Missed lessons of 9/11

US and Muslim World may have missed chances for change since the attacks, experts say.

The attacks on New York City, seen above, and the Pentagon killed 2,994 people  [EPA]

Political experts say that despite Washington’s recent foreign policy changes, the Arab World and the US have yet to learn the most critical lessons of 9/11.

In the eight years since the attacks on New York and Washington, relations between the US and the Muslim World were severely strained by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and by images of torture and abuse in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons.

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, says there was a belief by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 that the exercise of superior US military power could “reorder the Islamic world in ways that preclude any recurrence of 9/11.”  

“The war in Afghanistan and especially the war in Iraq were intended to demonstrate that the US possesses sufficient military power to bring about that internal political change,” says Bacevich.

“The big thing that the US has learnt [since 9/11] is that however we define the problem of US-Muslim relations, the solution is not to be found in the exercise of hard power.” 

Wrong approach

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Bacevich’s comments echo the thinking of many Arab and Muslim analysts who feel that the US took the wrong response to 9/11. 

“America was wrong in believing that the terrorist movements are expressing animosity against the West and are not, rather, an expression of the social, economic, and political problems of the Muslim world,” says Burhan Ghalioun, a professor of political sociology at the Sorbonne in France. 

Ghalioun believes that socio-economic and political challenges in the Muslim World – which produced these “extremist” movements in the first place – can be overcome if these states embrace democracy and social justice. 

“Violence is part of social conditions that we can get rid of in [a] few years if we improve these conditions,” explains Ghalioun. 

However, rather than pressure many Arab and Muslim states to reform their political systems, Washington embarked on the “war on terror” which placed security issues at the forefront and paved the way for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Muslim countries, some of which were considered to be traditional US allies, followed this paradigm and “announced war on terrorism in their countries and opened them for civil wars,” Ghalioun says.

“They brought al-Qaeda to their countries though such groups were not there before. They helped expand terrorism instead of ending it,” he added.  

Some Arabs feared that the so-called war on terror was a precedent to expand Washington’s control of the Middle East, prompted by powerful US interest groups. 

“Many in the Republican Party at that time especially spearheaded by Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, and the neo-conservatives considered this [9/11] to be an opportune moment to exploit the situation and increase suspicions of Muslims inside and outside the US,” says Clovis Maksoud, a professor of international law at the American University in Washington and a former Arab League ambassador to the UN.

However, Tariq El-Beshri, a renowned Egyptian historian and author, believes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though facilitated by the events of 9/11, were merely the continuation of US foreign policies and European colonialism in the region since World War Two.

“America does not launch wars on us because our image is ugly in the eyes of the American people, but because it wants to control our wealth. It is a policy of oppression and hegemony over the region because of Israel and oil,” El-Beshri says.

Military power failure

US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has not increased security [AFP]

Nevertheless, analysts on both sides of the Atlantic believe that the US failed to capitalise on opportunities to resolve long-pending conflicts and distrust in the Middle East.

They say the military policies which Washington pursued instead, have proved costly and further destabilised the war-prone region.

By 2007, some US strategists realised the limits of military intervention.

“America’s retreat was not based on rational calculations. It was the result of the failure of the strategy of pre-emptive wars on terrorism and the lack of any other alternative. America no longer has a comprehensive strategy when it comes to terrorism or any other issue. America’s policy failures have left it (strategically) naked,” says Ghalioun. 

Bacevich believes that despite Obama’s pledge to engage in talks and listen to adversaries, US-Middle Eastern relations have been left in a “strategic void”.

“Listening and dialogue does not constitute a policy. What has not happened I think is a clear articulation of how the US is going to solve its problems with the Muslim world given the failure of the first strategy,” Bacevich says.  

He says the existing ethos in Washington is based on the belief that the US should exercise leadership which requires a position of military dominance and a global military presence. 

“That Obama has allowed the war in Afghanistan to become the centre piece of his foreign policy is indicative of the absence of any central guiding idea because the war in Afghanistan is not going to solve anything. There is a lot more continuity than there is change,” Bacevich says.

“I think we will continue to have a very significant level of violence. We will continue to see the US militarily involved in ways that probably will not be productive.”

Hope in Obama?

Can Obama heal the rifts caused by 9/11 and subsequent pre-emptive wars? [AFP]

Yet there is a sense among some in the Middle East that dialogue is more likely now than at any other time since 9/11.

Obama’s rhetoric, and seemingly more conciliatory tone, during his election campaign and since taking office appear to have increased hopes that there is a US president who is willing to give diplomatic initiatives a chance.

Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world and his redeployment of troops in Iraq convinced some that the US president was ‘walking the walk’. 

“After his speech in Cairo, I think there has been a diffusion of suspicion that the US is being anti-Islamic,” says Maksoud.

Ghalioun believes that Obama’s election was a profound change that has yet to be matched in the region.

“When America called for partial reform, they [Arab governments] refused reform and still insisted on the same policies that led to the rise of extremist movements. Americans changed more than Arabs did,” Ghalioun says. 

Regional political evolution and serious pursuit of democratic reform are necessary if the Middle East is to avoid becoming a battleground of perpetual warfare, El-Beshri warns.

“What we need today is the ability to change the existing ruling regimes or to change their policies,” he says.

“America’s policies will not change unless we change ourselves first.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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