CoverStory

Surviving a decade of trauma

The Bush administration’s response to September 11 has created a more vulnerable America and has played a strong role in the rise of China.

By Anatol Lieven

The terrorist attacks of September 11 on New York and Washington led to a remarkably unanimous response, not just from the West but from the entire international community. For the only time in its history, NATO invoked the principle of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty. This guarantees that the Alliance will respond in response to an armed attack on one of its members. Russia and China were quick to offer sympathy and support. The United Nations voted to condemn the attacks and to endorse the subsequent US attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

You do not have to look far to find the reasons for the unanimity of response. The September 11 attacks were not merely deeply shocking in themselves, but were seen by most countries as representing common threats from terrorism in general and Islamist terrorism in particular. This was especially true not just of non-Muslim states with rebellious Muslim minorities (like Russia, China and India) but of all those Muslim regimes which al Qaeda and other Islamist revolutionary groups had declared to be apostates and servants of America.

And even beyond the specifically Islamist character of al Qaeda, terrorism—and especially terrorism on this scale—was naturally seen as a threat by every organised state. A number, after all, had been suffering from severe terrorism campaigns for years before September 11. This was especially true of Russia, India, Israel, Algeria, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Others had suffered such campaigns in the past. Several of these countries hoped that September 11 would incline the US to a deeper appreciation of their problems with terrorism, and even encourage the US to offer real help against their own local insurgencies. Only Israel however has really been able to succeed in this goal.

Certain states also hoped that the new US focus on the terrorist and Islamist threats would lead to Washington abandoning or scaling down other strategies. This was above all true of Russia, where President Vladimir Putin hoped the Bush administration would abandon NATO expansion and seek a true alliance with Russia. In much of the world, including the West, there was hope that the Bush government would abandon some of the harshly unilateralist and nationalist policies of its first eight months in power, and return to a more Clintonesque approach of seeking to exert US leadership through coalitions. Much of the supportive international response to September 11 was therefore conditional. It was rooted specifically in the self-interest of the states concerned, and more widely in a vague belief in an alliance between states for the protection of states.

Of course, none of this actually happened—or at least not for several years. Those who hoped for it underestimated both the nationalist spirit of the Bush administration and the degree to which the American public had been infuriated by the attacks. In the short-to-medium term, the belief that September 11 would convince Americans of their vulnerability and their need for allies proved false. Instead, fury at September 11, combined with the continued triumphalism of the post-Cold War period created a widespread belief that the US had both the physical power and the moral right to act unilaterally on the world stage. This belief was exploited with immense success by neoconservatives and other groups in the Bush administration, who hoped to cement a permanent US global hegemony.

The Putin administration derived a certain limited benefit from reduced US condemnation of the Russian campaign in Chechnya (or at least, US recognition that international Islamist extremists linked to al Qaeda were indeed playing an important role there). However, the Bush administration continued both with measures seen by Moscow as aimed at cementing US nuclear superiority, and with the expansion of NATO, which included Georgia and Ukraine. It was not a change of heart in Washington, but the Georgia-Russia war of 2008 that led to the breakdown of this US approach—if only by demonstrating that there was no way the US would in fact fight to defend Georgia or Ukraine against Russia. Rather than changing course, US strategy towards Russia essentially ran out of steam.

Even as far as Afghanistan was concerned, the initial Bush administration response in the autumn of 2001 was to snub both NATO's offers of help as an organisation, and individual offers from members including Britain. These snubs reflected a determination to retain absolute US control of operations, which an alliance approach might qualify. The UN and Europe were permitted to play a leading part in "post-war" reconstruction and "nation-building" in Afghanistan (areas that the US military at that time despised) while US forces prepared for the next war in Iraq.

That war of course was to split down the middle, not only the international community, but NATO itself. The US invasion was opposed by a majority of the UN Security Council and an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly. Among those opposing were major democracies like India and South Africa (which on other issues had been seeking close relations with the US), as well as almost the entire Muslim world.

Within the Muslim world, the Bush administration hoped to rally mass support by placing the promotion of democracy and freedom at the heart of its international strategy, and also by pursuing a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Both these strategies failed completely. In the eyes of Muslims, the "freedom agenda" was hopelessly compromised both by the invasion of Iraq (against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Muslims, as reflected in opinion surveys) and by continued and even intensified US support for dictators like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan in return for their help in fighting extremism.

In the Middle East, by the second Bush administration, Washington had returned to the strategy of the 1980s, of supporting a range of Sunni autocrats in order to contain the rising power of Iran—a rise to which the US invasion of Iraq had itself enormously contributed. The legacy of the freedom agenda—if there really has been one—came under the Obama Administration in 2011, when the US did not try to support its ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and instead brought pressure to bear on him to leave power.

None of this is to say, however that September 11 and the Bush administration's global "war on terror" did not indeed contribute to an important shift of power on the world stage—only that this shift was wholly unforeseen either by al Qaeda or by the Bush administration. One could almost speak of an analogy to the Second World War, where the two eventually victorious great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, were not even combatants when the war began in September 1939; and all the powers which were combatants at that time ended up defeated (including Britain, which saved its honour but lost its empire and global economic role).

As of 2011, the clear victor of the global "war on terror" appears to be China. Before September 11, the Bush administration, as reflected in statements by Condoleezza Rice and other officials, was clearly focusing on China as a great power threat, and on how to contain this. The stupendous rise of the Chinese economy in the first decade of the 21st Century would almost inevitably have hardened Bush administration attitudes. In addition, the malignant antics and nuclear ambitions of the North Korean regime provided an obvious and increasing source of potential tension between Washington and Beijing.

Instead, for a crucial decade, while China grew, the US found itself bogged down in conflicts in the Muslim world. US political attention and immense resources were not merely diverted to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to homeland security, but military spending was chiefly directed to army and counter-insurgency, not to the naval and air forces that could have challenged China along its littoral. At the same time, US political and military prestige was shaken and actual and potential US allies discouraged.

Since coming to power in 2009, the Obama Administration has changed many aspects of his predecessor's approach. The overall strategy has been to reduce certain US commitments while trying to work more closely with allies. With regard to Russia, Obama has adopted some of the policies that Putin hoped Bush would espouse after September 11. In the Middle East, an attempt has been made to put some real content into the freedom agenda. Efforts are ongoing to wind down the Afghan War with honour.

In many ways, Obama is following the kind of agenda that most of the world had hoped Bush would follow after September 11. He is doing so however on the basis of greatly weakened US power, especially relative to China's. Chiefly responsible are fundamental economic shifts which may be beyond the power of any US government to seriously influence. But September 11, and much more the Bush administration's response to it have also played their part in helping China's rise.