Wasted Chances and
Dire Portents

When future historians start to discuss the first decade of the 21st century and the dramatic events that unfolded in that era, starting with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, they will probably try to draw the outlines of the counterfactual what-if scenarios and contrast them with what-really-happened.

They may suggest that 9/11 had provided Americans with a glimpse of Hell-on-Earth, of what could happen if the tensions between the West and the Islamic world degenerated into a bloody global confrontation. But they may also propose that a mix of the right policies, including effective security measures and creative diplomatic efforts, could have ensured that the goal of Osama bin Laden to create the conditions for a War of Civilizations would not have been achieved.

But as we know now, U.S. foreign policy was hijacked after 9/11 by a bunch of American ideologues who exploited the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in order to advance a U.S.-led messianic crusade to remake the Middle East – in the most devastating way, as far as U.S. national interests and the Western presence in the Middle East are concerned.

In retrospect, the United States and the European Union, backed by Russia, China, and the rest of the international community, could have tried to ensure that the goals of the invasion of Afghanistan were accomplished through the capture of Osama and the rest of the al-Qaeda leadership, and that would have been followed by pursuing a common strategy aimed against the radical Muslim terrorist networks in Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere while working together with the pro-Western governments in the Middle East.

They could have also tried to manage in an imaginative way some of the explosive policy issues that have helped to ignite anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, including the tensions with Iraq and Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the rise of political Islamic movements.

That is not to argue that there would have been easy and quick solutions to these and related issues. But there is a difference between trying to treat a headache by banging your head on the wall and by taking a rest and an aspirin.

The Bush administration, led by a powerful group of neoconservative policymakers and their allies in the think tanks, media, and even the blogosphere, ended up placing the hunt for Osama on Washington’s back burner and instead launched a unilateral invasion of Iraq. The stated aims became “liberating” Iraq from the rule of Saddam Hussein and turning it into a shining model of freedom and democracy for the greater Middle East. The decision produced a fissure in the transatlantic relationship, ignited anti-American hostility in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and weakened the anti-terrorism alliance.

The Americans exacerbated the situation by giving a green light to Israel to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority and by refusing to move toward rapprochement with Iran, with which Washington shared common interests in post-Taliban Afghanistan and in post-Saddam Iraq.

At the same time, the neocon Democracy Project helped bring to power in Baghdad a coalition of Shi’ite clerics with ties to Iran and helped elect the radical Islamist Hamas in Palestine.

Putting all of these historic developments into context, one can conclude that the post-9/11 U.S. policies were nothing short of a revolutionary attempt to weaken the very fragile foundations of the political status quo in the Middle East – without coming up with a viable and sustainable strategy aimed at replacing them in a way that would help protect long-term American and Western interests: the U.S. destroyed Iraq’s military power, the only counterbalance to that of Iran, without making an effort to co-opt Iran into the system.

It got rid of an Arab-Sunni dictator who had kept the lid on the ethnic and religious powder keg of Iraq and helped create the conditions for a bloody civil war there without deploying the necessary military troops to deal with such an outcome.

In the process, the U.S. strengthened the power of the Shi’ites in the Middle East who threaten the Arab-Sunni regimes there, and empowered Kurdish nationalism, which has alarmed Turkey and Iran.

At the same time, U.S. policies that helped radicalize the Palestinians also enabled the election of the Palestinian offshoot of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, ensuring that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process would not be revived any time soon and providing a sense of political momentum to Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.

Add to all of that the growing anti-Western emotions among Muslims worldwide, as demonstrated in the recent “cartoons war,” Iran’s drive to achieve nuclear military capability, and the continuing domestic challenges faced by the pro-American regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, and it becomes quite obvious that no one can now press the rewind button and restore the status quo ante.

If anything, the powerful forces that have been unleashed by the U.S. cannot be stopped and could intertwine with other global developments, including Sino-American competition over energy and rising economic nationalism in the West.

Not unlike the aftermath of WWI, which brought about the collapse of great empires, including that of the Ottomans in the Middle East, the dramatic changes we are witnessing now will probably help produce much instability in the coming years.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.