The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
For most Americans, the events of September 11 came like a bolt from the blue on that beautiful, terrible morning. But as Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda observe in their well-written introduction to The Age of Terror, "the unforgivable is not necessarily incomprehensible or inexplicable." In fact, all three of these books make clear that although the attacks on New York and Washington were unexpected for many, the warning signs had long been evident -- at least to some of those who focus on terrorism.
There was, for example, the report by the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century (known, for its co-chairs, as the Hart-Rudman report). As several of the essayists in these books point out, in the spring of last year this commission predicted that there would likely be a catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil within the next two decades.
By last summer, it had also become clear to those monitoring Osama bin Laden that al Qaeda was plotting an attack; the only question was when and where. The arrests of al Qaeda associates in Yemen and India in June had revealed plans to blow up the American embassies in those countries, and a propaganda videotape, which circulated widely in the Middle East during the summer, showed bin Laden calling for more such assaults.
Given this forewarning, how did the attacks on America happen? So asks the book assembled by the editors of this magazine. The answers are provided by a list of big thinkers, ranging from Fouad Ajami to Fareed Zakaria. Part of the answer can be found in an essay by Princeton's Michael Scott Doran, "Somebody Else's Civil War." Doran, attempting to explain a subsidiary question -- namely, why do they hate us? -- shows that the United States has been sucked into a struggle within the Muslim world. This battle pits those, such as bin Laden, who seek to re-create the era when the Prophet Muhammad ruled the Islamic lands, against those who actually govern Muslim countries today. Bin Laden used Afghanistan as a base to launch a jihad across the Muslim world, hoping thereby to bring "apostate" regimes such as Saudi Arabia within the fold of true Islam and restore the caliphate from Spain to Indonesia. By this view, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were collateral damage in a struggle for the hearts and minds of the umma -- the worldwide community of Muslim believers. According to Doran, bin Laden hoped that the attacks against the United States would spark uprisings by Muslims against their own American-backed regimes. As Sandy Berger pithily observes in his own essay, "bin Laden's ultimate twin towers are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia."
THE REAL ROGUES
All three of these books have their merits, not least of which are their timeliness and the admirable dispatch with which they were produced. How Did This Happen? is the most wide-ranging of the three; the essays included examine everything from the economic impact of the attacks to the troubled recent history of Afghanistan. For those seeking to understand how the attacks might play out in the wider historical story of the U.S. role as a great power, The Age of Terror offers several literate and illuminating contributions. And To Prevail presents a series of policy recommendations that, although they may make the book less engaging reading, should be of considerable interest to policymakers.
It is a virtue of these three books that all of them, mercifully, avoid dragging Iraq or Iran into the events of September 11. There seems to be a desire in some quarters today to discover a deus ex machina in the plot, a way to explain the terrible attacks without accepting that they were simply the work of al Qaeda (which Talbott and Chanda aptly label "the ultimate NGO"). But scant evidence exists that any state actors -- except the Taliban -- actively supported bin Laden. Certainly, if any Middle Eastern government does bear blame for supporting the kind of Islamist extremism that led to September 11, it is neither Iraq nor Iran; Saudi Arabia is the real culprit. In its effort to shore up its own legitimacy, Riyadh has financed militant Islamist movements around the world. This policy of backing virulently anti-Western groups -- a strategy some have dubbed "riyalpolitik" -- has now borne disastrous results, from Afghanistan to America.
Imagine for a minute that, instead of being Saudis (as they in fact were), 15 of the 19 hijackers had been Iranian. Imagine, too, that the Taliban got its diplomatic and economic support not from the House of Saud but from the regime in Tehran, and that bin Laden enjoyed the backing of Iranian clerics, charities, and businesses rather than their Saudi counterparts. Does anyone doubt that if any of the above were true, the United States would have already taken aggressive actions against Iran?
In fact, as Talbott and Chanda observe, Iranians responded to the attacks of September by holding two large candlelight vigils. By contrast, the Saudi defense minister told The New York Times in December that American news media coverage of the kingdom's links to Islamic extremism amounted to a "slanderous campaign."
