The War That Never Was

On a pastoral Tuesday morning, seven years ago, hijacked passenger jets crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In addition to a death toll of almost 3,000, there was a great deal of symbolism in the attacks, not just in the choice of targets – symbols of American power and commerce – but also the airlines whose planes were hijacked: American and United.

Nine months earlier, George W. Bush was inaugurated the 43rd President of the United States, after a controversial Supreme Court decision concerning the recount of votes in Florida. During the campaign, the Man from Crawford had promised a "more humble foreign policy" and spoke against his predecessor’s "nation-building." Following September 11, he launched two foreign wars in rapid succession and asserted the right to attack anyone, anywhere, for any reason. The rest of the world was either "with us, or against us," and the same stark choice was given to the American people. All of this was justified by a never-ending "war on terrorism."

Within less than a month, though, it became obvious that anyone "against us" was ipso facto considered a terrorist, while actual terrorists who were "with us" were given a free pass. The horrors of that September morning brought forth the apocalyptic vision of American Empire, now finally able to assert itself in a war without end.

Towards a Global Hegemony

There are those in Washington who in the aftermath of the Cold War believed that history had ended, leaving America in charge of the world. Bill Clinton had reasserted American dominance in Europe and over Russia by expanding NATO and intervening in the Balkans. Robert Kagan and William Kristol, leading "neoconservatives," wrote in 1996 about a "benevolent global hegemony," envisioning a world dominated by the U.S. politically, militarily, and economically.

Though it initially responded to the 9/11 attacks by pointing the finger at al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (once a CIA asset in the Afghanistan war and subsequently in the Balkans), and invading Afghanistan, the Bush administration did not take long to come around to the Kagan-Kristol vision. By September 2002, the new National Security Strategy declared that Washington reserved the right to preemptively attack anyone in an effort to "rid the world of evil." Its closest ideological cousin was the 1968 Brezhnev Doctrine, except the Soviet notion of hegemony had recognized territorial limits. To Bush, the American dominion was nothing less than the entire world.

With this in mind, armed with fabricated accusations of "weapons of mass destruction," in March 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq.

The Road to Baghdad

Even though Afghanistan was directly connected to the events of 9/11, it was never more than a sideshow in the phoney "war on terror." While the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime was overthrown, Osama bin Laden was never found. Instead of delivering the reprisal and getting out, Imperial forces stayed on to engage in "nation-building." Predictably, this ended in a quagmire: the Taliban are back, and they are even beating U.S. forces in open battle.

Iraq, however, was seen as the key to controlling the Middle East. Because the official reason for the invasion – the mythical WMDs – turned out to be blatantly false fairly early on, there’s been a host of other reasons offered by officials or people allied with officialdom. Justifications ranged from a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein for "trying to kill [Bush’s] dad," to a "flypaper" strategy of luring the terrorists to Iraq so they would not attack the U.S.

What happened? The war advertised as a "cakewalk" turned out to be more difficult than the 1991 "Desert Storm," while the occupation has had to contend with persistent guerrilla attacks, sniping, roadside and suicide bombings.

So many lies have been told about Iraq over the past five-plus years, they outnumber the actual casualties of the war. Over 4,000 American troops have been killed in Iraq, while estimates of the wounded range to 100,000. There are no reliable Iraqi casualty figures, but the war resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and some estimates putting deaths at over a million.

Victory in Iraq was supposed to lead to a "transformation" of the Middle East and ensure American hegemony. But as historian Andrew J. Bacevich puts it:

"…whether the strategy of transformation aimed at dominion or democratization – today, seven years after it was conceived, we can assess exactly what it has produced. The answer is clear: next to nothing, apart from squandering vast resources and exacerbating the slide toward debt and dependency that poses a greater strategic threat to the United States than Osama bin Laden ever did."

Friendly Jihadists Wanted

One of the greatest ironies of the "war on terror" is that the Empire never wanted to fight terrorism as such. It never even targeted the one particular faction of Islamic terrorists that had gone rogue (al-Qaeda), but rather used the "war" as an excuse to seize more power at home and seek dominance abroad.

Irish commentator Brendan O’Neill explained recently that both the jihadists and the nascent American Empire, seeking a new purpose in the post-Cold War world, found one in the Balkans. Their relationship was almost symbiotic: mujahedeen would be Empire’s proxies on the ground, fighting the war, while the Empire recruited fighters for the jihad by making outlandish propaganda claims about "genocide," "rape camps," and Muslim suffering.

The Empire’s insistence that it does not fight Islam as such, or that the jihadists are just extremists who distort the "religion of peace" begins to make sense in this framework. Having successfully collaborated with jihadists in Afghanistan and later in the Balkans, the Empire still clings to hope that there are "good" jihadists out there who can be used to advance its global agenda.

In April 2007, Rep. Tom Lantos appealed on jihadists all over the world to "take note" of the U.S. support for a "Muslim state in the heart of Europe," referring to the Albanian separatist regime in the occupied Serbian province of Kosovo. Joseph Biden, now a vice-presidential candidate to Barack "Change" Obama, also argued that Kosovo would "provide a much-needed example of a successful US-Muslim partnership."

Yet the expected Islamic gratitude and "partnership" continue to fail to materialize.

Ironically, part of the reason may be that the propaganda about the Balkans was too successful. Even a casual reading of Muslim websites from Morocco to Malaysia reveals a deep-seeded conviction that the Muslims of the Balkans were "abandoned" by the treacherous, infidel West. As O’Neill put it:

There is nothing so bitter as a conflict between former allies. We should remind ourselves that much of today’s bloody moral posturing between Western interventionists and Islamic militants – which has caused so much destruction around the world – springs from the hysterical politics of "good and evil" that was created during the Bosnian war.

Losing Russia

Had there actually been a war on terrorism, targeting the jihadists, Washington could have counted on help from just about anyone. Once it was obvious that America was pursuing not Islamic fanatics but global hegemony, offers of assistance dried up. Worse yet, Washington has done its best to annoy and alienate other powers, such as China and Russia in particular, from the bogus "missile shield" in Eastern Europe to the secession of Kosovo in February this year.

In August, when the U.S. client regime of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia decided to "reintegrate" a couple of pro-Russian provinces refusing to accept his authority, Moscow struck back. Howls of outrage from the West only underscored the hypocrisy over Kosovo. Either no one in Washington realized that the price of crushing Serbia would be "losing" Russia, or they didn’t care.

Missed Opportunity

History is full of moments of transition, times when nations and individuals make fateful choices. September 11, 2001 was one such moment, even described as "the day everything changed" by numerous commentators. It was a golden opportunity to disavow the fundamentally anti-American project of global hegemony, and the policy of supporting jihad as a means of harming potential rivals.

What happened instead is that the Imperial project was dressed in new clothes as the "war on terror." But that war was never actually fought.

Seven years later, the world sees the Empire as well and truly naked, the hegemony the neocons dreamed of is increasingly slipping from their reach, and jihad is stronger than ever.

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Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.