “the American century” has dissolved in a decade, it has become clear that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq symbolise the steady decline of western power: that is, the ability of the US and its allies to shape the world in their own image and according to their interests and rules.
[To read on, click here -]
David Held is professor of political science at the London School of Economics, co-director of Polity Press, and general editor of Global Policy. Among his many books are Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus (Polity, 2004); Models of Democracy (Polity, third edition, 2006); Globalization Theory: Problems and Controversies (Polity, 2007); and Cosmopolitanism: Ideas and Realities (Polity, 2010)
Also by David Held: "Global challenges: accountability and effectiveness" (17 January 2008)
The ripples of global violence
There are few events in history that are truly inescapable, penetrating and global. Revolutions come to mind, world wars and spectacular natural catastrophes as well. Despite its relatively local impact, the terror attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 have been turned into such a global event.
In fact, 9/11 has - as the media coverage of its tenth anniversary shows - been “marketed” as an instantly recognisable worldwide brand: an epithet for terror, destruction and spectacular cruelty. This is the biggest single impact of 9/11: globalised violence. 9/11 means many things to different people, but today it can’t be associated with anything positive, ethical, or humane. After all, who would say, “I was born on 9/11”?
Yet like any other global event, 9/11 has been the midwife of something new. It was the first example of postmodern terror organised and executed within the networked structures of a globalising world order that contracts the transaction of violence beyond space. Geographical distance is not a security guarantee anymore, and war has ceased to be a state of exception. Consequently, as a global event, 9/11 cannot be mourned in isolation. After all, it also delivered the “war on terror” which devastated Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently Pakistan too.
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Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is reader in comparative politics and international realtions at SOAS, London. His latest book is A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism (C Hurst / Columbia University Press, 2010). His previous books include Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (C Hurst, 2008 / Columbia University Press, 2008). His website is here
Also by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: "After the 'west'" (23 June 2011)
The world of others
9/11 arrived as an amazing spectacle, foreshadowed by many a Hollywood disaster-movie. Then the real-life catastrophe hit: the tragic loss of life, the horror and the suffering of the victims in the hijacked planes and in the burning and collapsing buildings - and awe at the chilling determination of the suicidal-hijackers themselves.
The event had a profound psychological and symbolic effect in the United States. It ended the conviction that no harm would ever come to the homeland - safe on its continent, protected by oceans on either side and mostly friendly countries to north and south. It also marked the moment when things stopped going right for the US and showed that America’s unilateral moment was over. The resulting military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have confirmed the slide, and the financial crisis has severely undercut the US’s economic might.
A few days after 9/11 a colleague and I were interviewing Ryszard Kapuściński, Poland’s award-winning reporter who made his name writing about what was once called the “third world”.
During the conversation Kapuściński kept returning to the theme of how the western developed countries had become ever more uninterested in what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that we didn’t understand (or care) what people there thought about us. This, he thought, was one of the reasons for what had happened.
A decade on, the western media coverage of the rest of the world is still diminishing. Yet the shock of 9/11 may yet prove a turning-point in the west’s awareness of the importance of understanding other peoples, their religions, history and cultures. Should such a high price have been paid, though, to learn such a self-evident lesson?
Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Warsaw correspondent of the Financial Times (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine
Also by Krzysztof Bobinski: "Poland's European infusion" (13 July 2011)
A lost left
Of the many and varied consequences of the 9/11 attacks, the one that saddens me the most is the consequences for the political left. Consider the following examples:
* A few years ago, a British academic whom I admire greatly and who defines himself as unabashedly left-wing, wrote a piece on his blog about a lecture he had attended by Richard Perle, a neo-conservative highly influential in the George W Bush administration. The academic described Perle as an advocate of a “progressive” United States foreign policy
* More recently, another website in Britain carried an interview with a prominent left-of-centre blogger. He revealed that one of his heroes was Ronald Reagan
* In a succession of pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, attended by prominent figures on the left, a slogan regularly displayed has been “We are all Hizbollah”
* In October 2011, the radical publisher Zero Books will publish a book by Gilad Atzmon, the jazz musician and political activist. The writing of Atzmon, who is Jewish, is full of anti-semitic tropes and he has come close to endorsing holocaust-denial.
There are hundreds of examples like these: people who claim to have a progressive view of the world standing with the worst kinds of reactionaries.