The Middle East scholar Gregory Gause highlights the ambiguous position of the Saudis in his essay appropriately titled "The Kingdom in the Middle" (which appears in How Did This Happen?). As he explains, "[Saudi Arabia] is both a source, however indirect, of terror against the United States and a key American ally in the battle against that terror." Gause warns, however, that it may be dangerous for the United States to pressure the Saudis to reform. As he explains, "were elections to be held today in Saudi Arabia, they would be won by candidates whose worldview is closer to that of Osama bin Laden than to that of Thomas Jefferson." In such a short essay, of course, Gause can only scratch the surface of this rich issue. Those who want to know more should turn to Douglas Jehl's excellent recent reporting from Saudi Arabia in The New York Times and the Georgetown scholar Mamoun Fandy's authoritative study Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent.
THE MIND OF A KILLER
Michael Mandelbaum, now at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, uses his essay in How Did This Happen? to pour some much-needed cold water on the argument, beloved of the left, that the attacks were in some way the result of the socio-economic inequities between the West and the Muslim world. Such a notion fails all sorts of common-sense tests. For example: if the attacks were really about the poverty of Islamic countries, the hijackers should have been destitute Afghans or Africans -- not scions of the Egyptian and Saudi middle class. Instead, al Qaeda's top leaders were a surgeon from a prominent Egyptian family and a trust-fund baby from one of the richest families in the Saudi kingdom.
If the attackers were not motivated by economic discontent, then, what drove them? Religion, of course -- although not everyone is ready to fully admit the role of Islam in September's attacks. In her essay in How Did This Happen?, for example, the religion scholar Karen Armstrong doth protest too much when she says that the Koran tells Muslims they "may never initiate hostilities ... and aggressive warfare is always forbidden." Her claim is simply false. Some verses in the Koran, it is true, seem only to allow purely defensive wars: "Permission to take up arms is hereby given to those attacked, because they have been wronged." But the Koran also exhorts the believers to aggression: "When the Sacred Months are past, then kill the idolaters wherever you find them." Turn the other cheek this is not. Bin Laden, in fact, quoted this very verse when he declared his war against the West in 1998.
This religious motivation helps explain why al Qaeda unleashed such massive destruction in September, a quantum leap forward from conventional terrorism. Rand's Brian Jenkins elucidates this important point: "in the past, terrorists could have killed more but chose not to. Why? Because wanton violence could be counterproductive," tarnishing a group's image and provoking massive crackdowns. Al Qaeda, however, represented a new generation of religious terrorists that operate without such constraints: "Those convinced that they have the mandate of God to kill their foes have fewer moral qualms about mass murder and care less about constituents."
The historian Walter Laqueur, also writing in How Did This Happen?, amplifies that observation by noting that the new religious terrorists have come to the fore at the same time that weapons of mass destruction have become much more available. "One must conclude," he argues, "that the world is now entering a new phase it its history, more dangerous than any before." Strong words, perhaps. But in the light of September 11, it now seems like wishful thinking to believe we will escape future acts of catastrophic terrorism.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
The essays in How Did This Happen? posit a number of useful suggestions. Richard K. Betts, writing about the role of the U.S. intelligence community, observes that on "many subjects the coverage is now only one analyst deep." To ameliorate this problem, Betts advocates the creation of an "intelligence analyst reserve corps: people ... who can be mobilized if a crisis involving their area erupts." He also urges Washington to rely more heavily on academics for analysis of long-term trends in the Muslim world. Joseph Nye, meanwhile, argues robustly for giving Tom Ridge's Office of Homeland Security greater budgetary authority, so that Ridge does not end up as a mere figurehead, like the country's drug czar. And The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook decries the failure of the "All-Too-Friendly Skies." The aviation industry, he finds, had previously trained pilots to cooperate with hijackers, a policy that had disastrous results in September. "The new training assumption must be that hijackers are butchers and not 'rational' criminals, and that it is better to let a few passengers die than to let all of them die."
For its part, To Prevail -- a selection of essays produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- focuses less on how September's attacks happened and more on possible solutions to the scourge of terrorism. Antony Blinken, who served on the National Security Council from 1994 to 2001, outlines an interesting approach in "Elevating Public Diplomacy." If terrorism is theater, then counterterrorism should be as well -- or at least it should have a much larger propaganda component than it has been given thus far. For example, bin Laden's argument that the United States is the enemy of Islam should be vigorously disputed. There is certainly plenty of counterevidence. Look, for example, at recent U.S. military interventions in Somalia, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- interventions that saved hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives. This evidence should be widely publicized in the Muslim world to help combat the image of America as the Great Satan. As Blinken explains, "during the Cold War, public diplomacy was an effective weapon in the West's arsenal." In the current campaign it should be as well.
Blinken's specific prescriptions include developing a rapid-response capability to counter erroneous commentary about American policies (paging James Carville!); encouraging U.S. ambassadors to engage in the public debate in their host countries; routinely deploying American officials to appear on Arabic media outlets like al Jazeera; bolstering the Voice of America in the Middle East, where it is currently heard by only 2 percent of Arabs; and enlisting the help of prominent Muslim Americans to communicate pro-American messages in their countries of origin. All of these ideas are indisputably commonsensible, and they offer another advantage as well: they come cheap.
In a chapter on homeland security, the authors of To Prevail insist that the United States must look beyond hijackings to other threats, involving "missiles, trucks, cars, or ships ... chemical or biological agents or nuclear materials in major U.S. cities; and both cyber and physical attacks on critical infrastructure." Such advice is welcome, for terrorists always seek "soft" targets, which are less well defended than the more obvious "hard" ones. The authors therefore also suggest that Ridge's office "should institute an extensive program of war-gaming exercises" to probe the nation's vulnerabilities and conduct a homeland security review "on the scale of a quadrennial defense review."
GLOBALIZATION GONE AWRY
The Age of Terror is more discursive in tone than the other two volumes reviewed, and its authors emphasize how recent, triumphalist proponents of globalization missed its dark side. As the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis writes,
it was held to be a good thing that capital, commodities, ideas, and people could move freely across boundaries. There was little talk, though, of an alternative possibility: that danger might move just as freely. ... It was as if we had convinced ourselves that the new world of global communications had somehow transformed an old aspect of human nature, which is the tendency to harbor grievances and sometimes to act upon them.
His fellow historian Paul Kennedy picks up that theme. "No one," he writes, "wants to reside in a totally closed society like North Korea, but complete integration and openness also bring their perils and achieving a fine balance between accessibility and security will be excruciatingly difficult."
Meanwhile, the veteran diplomat Charles Hill takes aim with considerable verve at a number of targets, in his essay dissecting the "Myth and Reality of Arab Terrorism." Hill decries the fact that during the 1990s the United States "relied heavily on law enforcement mechanisms to try to investigate and punish terrorists. The results, predictably, were interminable legalistic entanglements that focused on the lowest suspects and left the masterminds alone." Hill blames the American news media, too, for turning inward, closing overseas bureaus, and reducing foreign affairs coverage so that "paradoxically, the greater the U.S. involvement in a globalizing world became, the less knowledgeable or concerned Americans became about events beyond their own borders."
Hill also fires a devastating broadside at the regimes of the Middle East. This critique is worth quoting at length, since it is the political failures of these states that allowed for the genesis of the religious terrorists.
[There is a] single approach to the political ordering of [Arab] society. In Oman, a sultan; in Yemen, a military "president"; in Saudi Arabia, a king and family with special Islamic custodial responsibilities; in Jordan, a king of a simulated constitutional monarchy; in Egypt, a president and a parliament only nominally connected to the original Western meaning of these institutions. Beneath all these styles a single form is discernible. Power is held by a strongman, surrounded by a praetorian guard. ... Those close to political power gain; the weak are disregarded.
Hill is on a roll here, and it gets even better.
Every regime of the Arab-Islamic world has proved a failure. Not one has proved able to provide its people with realistic hope for a free and prosperous future. The regimes have found no way to respond to their people's frustration other than a combination of internal oppression and propaganda to generate rage against external enemies. Religiously inflamed terrorists take root in such soil. Their threats to the regimes extort facilities and subsidies that increase their strength and influence. The result is a downward spiral of failure, fear and hatred.
