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America after 9/11: the wrong target

A flawed response to terrorism on its soil brought the United States low. The lessons are also for the rest of the world to learn, says Rein Müllerson.
Rein Müllerson
9 September 2011

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.   

The moral blowback

The “war on terror” declared by the George W Bush administration after 9/11 - like wars declared against poverty, diseases or drugs - was such an inadequate response, for two reasons.

First, it included measures similar to those used by terrorist groups (in this case al-Qaida) themselves, which by definition don’t respect human life and dignity. Such measures included waterboarding (and thus torture), extraordinary rendition (including to Gaddafi’s Libya), disrespect of international humanitarian law, and the abominations of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. This inevitably led to the loss of  moral legitimacy by those waging the “war on terror”.

Second, the “war on terror” launched two large-scale conventional wars against states: Afghanistan and Iraq. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent war there acquired characteristics that seriously undermined the justice of the cause in the “war on terror”. Both the American and British governments are revealed (in the case of the latter by the official Chilcot inquiry) as having been “economical with the truth” in their rationale for the war, by (for example) making false claims about Iraqi weapons programmes, the regime’s military capacities, and its links with al-Qaida.

Here, the “war on terror” was driven by a manichean worldview where the good remains good even if it resorts to the methods of the enemy: ends justify means, and lying is permitted (even necessary) in the former’s service.      

The American assault on al-Qaida (and its Taliban protectors) in Afghanistan began both as a just war, and one sanctioned by international law (self-defence) and the United Nations Security Council; thus it was both legitimate and lawful. It soon lost focus, however, and became subject to “mission-creep”. A counter-terrorist operation developed into a counterinsurgency one; nation-building, promotion of democracy and women’s rights became important aims.

The recent books by former British ambassadors (Sherard Cowper-Coles’s Cables from Kabul and Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy) show that the United States and Nato war in Afghanistan has some close parallels with the Soviet Union’s (illegitimate) invasion of the country in 1979 that also lasted a decade and ended disastrously for all involved.     

The end of an illusion

The background to the US’s inadequate response to 9/11 and conduct of the subsequent wars is the hubris that set in American foreign policy at the end of the cold war. In the 1990s, the themes of unilateralism, a unipolar world and the American century became popular. In the event, the very “war on terror” that sought to entrench unilateralism (combined with more recent financial and economic crises, which the wars contributed to) helped turn the unipolar century into a unipolar moment - and into the multipolar century it was always destined to be.  

America has been and in many ways remains an indispensable nation; and, I mean, indispensable for the good. But to realise this potential, America needs allies; real allies and not underlings who unquestionably follow their master’s voice; allies who sometimes think differently, may even have different values and interests. In the multipolar century, cooperation and compromises between equals are the order of the day.

The “war on terror” has thus truncated the unipolar illusion. In a way, the terrorists have achieved something. They also forced the victim to lower its standards, to descend to their level, to communicate with the attackers in the latter’s language. However, this doesn’t mean that the terrorists have won - for they had only means, and were without ends.  

For the world, the lessons of the day is: be tough, but be also wise, and certainly, don’t lie and don’t torture in the name of nobler aims.  

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