Explaining 9/11: a question of scale

Al Jazeera explores how to trace the consequences of an event so major that it shaped both politics and culture.

9/11: Ground Zero on September 22, 2001
The ramifications of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks were felt in global security, politics and even culture [GALLO/GETTY]

When Al Jazeera first began to put together material for our spotlight on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States, one of the first things we put down on our to-do list was, predictably, a timeline.

Almost immediately, however, we ran into a problem: what do you include in such a timeline? Would it be limited to the US military response to the attacks? To news relating to just to al-Qaeda, or to all groups associated with, or inspired by, the global network? Would we include information on the changing nature of anti-terrorism legislation in places from Indonesia to Pakistan, from the US Patriot Act to the debate over the ban for the face veil in France?

Ultimately, we decided to break down the data by category, and to create several timelines, photo galleries and maps: for the Afghan War, the Iraq War, major al-Qaeda attacks worldwide, major leadership changes (in several key countries) and major US war cost milestones, as well as breakdowns of how much the US wars have cost.

The question of how much of what has happened internationally can be attributed to the September 11th attacks, and indeed where those attacks fit within broader historical narratives, however, remains an intriguing one.

Al Jazeera discussed the issue with Anatol Lieven, a professor of War Studies at Kings College London, who is an historian, journalist and political scientist. Lieven has written several books, on topics ranging from US nationalism to Baltic revolutions, conflict in Chechnya, and, most recently, on Pakistan. He is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Q. What would you say are some of the difficulties of putting together a timeline of events “related” to the September 11 attacks?

My sense is that … if one projects oneself forward 100 or 200 years, and imagines a historian looking back, the master narrative into which 9/11 will be fitted by historians is the decline of the United States and the gradual end of US hegemony. And so what people will say is that the failure to use it to do anything about US consumption of fossil fuels [mainly oil] demonstrated that the US Republican Party had simply abandoned any kind of sort of rational vision for the US economy, climate change, national security and so forth.

The wars into which George W Bush, then the US president, plunged the US basically not only in themselves demonstrated the limits of US power but also …  both directly sapped US economic strength (driving up the fiscal deficit and undermining fiscal stability), but also symbolised the increasing congealment of an American political system that is no longer capable of generating state resources for anything but war and the military… because that is all that political leaders will agree to.

While the US was drowning in this morass of military spending, the Chinese and the Indians were doing something very different [by investing in the research and development side of their militaries, as well as in education and green technology].

“You can see how 9/11 has contributed to the rise of the Republican right and the ferocity of US domestic politics … That is the sort of underlying master narrative that I’d be trying to tell [for a timeline]”

Anatol Lieven

Here is the United States basically in the process of undermining itself economically and then the other master narrative, I suppose… would be that at least in the field of the Middle East and the Muslim world, the US essentially loses control of its own foreign policy, which is taken over by Israel to a very great extent, by the Israel lobby, as wonderfully symbolised by the extraordinary address of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the US Congress, where he received so many standing ovations that even the Chinese politburo would have been impressed.

Finally, though… the radicalisation of the politics of the Republican Party in ways which, when coupled with the US constitution, are making the United States increasingly ungovernable – in the sense of a government that can actually lead the country anywhere.

Here, of course, 9/11 was only one part of this, along with the long term economic decline of the white middle class (as represented by the Tea Party as an anti-tax and anti-healthcare movement). On the other hand, one can well see how 9/11 probably rescued President Bush from what would otherwise likely have been a one-term presidency. […]

Republicans have [also] been able to massively exploit images of 9/11 and anti-Muslim sentiment. It is striking how, with the exception of Ron Paul, leaders of the Tea Party have jumped on these particular bandwagons. You can see how 9/11 and anti-Muslim sentiment has been used to strengthen the nationalist cause in the United States. If you believe this is a good thing, then it doesn’t matter, of course. […]

You can see how 9/11 has contributed to the rise of the Republican right and the ferocity of US domestic politics. And if I was writing a timeline, that is the sort of underlying master narrative that I’d be trying to tell.

Q. Did the September 11 attacks change the global geostrategic playing field completely, or did it just accentuate changes that were already occurring?

The decline of the US was exacerbated greatly by 9/11 but obviously has deeper long-term roots as well. What I think it did above all was to [lessen the fear of the US military’s capabilities]. The legacy of the first Iraq War [meant] that even the Russian military was seriously nervous that the Americans could do pretty much whatever they wanted.

I think the Iraq and Afghan wars have really knocked the spots off the notion of US military supremacy.