And then comes Hill's masterstroke: his conclusion that the deleterious impact of political disenfranchisement in the Arab world has been amplified by "the deeply rooted conviction that virtually every significant occurrence is caused by some external conspiracy. Every societal shortcoming is attributed to a foreign plot." The best example of this culture of conspiracy, of course, is the widely circulated -- and widely believed -- story that the attacks on the World Trade Center were the work of the Jews, as is demonstrated by the supposed fact that 4,000 Jews did not show up for work on the day of the attacks. Accordingly, the lead hijacker's father -- an apparently sane Egyptian lawyer -- remains convinced that the attacks were the work of the Mossad, Israel's security service. And even the appearance of the bin Laden home video -- in which Osama is seen chuckling over the hijackings -- has done nothing to dissuade the undissuadable. After all, as a commentator on al Jazeera television opined, the tape may have been a fake.
Hill goes on to explain that "conspiracy theories blight every society they touch. The people who hold them become impervious to evidence and reason." Indeed, it was precisely this culture of conspiracy that enabled bin Laden to convince a transnational coalition of Arabs that, despite evidence to the contrary, the problems of their home countries were the fault of the United States -- rather than of the incompetence and corruption of their various domestic elites.
AGE OF EMPIRE?
The Age of Terror also features an essay by the prolific British historian Niall Ferguson, in which he takes issue with the notion that the September attacks were the opening salvo of the much-ballyhooed clash of civilizations. "One of the dangers of [this thesis]," he argues, "is that it exaggerates the homogeneity of Islam as a world religion." Ferguson is right. Furthermore, as bin Laden's various statements make clear, the Saudi exile did indeed hope to provoke such a clash between "believers" and "infidels." But this project has turned out to be a spectacular failure. The streets of Karachi and Cairo never filled up with hundreds of thousands of Osama's admirers. Moreover, the United States has not engaged in a wide-ranging war against Muslims. Instead, the U.S. campaign has essentially amounted to a police action in Afghanistan -- one conducted largely by the Afghans themselves, and with the goal of extirpating a group of Arab criminals.
Ferguson turns to the nineteenth-century British Empire to find a more apposite historical model for today's crisis. He describes the spectacular rise and fall of Muhammad Ahmed al-Mahdi, a messianic Sudanese Islamic fundamentalist whose soldiers stormed Khartoum in 1885, killing British General Charles Gordon along with the city's other defenders. This attack, as Ferguson observes, was the "'September 11' of the era." And the British Empire hardly collapsed as a result. Instead, the outraged British responded decisively to al-Mahdi's provocation, and at the battle of Omdurman in 1898, ten thousand of the rebels were wiped out by British Maxim machine guns. Meanwhile, only a handful of British soldiers were killed. Sound familiar?
Building on this parallel, Ferguson argues that the United States should now take a forceful leadership role in the world -- a role similar to that played by the British Empire -- in order to counter the growing forces of disorder. He establishes a series of premises that show why such leadership is now mandatory: the United States is vulnerable to attack; weapons that can be used against Americans are becoming both cheaper and more readily available; and the United Nations is "incapable of coping with the challenge of global disorder." Furthermore, only the United States can afford the costs of empire. Ferguson concludes with a question: "Do the leaders of the one state with the economic resources to make the world a better place have the guts to do it?" The answer remains unclear, but one can only hope that isolationist views like those of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on America's role in the world have begun to fade into history.
So much, then, for the contours of the battle the United States now finds itself in. One question remains: When can victory be declared? Mandelbaum's essay in How Did This Happen? provides a useful standard. He compares terrorism to a disease that can never be entirely eradicated but can nonetheless be managed. "Victory," he writes,
will have been achieved in the war against terrorism when the issue disappears from the forefront of public attention and when the innovations of foreign policy, law enforcement, and public safety established in the wake of September 11 are absorbed into the everyday fabric of American and international life.
Until then, the United States will remain engaged in a strange kind of "war": one that is neither cold nor hot. And, we should fear, a war in which civilian casualties will vastly exceed military losses.