Post 9/11 US Policy Sows Seeds of Backlash
Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the CIA's
National Intelligence Council and one of the US intelligence community's
top experts on Islam, was once political officer of the US embassy in
Washington - The Al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11,
2001 drastically altered the character of international relations, with
rising tensions accompanying a stunning American lurch toward unilateralism.
The critical question is how permanent the new features of the geopolitical
landscape prove to be.
For Americans the September events represented a rude coming of age as
the costs of being the world's sole superpower struck home and created
a harsh challenge to America's civil liberties. But for the rest of the
world Sept. 11 unleashed an open-ended United States war on terror, whose
implications are as yet far from clear.
The US war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime and dealt a severe
blow to Al Qaeda's infrastructure and freedom of maneuver. But Al Qaeda
has survived and gone on to represent not just a symbol of radical attack
on US power but to denote in US official pronouncements almost any group
of Muslims anywhere who perceive the US as the enemy-diverse groups whose
numbers are probably growing.
Even more ominously, the events of the past year raise the disturbing
possibility that Osama bin Laden may have largely succeeded in imposing
his agenda of cultural warfare between the US and the Muslim world for
the foreseeable future.
Justifiably or not, today most Muslims view the intrusive war against
terrorism as a war against Islam. As a result the Muslim world has reverted
to a defensive, hunker-down mode, with US actions crowding off deeper
Muslim reflection on Bin Laden's impact upon their own world. The incursion
in Afghanistan, the overwhelming pressures on Pakistan, Saudi Arabia,
Yemen and Syria, followed by a US political struggle against the Palestinian
leadership, a probable future massive war against Iraq, possible US strikes
against military targets in Iran, and the singling out of Muslims in the
US for special investigation have convinced Muslims that they are indeed
the target of the war. Samuel Huntington's thesis of a "clash of
civilizations" is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But all these events took place in reaction to a justifiable need to identify,
deter or eliminate terrorists. The real revolution has been wrought in
the new overarching philosophy of US foreign policy that emerged in the
name of the war on terror. We witness a retreat from an evolving generalized
sympathy for smaller liberal governance and toward restoration of powerful,
more intrusive government, marked by a strong state and tight borders.
The change is not limited to the US. In the process of seeking allies
for the anti-terrorist struggle, the US has relegitimized and empowered
a range of authoritarian regimes and governing styles, all of which have
embraced the war on terror to justify internal crackdowns, especially
against their own minority Muslim populations-in places such as Russia,
China, India and the Philippines. Authoritarianism in general has been
emboldened across most of the Muslim world.
More broadly, the Bush administration and its neo-conservative ideologists
have suspended traditional geopolitics around the globe as the totality
of American foreign relations fall subservient to the war on terror. Unilateralism-the
ideological preference of the Bush administration from the outset-has
been powerfully reinforced as Washington has moved away from international
consultation and cooperation if it imposes the slightest restrictions
on US freedom of action.
Indeed, the administration in private does not even shy away from the
American imperium concept, a form of empire that historically has invoked
deep discomfort within the country. Americans are far from sure what this
will mean for them, and, depending on the cost of the project, they may
not want it at all. But they are not yet ready to challenge the breathtaking
pace of policy evolution emerging from the White House. Most dramatically,
with the collapse of its Twin Towers icon, globalization has suffered
a grievous blow. Globalization is now a far shakier concept in American
thinking, with the recognition that terrorism is part of it. With the
supreme US foreign policy goal of absolute security for the American homeland,
globalization has taken a back seat: We see a severe setback in the free
movement of goods, peoples, even ideas, across US borders and internationally.
Indeed we might say we are witnessing "securitization" becoming
the dominant characteristic of globalization in the new post-Sept. 11
In specific policy terms, much of the geopolitical map has been reshuffled.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are now shaky American clients that could plunge
into chaos at any point. The US is closer to India and Russia for the
moment and drifting away from Europe-now "irrelevant" to most
US global concerns. China has become a big loser as its major presence
in Central Asia has been preempted by the new US political and military
Undeniably serious problems of bad governance in the Muslim world are
indeed a major source of instability and terrorism. And defensive Muslim
reactions to the Bin Laden attacks and the war on terror have contributed
to a dangerous domestic debate in America, with potentially sweeping implications
for US foreign policy. A "debate" about Islam has appeared in
which pro-Israeli and Christian Zionist are the overwhelmingly dominant
voices in a media far less open and liberal than one year ago. In the
wake of these events, the US is deeply allied with the hardest line Israeli
government in history. Any suggestion of linkage between trouble abroad
and US foreign policy is dismissed out of hand, considered a public relations
In the neo-conservative vision of a new American imperium, Muslim states
rank high on the list of those requiring radical reworking. And today
Muslims are the de facto enemy in what passes for public discussion in
the country. Consequently, US relations with the Muslim world have reached
an unprecedented depth and are still falling-even the long untouchable
US relationship with Saudi Arabia is now under direct attack.
Democratization-a desperately needed commodity in the Middle East if the
region is ever to climb out of its current desperate shape-has been selectively
adopted by the Bush administration as a weapon to be used against its
Muslim enemies, and not to be seriously discussed with authoritarian "friends."
Dangerous regimes with dangerous weapons are indeed a potential threat,
but preemptive war is on its way to becoming a preferred tool of policy.
Is this a precedent we wish to set for other great regional powers as
well? It is doubtful that the US can successfully arrogate this privilege
only to itself.
What will be the duration of this astonishing trend toward an American
imperium? Does it truly represent a new American vision, or simply that
of George W. Bush's ideological counselors? If the present process continues
over the next two years of the Bush administration, will the US eventually
fall victim to the classic disease associated with such projects, imperial
The American public's appetite would seem to be limited for this new foreign
policy project, especially as various price tags become evident. But even
if Bush does succeed in the military phases, how long will this suspension
of normal international geopolitics persist? Judging by history, not long.
Seeds of backlash are already present.
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