LONDON — Five years since 9/11, and we are still being told that the world has changed forever. But the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, was a low-probability event that could just as easily not have happened. The often careless and sometimes incompetent hijackers might have been caught before boarding those planes, and there were not 10 other plots of similar magnitude stacked up behind them. Would the world really be all that different now if there had been no 9/11?
There would have been no invasion of Afghanistan, and probably no second term for President George W. Bush, whose main political asset for the past five years has been his claim to be leading the U.S. in a Global War on Terror. Deprived of the opportunity to posture as a heroic war leader in the mold of Winston Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bush would have had great difficulty in persuading the American public that his first-term achievements merited a second one.
Would Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Co. have succeeded in invading Iraq anyway? That was high on their agenda from the moment they took office, but without the 9/11 attacks eight months later, they would have had great difficulty in persuading the American public that invading Iraq, a country on the other side of the world that posed no threat to the U.S., was a good idea. Whereas after 9/11, it was easy to sell the project to geographically challenged Americans: Maybe no Iraqis were involved in 9/11, but they’re all Arabs, aren’t they?
So no Afghanistan, no Iraq — and probably no Israeli attack on Lebanon either, because that was pre-planned in concert with the U.S. Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others in a cross-border raid in late June was a major provocation, but the Bush administration had already signed off on an all-out Israeli air assault to destroy Hezbollah months before. All they needed was a suitable excuse, which Hezbollah duly provided. But assume no Bush second term, and that also doesn’t happen.
Without 9/11 there would still be a “terrorist threat,” of course, because there is always some terrorism. It’s rarely a big enough threat to justify expanding police powers, let alone launching a “global war” against it, but the fluke success of the 9/11 attacks (which has not been duplicated once in the subsequent five years) created the illusion that terrorism was a major problem. Various special interests climbed aboard the bandwagon, and off we all went.
That is a pity, because without 9/11 there would have been no governments justifying torture in the name of fighting terrorism, no “special renditions,” no camps like Guantanamo. Tens of thousands of people killed in the various invasions of the past five years would still be alive, and Western countries with large Muslim minorities would not now face a potential terrorist backlash at home from their own disaffected young Muslims. The U.S. would not be seen by most of the world as a rogue state. But that’s as far as the damage goes.
Current U.S. policy and the hostility it arouses elsewhere in the world are both transient things. The Sunni Muslim extremists — they would call themselves Salafis — who were responsible for 9/11 have not seized power in a single country since then, despite the boost they were given by the flailing U.S. response to that attack. The world is actually much the same as it would have been if 9/11 had never happened.
Economically, 9/11 and its aftermath have had almost no discernible long-term impact: Even the soaring price of oil is mostly due to rising demand in Asia, not to military events in the Middle East. The lack of decisive action on climate change is largely due to Bush policies that were already in place before 9/11. And strategically, the relations between the great powers have not yet been gravely damaged by the U.S response to 9/11. There may even be a hidden benefit in the concept of a “war on terror.”
The war is a dishonest concept, since it is actually directed mainly against Muslim groups that have grievances against the various great powers: Chechens against Russia, Muslim Uyghurs against China, Kashmiri Muslims and their Pakistani cousins against India, practically everybody in the Arab world and Iran against the U.S. and Britain. The terrorists’ methods are reprehensible, but their grievances are often real. However, the determination of the great powers to oppose not only their methods but their goals is also real. That gives them a common enemy and a shared strategy.
The main risk at this point in history is that the great powers will drift back into some kind of alliance confrontation. Key resources are getting scarcer, the climate is changing, and the rise of China and India means that the pecking order of the great powers is due to change again in the relatively near future. Any strategic analyst worth his salt, given those preconditions, could draw you up a dozen different scenarios of disaster by lunchtime.
Avoiding that disaster at the expense of the world’s much abused Muslims is not an acceptable option, but it appears to be the preferred solution of the moment. And that, five years on, is the principal legacy of 9/11.
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