Beyond that, well, it’s partly a question which is very, very difficult to decide: what effect if any, one thinks that US actions after 9/11 had in helping to bring about the Arab Spring [for example]? And secondly, how will the Arab Spring turn out?

One thing that is very obvious is that the United States is a great deal less powerful in the Muslim world or in the Middle East in general than it had been. Something to keep in mind, though, is that in certain respects, the US is only returning to a previous state [of influence]. There was quite an artificial peak after the Cold War [… ]when the US was pretty much unilaterally dominant. […]

One thing you can say already is that if you look at Turkey – which was the linchpin of the US alliance system in the region – it is now at best semi-detached. It’s not completely detached, but it’s clear that Turkey is not really an American ally anymore. That is a colossal shift. […] If one sees that pattern replicating itself in Egypt, then you are essentially looking at the collapse in some sense of the US position in the Middle East.

Q. The September 11 attacks, even 10 years on, appear to be fresh in the US psyche – a fact that is borne out by regular references to it by US political figures in any debate on US foreign policy – would you expect such references to continue? When does 9/11 become history, rather than policy-driving present?

Well, if there isn’t another massive terrorist attack … on the United States, then it will gradually fade. But the problem is three-fold:

1. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to keeping anti-Muslim feeling alive, and you’ve got a hell of a lot of US troops coming back with deeply embittered and racist feelings, which they pass on to the conservative communities from which they come.

2. While there hasn’t been anything at all large scale, there have been enough plots and only one serious action by US army Major Nidal Hasan [at Fort Hood in 2009]. But there have been a number of other attempts [such as the attempted Times Square bombing in 2010] … that are enough to provide ammunition to keep this going.

3. Finally, 9/11 generated a counter-terrorism industry. There are lots of people [in both the bureaucracy and academia] who have a career stake in keeping this fear and anxiety alive. You have enormously powerful political forces that have a tremendous advantage in continuing to stir up this fear, hatred and hysteria. They are first and foremost the Israeli lobby, but associated with them the whole of the Republican right. I don’t say that they depend on it, but they derive colossal advantages from keeping this at fever pitch, so they will do their utmost to keep this from going down.

If you have a really organised and ruthless operation that controls large parts of the media, then you can make any non-issue grist to your mill. The threat of Sharia law in Oklahoma becomes an issue, a Sufi prayer centre is used to make a national hysteria, a black Muslim mosque in Boston is an opportunity to try to whip up the white population of Boston … at that point it isn’t going to go away, not as quickly as it should do.

Q. Was US foreign policy in the last 10 years fundamentally shaped by the attacks on September 11, 2001? 

Well, we have to see what happens now, as the US pulls out more or less from Iraq and moves towards some sort of withdrawal from Afghanistan, because my sense is that without 9/11, two things would have happened.

If one reckons that they were going to attack Iraq anyway, then in a way a major effect of 9/11 wasn’t really an effect at all, argues Lieven [GALLO/GETTY]

First, the Bush administration would have sooner or later attacked Iraq anyway, and it’s absolutely clear from the will of the dominant people in the administration [that this would have happened]… In that respect, you see many of the same consequences happening. Though it would have been a much more controversial action within the United States, and Bush possibly would have lost his re-election bid because of it.

If one reckons that they were going to attack Iraq anyway, then in a way a major effect of 9/11 wasn’t really an effect anyway. They used 9/11 to try and justify it. Of course there is the possibility that they may not have been able to get away with it [if the September 11th attacks had not happened].

Second, there is the issue of China. If you look at the Bush administration when it came in, it was pretty clear that they were quite gung ho for confronting China. Without the 9/11 attacks, would one have seen years of a much harsher relationship, leading even possibly to clashes?

Well two things there: first, even before 9/11, the Bush administration had started to back off a little bit from that. On the other hand, without 9/11 it would have been far more difficult for the Republicans, given their own rhetoric, to ignore what North Korea was doing … and even if they hadn’t had a direct confrontation with China, they would have had it any way with North Korea [and through them with China, a North Korean ally].

There’s a question, then, of whether 9/11 gave China a decade of benign neglect from the US which allowed them to build themselves in a way that would’ve garnered far more opposition from Republicans.

Was the biggest effect of 9/11 to allow for the peaceful rise of China without confrontation with the US? All of the views on this are to be shaped by what happens in the next 10 to 20 years. If when China overtakes the US economically, the US shrugs its shoulders, then we would say this was perhaps [because of the effect that the 9/11 decade has had], but if, however, we see the US swinging to a more confrontational stance, then we’ll probably say that if it hadn’t been for 9/11, President Bush would have started doing this in 2002-2003.

Dr Lieven’s comments have been edited slightly for clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera