Five years into the global conflict that followed the worst terrorist attacks in history, who is up and who is down? The list of winners and losers is long — from the people in Afghanistan and Iraq who were freed from brutal dictatorships only to be confronted with renewed violence and chaos to the people in Darfur who have had to confront a genocide largely on their own.
But on any interim balance sheet, three winners and three losers surely stand out.
The biggest winner in the global conflict that followed the strikes against the World Trade Center and Pentagon is Islamist jihadism — the movement that relies on terrorism against America and its friends and allies as a way to restore Islamic power to the height of the Caliphate’s rule more than seven centuries ago.
Prior to 9/11, Islamist jihadism represented a niche ideology, which had gained the following of perhaps no more than few thousand young men. In the years since, it has attracted the support of millions of Muslims, and many of them have proven willing to kill — even at the expense of their own lives. But it wasn’t the 9/11 attacks that produced this surge in support. Muslims were as disgusted with the horrific violence of these attacks as anyone else.
The reason, rather, lies in how America chose to respond. Nothing has done more for the cause of Islamist jihadism than the ill-fated decision to invade Iraq — occupying another Muslim nation while failing to provide for even basic security or meet the most elemental needs of the people that were supposedly liberated. That, combined with the horrific abuses of Muslims in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Baghram, and other secret prisons, has fueled the rage of millions, increasing support for the many thousands who are willing to engage in terrorism. We’ve seen the results in Baghdad and London, in Bali and Madrid, and other places around the world. Five years after 9/11, it is the Islamist terrorists and their supporters — not their victims — who are riding high.
Another group of winners are states like Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, that are pursuing nuclear weapons. Preventing the acquisition of nuclear arsenals (or, in the case of Pakistan, curtailing its nuclear ambitions), was a top priority before 9/11 — one President Bush reiterated after the attacks when he warned that the worst regimes must not possess the worst weapons. But Pakistan was left off the hook immediately after the attack on the Twin Towers in return for its support in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan. And rather than focusing America’s power and attention on real nuclear threats emanating from Pyongyang and Tehran, the Bush administration focused on imagined ones from Baghdad. As a result, North Korea has been able to produce enough plutonium to increase its nuclear potential 5-10 fold, while Iran has accelerated its own nuclear program — so far without suffering any consequences.
The final clear winner is China, which during the past five years has emerged as a dominant global player without anyone, at least in America or Europe, paying it much attention. China’s economic presence has expanded throughout the globe, as has a diplomacy aimed at securing its mercantilist aims. Countries from southeast Asia to Latin America, Africa to the Middle East are increasingly looking to Beijing rather than Washington to set the agenda. China has used this new reality smartly, both to advance its own economic interests and to build a large international coalition to frustrate American and other western efforts to address pressing global problems — from Iran’s growing nuclear ambitions to the genocidal conflict in Darfur. And it has provided succor and cover to a host of unsavory regimes — from Burma to Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan to Sudan — that have engaged in brutal repression of their own people knowing full well that China will oppose international intervention because it insists that nations must have the right to do as they wish within their sovereign domain.
What about the losers? Top among them must be Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization he created and led. With his organization smashed, many of his lieutenants killed or captured, and his Afghan sanctuary closed down, the world’s leading terrorist is living a life on the run, from one cave to the next, with little more to do than issuing the occasional video or audio tape. That is quite a change from five years ago, when bin Laden watched his hand-picked terrorists commit their horrific acts on CNN International via satellite high up in the Afghan mountains. Of course, in one crucial respect, bin Laden has emerged victorious: his idea of a global jihad against America and its supporters is now embraced throughout the Muslim world. But by all accounts he has lost his ability to direct the movement or to plan and execute the kind of attacks that shook the world five years ago.
Neoconservatism is another major loser. The idea that America had the power to remake the world in its own image — and that after 9/11 it had the opportunity to do so largely on its own — was dealt a deadly blow in the sands of Mesopotamia. The forceful ouster of Saddam Hussein set in motion political forces that America did not, and probably could not, contain — sectarian forces that are now ripping the country violently apart. Far from Iraq becoming a positive example of change and reform for the wider region, the chaos that has befallen it stands as testament of the limits of American unilateralism and the failure of an ideology that relied on it to effect positive change throughout the Mideast.
The biggest loser in the last five years flows from this failure: trust in America — in its power, purpose, and principles — has been eroded not just among its foes but, more importantly, among its friends. For more than sixty years, America has been able to lead the world in building a more democratic and more prosperous place for all. American military and economic might were vital to that effort — but what translated that capability into effective leadership was that the world trusted America to do right. It trusted America to use its power not only to advance its own interests, but also to advance the interests of others. It trusted America not only to forge new international rules, norms, and laws, but to be the exemplary international citizen that took these responsibilities seriously. It trusted America to be a power for good.
Today, unfortunately, the world no longer trusts America.
While America’s foes have long resented its power, America’s friends are no longer convinced that it will use this power wisely — and increasingly fear that it will use it destructively. Many, as a result, seek to distance themselves from America; and a few are inclined to oppose it outright. The result is that effective international action, which requires American leadership and the willing and active cooperation of others — to counter proliferation, combat terrorism, curb global warming, cure infectious diseases, or cope with a host of other challenges — is increasingly absent.
Unless trust in America can be restored, not only the United States but the rest of the world will turn out to be true losers of this post-9/11 world.
Posted at TPM Café on September 6, 2006 — 6:28 AM Eastern Time