9/11 unleashed a retreat to the most baleful traditions of the left - a bifurcated view of the world along with a resurgent schismatism. On the one side, justified disgust with Islamic fundamentalism led those on the self-defined “decent left” (embodied in the Euston Manifesto group in Britain) to make common cause with the neo-conservatives and a Bush administration which pursued imperialist policies and endorsed widespread torture. On the other side, justified disgust with western neo-imperialism led other leftists to make common cause with Islamists and anti-semites.
The failure of imagination has been colossal. There was a chance post-9/11 to build a left that would reject both Islamism and the response to Islamism. Sadly, much (although by no means all) of the left never made the effort to do this. The result is that many important and idealistic figures on the left have become fatally compromised by the choices they made.
After the era of Bush and his close ally Tony Blair, things have improved a little, but the task of imagining a progressive politics that does not get into bed with oppressive forces - of any kind - is still urgent.
Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Todayhere (Continuum, July 2010). He has written widely on Israel, Jewish affairs and politics. His website is
Also by Keith Kahn-Harris: "A war of rhetoric: the Israel-Palestine vortex" (23 May 2011)
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
A politics of suspicion
With 9/11, the upbeat optimism of the fin-de-siècle ground to a halt. In the preceding era apartheid had been consigned to the dustbin of history, the cold war had been called off, mobile-phones and internet connectivity had started to shrink the world as neo-liberal openness to global opportunities took hold. The events of 11 September 2001 shattered the optimism and opened the way to a decade of mistrust, fear and anxiety.
The politics of mistrust has taken root across continents: helping the new right in its rise to prominence in Europe, making air travel a humiliating ordeal, deepening the gulf between the largest monotheistic religions, and making cosmopolitan dialogue more difficult. Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, along with the occasional report of “collateral damage” in Afghanistan, have made it more difficult than ever (or at least since the Vietnam war) for the United States to take the moral high ground in geopolitics.
The main benefactors of the 9/11 legacy have without doubt been those who thrive on divisive identity politics based on the dehumanisation of the other. Both nationalist bigotry and militant Islam have lived through a period when their opposing, yet almost identical worldviews have apparently been confirmed every day. Yet by contrast, 2001-11 was also Lula's decade and, for better and worse, that of Hugo Chavez. The Latin American left has indirectly benefited from the relative lack of attention bestowed upon it by the US, a country currently involved in three wars in Muslim countries, each hopeless in its own way.
This has been a decade marking a paranoid phase in the short history of globalisation. To find an optimistic scenario for the next, it is necessary to look beyond the north Atlantic with its dismal economic outlook and entanglements in distorted legacies of imperialism. It may seem that those regions which have been least affected by 9/11 - Brazil, China, India among them - presently have greater cause for confidence than the heirs of the Semitic and Greco-Roman worlds.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here
Also by Thomas Hylland Eriksen: "The paranoid phase of globalisation" (24 October 2001)
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
A painful lesson
The events of 11 September 2001 occasioned many memorials. For me, the one who best conveyed the truth of the moment was written by the film critic Roger Ebert: that what happened “is not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world”.
Ebert's tribute spoke of landscapes that elevate the human spirit: parks, and ponds, a green field with trees and flowers. Alas, ten years on, there is precious little evidence of these being the principal physical legacy of 9/11. Instead, the landscape is littered with battered metal, broken glass, and bodily scars.
The thousands of dead and wounded are of every kind: combatants and civilians from dozens of nationalities, countless Afghans and Iraqis as well as the American and other soldiers sent to their countries, victims of urban terrorism and remote drone-bombing alike. “War begets war” is a painful lesson that it has taken a decade to relearn.
[To read on, click here - ]
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is an analyst of Arab affairs
Also by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi: "Egypt: from revolt to change" (8 February 2011)
The mutilated world
I will never forget the poems on 9/11 written by two Polish poets, the Nobel-winning Wislawa Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski. Each was an expression of solidarity with America in horror, mourning and grief.
Szymborska’s “Photograph from September 11’’ evokes the image of the people jumping from the Twin Towers. “They jumped from the burning floors / one, two, a few more / higher, lower …I can only do two things for them / describe this flight / and not add a last line’’ (translation: Clare Kavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak). Zagajewski’s was entitled “Try to Praise the Mutilated World’’.
Both poems were widely circulated in Polish and foreign media after the attacks. The Americans found them very moving and empathetic, which they are. But it was not just the poets. All sorts of Poles expressed their sympathy with the victims, their families, the whole nation. Hundreds of candles were lit in front of the United States embassy in Warsaw. Polish Muslims ( a small community here, but dating back to the times of “old Poland”) also offered their condolences.
There was nothing unique in these Polish reactions during the days and weeks after the shock. Such empathy and solidarity prevailed throughout and beyond the western world.
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Adam Szostkiewicz writes for Polityka weekly news magazine in Warsaw
Also by Adam Szostkiewicz: "Poland's tragedy, one year on" (8 April 2011)
The wrong target
There is nothing original in the assertion that 9/11 has made the world less safe than it was before. Isn’t that what acts of terror are meant to do and what they all too often actually do? Terrorism is an indirect act of violence, and differs from the direct-impact kind in two ways.
First, it kills, maims and destroys a few - but impacts on many, by spreading the fear, panic and the atmosphere of terror that it is meant to create. In that respect the 9/11 attacks succeeded more than their authors would have hoped, though their spectacular success may have been one of the reasons that today al-Qaida (in the strict sense of the organisation led by the late Osama bin Laden) has all but ceased to be a fighting force. Its fate may not matter much, since groups it inspired have mushroomed and militant Islamism is here to stay, at least quite for a while.
This leads to the second way in which terrorism intends to achieve indirect damage. Because of the ambience of fear terrorism creates, responses to it are rarely adequate and effective. When a strong and proud nation with little or no recent experience of being a target is subject to an attack, it is prone to overreact. Its government tends to feel the need to be ruthless, not just to meet the immediate threat but so that everyone else can see that it is taking tough measures to eradicate the source of the threat once and for all.
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Rein Müllerson is the president of the Academy of Law of Tallinn University, Estonia. He was professor and chair of international law at King's College, London (1994-2009). His books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996); Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007); and Democracy – A Destiny of Humankind? A Qualified, Contingent and Contextual Case for Democracy Promotion (Nova, 2009)
Also by Rein Müllerson: "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)
More security, less secure
The events of 11 September 2001 may have had a global impact, but for obvious reasons no country was affected so much as the United States of America. This was the first mass foreign terrorist attack on US soil; it struck at the most visible places of US commerce and government; and it made weapons of planes, which are part of many Americans’ travel routine (the equivalent of buses or trains in Europe).
It is therefore not surprising that the remembrance of 9/11 is a much bigger deal in the US than anywhere else. Many Americans (as well as non-Americans, of whom 372 died that day) have a personal or emotional connection to the events and to New York. In good American fashion, the tenth memorial is also a commercial goldmine; already at the beginning of the summer the first t-shirts went on sale at local supermarkets here in Indiana. Most of all, however, it is a domestic political battlefield, a chance to further whip up American patriotism and argue that your side was correct about how to respond and the other side was unpatriotic and wrong.
In addition, serious journalists and scholars try to neutrally assess the consequences of 9/11 and the various responses to it by states. They examine attitudes and discourse (e.g. anti-Americanism, Islamophobia), legal and extra-legal actions (notably Guantánamo Bay and the Patriot Act), and military and security expenditure. A striking aspect of most accounts is how little we know.
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Cas Mudde is Nancy Schaenen scholar at The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics and visiting associate professor at the department of political science of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Among his books is Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Also by Cas Mudde: "The intolerance of the tolerant" (20 October 2010)
The wrong lens
I have a silly problem with the date of "9/11": my mind always reads it as if it meant the ninth day of November according to the format in which dates are written in Europe. Of course, my mind corrects the error in a second, but I keep wondering about the meaning of this "mental slip".
I don't think my view of the world has undergone any major reshuffling as a result of "9/11". As with most of my friends, I was shocked by the violence of the event and I felt a natural human empathy with the innocent victims; the same empathy I felt in subsequent years towards the victims of other disasters - man-made and natural ones across the globe, from the wars in Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia to the floods in Pakistan, to the tsunami in Japan and the famine in the Horn of Africa. I was always a bit annoyed by the "sacralisation" of "9/11" by the mass media. I saw it as a deeply unequal treatment of victims: those of the "9/11" attack had gone down to history: all others sank into oblivion.
With this qualification, was "9/11" really a historical event that "changed the world"?
True, it encouraged xenophobia, it helped the rise of the extreme right in Europe and the United States and contributed to the "securitisation" of the international agenda. But, was it the attack on the Twin Towers that brought about today's economic crisis, that made European and American youth hopeless, that started the current global shifts of power from the north and the west to the east and the south?
Obviously not. The seeds of these developments were already present since the end of the cold war: in the self-congratulatory triumphalism of the west, now in search of a new enemy; in the irresponsible servitude of governments to the gambling patrons of international finance; in the erosion of social safety-nets; and in the flattening and gradual disappearance of real political debate.
"9/11" was a wonderful gift to George W Bush, a mediocre president in desperate search of a mission. It zombified the American electorate, emboldened the political right and marked the beginning of a dark period in the US’s relations with the rest of the world. The ill-advised vindictive reaction of the remaining superpower was utterly counterproductive. It caused and continues to cause a lot of harm to many people in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, and eventually to Americans themselves.
But the historical significance of "9/11" needs to be put in perspective in the face of today's global challenges. The general acceptance of the specific American date format (in relation to the date in question) remains a small token of the fading US hegemony.
Also by Goran Fejic: "Egypt, and the thirty years of solitude" (31 January 2011)
The hijacked decade
In the afternoon of 11 September 2001, I received a telephone call from a friend in New York speaking in a terrified voice of a plane hitting one of the twin towers. Was it an accident? The second attack left no doubt: this was an operation of a new type. In the following days there was quiet fear in New York. Will dirty bombs or a nuclear attack be next?
I tried to tell my friend not to fear another wave. I was convinced that Osama bin Laden and his accomplices had a “lucky” one-off success, and probably did not have a follow-up plan. After attacking America, I thought, bin Laden and his supporters would instead be preparing for an American air-campaign on their hideouts in Afghanistan.
At the time I did not know how bad a strategist bin Laden was. The Saudi jihadist did not direct his adherents to evacuate Afghan cities, because he was convinced that the Americans would never send soldiers to fight in Afghanistan. The Americans were cowards, he had told his supporters. As a result, the Taliban and their jihadi supporters continued manning the frontlines in northeast Afghanistan, and kept their supporters in hostile cities such as Mazar e-Sharif and Kabul, where hundreds of them perished under the joint operations of the Northern Alliance and the firepower-heavy Americans.
Bin Laden proved to be a poor strategist once again in 2003 when - against the judgment of his lieutenants - he ordered his supporters to unleash a rebellion in Saudi Arabia. This led to their destruction in the hands of Saudi security. In the same year an unknown (Jordanian) jihadi militant known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gained notoriety when he chose to fight in Iraq, and became so popular as to rival bin Laden himself.
For many people, 9/11 and its architect acquired a compelling aura whose focus was the daring of Osama bin Laden in attacking a global power seen by many as a source of injustice. This posture came at a cost: the middle east was a violent place before 9/11, but after it the violence escalated massively. A generation of Arab youth was sacrificed on the road to a vague project of Islamist utopia. Thousands of militants died in suicide-bombings - 5,000 in Iraq alone.
But the greatest strategic mistake of bin Laden was his idea that the Arab-Islamic civilisation can be revitalised through a military confrontation with inadequately understood enemies. In borrowing from Sayyid Qutb the notion of a “vanguard” of Islamist militants, he eliminated the idea of popular participation from his notion of politics - and it is even more clear, in the wake of the Arab spring, how inept he was!
Another great loser from 9/11 was the anti-globalist movement, which had managed (in Seattle in 1999) to lay siege to world leaders - both physically, and with the values it was articulating. Its growth symbolised the fact that the ideas of human rights and environmental protection were gaining over those of great-power competition and the conquest of resources.
9/11 crushed that equation, and restored militaristic values to fashion. The decade-that-might-have-been was hijacked, and globally important issues ignored; instead, billions of dollars were burned on frontline-free combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other theatres of the “war against terror”.
This made the fortune of the “defence” (military) industry, and of secret services and privatised security, in the United States and beyond. Unpopular and illegitimate regimes in the middle east and Africa joined the game. They supported the “war against terror” to gain favour in Washington, a last throw of their raison d’être. After all, Gaddafi argued yesterday, and Bashar al-Assad still argues today, that the peaceful demonstrators against their rule are in fact dangerous Islamists.
Looking back on this lost decade, sometimes I wonder who has won most from America’s clash with the Arab-Islamic world. Could it be China?