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American Triumphalism and the Conditions that Led to September 11
By Steven C. Clemons Executive Vice President
Le Monde Diplomatique October 1, 2001

September 11th will now replace December 7th as the most notorious date on the American calendar. A brilliantly executed terrorist attack, likely masterminded by Saudi-born Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, has wiped the World Trade Center towers clean from the Manhattan skyline, caused more than 5,000 deaths, and penetrated and gashed to the core the Pentagon, command center of the world's most powerful military.

While most Americans are focused on quick revenge against those who perpetrated this terror, the question of why this happened, a weighing of the underlying circumstances, needs to be considered. Two television evangelists, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson offered comments on the 'why' that defy belief. If not for their pivotal importance in helping George W. Bush to seal presidential primary victories in the Christian conservative strongholds of South Carolina and Virginia, these two men's views could be easily ignored. Falwell commented, « I believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative liftestyle, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' Robertson and Falwell concurred that « God allowed the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve. » Pat Robertson, a heavy-weight in American political circles, once ran a credible effort to win the Republican presidential nomination. The efforts of Falwell and Robertson helped George W. Bush beat back the surging tide of support for the more centrist 2000 presidential campaign of John McCain. Islam does not have a monopoly on fanaticism - but such extreme religious zealotry close to power, in Afghanistan's Taliban leadership or in the White House, does not act as a stabilizer in international affairs.

But to Falwell's and Robertson's credit - while their answer was alarmingly ludicrous - they are among the first to ask the right questions. What were the conditions that led to the greatest attack against symbols of American values on U.S. soil since the War of 1812? My own view is that the American triumphalism in the wake of the Cold War has blinded the U.S. to the true nature of the world. The misfit between America's lofty self impressions and those held by other nations hamper a constructive response to the current tragedy. Rather than adjusting to the future, America is rushing back to its past.

Superpower rivalry, in many ways, was comfortable for American political and military elites, because courses of action and reaction were predictable. Notions of safety could be conveyed to the American public not by dealing with the evolving asymmetric threats posed by anti-government militias and foreign terror squads but by buying increasingly sophisticated and expensive weapons and intelligence systems, designed mostly for an enemy that does not yet exist. While soccer moms and Sierra Club members build virtual communities on the internet, they also achieve inexpensive, yet potent, political power. Jody Williams of Putney, Vermont reached Britain's Princess Diana and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the use of landmines. She did this through the internet, via email. America resisted joining 123 other nations and instead joined Afghanistan, China, and Vietnam in refusing to sign the landmark Landmine Ban Treaty. But what became ever clear in Jody Williams' efforts is that America's expensive and expansive superstructure is mismatched to the institutional design of new political organization, and vulnerable to new forms of political competition.

Nearly all serious treatments of future threats to American national interest produced in the last fifteen years have raised the likelihood of increased state-sponsored and non-state terrorism. Saddam Hussein's interest in biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have led many to predict that the day was not far out when American soil would be the target of some massive terrorist attack. In its 1999 report, « New World Coming - American Security in the 21st Century, » the Hart-Rudman Commission argued that « It will no longer require a major investment in scientific and industrial infrastructure for small states and even reasonably well-heeled groups and individuals, whether they be criminal syndicates or terrorists, to get their hands on very dangerous technologies. » The Commission further stated that "states will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." The report was criticized in the media as being sensationally alarmist, but most agreed that terrorism had to be a high priority of the next administration.

Unwilling or unable to organize to confront emerging asymmetric threats, the Pentagon and national security apparatus including the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency have moved forward on inertia, determining what they would do tomorrow by what they did yesterday. In contrast, Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden leveraged the information revolution and realized that the small could generate huge outcomes and that the big were blind to the competencies of the small. Infected by notions of Cold War power, the U.S. Defense and State Departments developed rhetoric regarding 'rogue states' and argued that the best protection against next century terrorism was a protective shield of ballistic missile defenses. Why would terrorists spend the resources to somehow mount a ballistic missile attack when commercial airplanes are so much more effective, and more simply commandeered?

The Defense Department has also been marketing the notion that U.S. security depends on American militarization of space. This is not an argument that America should not respond to real threats at home and around the world - but America's generals and compliant political leadership have been manipulating threats to justify their Cold War fashioned military structures of personnel, weapons systems, defense contractors, and overseas bases. The new space race and ballistic missile defense do not enhance the security 'deliverables' that the Pentagon should be providing - but do run the risk of alienating other nations and diverting resources better spent confronting real threats. The Pentagon has been so driven by inertia and the need to keep its Congressional appropriations lines funded year after year that its seems unable to alter course and reorganize to deal with these asymmetric threats and their perpetrators who have organized in ways to which the Pentagon is blind.

vThe cost of America's failure to yet adjust to the post Cold War has been high. The signs of the need for transition have been evident for more than a decade, but rather than dismantling a high cost, and ultimately ineffective superstructure of empire built during the Cold War, America has tried to maintain and bolster its imperial primacy. The September 11 incidents were not anomalous; they are part of the stress of change and reflect America's inability to come to terms with political and institutional realities of a new era.

Since the September 1985 Plaza Accord, the international system has been attempting to transition from a world warped by the competition of two massive and powerful superpowers to something else. While many date the end of the Cold War to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, like in any great historical earthquake, there are pre-shocks that forewarn and after shocks that help punctuate the end of an era. September 11 was the clear demarcation point marking the transition from the realities of the Cold War to a new era, the name for which is still up for grabs - but no party can claim title more at this moment than bin Laden.

During Ronald Reagan's tenure, the costs of maintaining America's sprawling global military machine were piling up and causing political and economic discomfort. Costs are rarely just the price paid at the counter for men and weapons. Rather, the greatest costs of maintaining U.S. military dominance globally were special terms of trade offered to America's closest allies in Europe and Asia. Particularly in the latter case, Japan and the United States struck a bargain that gave Japan unfettered, preferential access to American markets in exchange for the basing of U.S. troops on Japanese soil. Three decades later, Japan had become rich, pioneering a model of development that favored producers over consumers and promoted exports while constraining consumption. From the beginning, America and Japan had established an arrangement that was not driven by market principles but rather by the pragmatic needs of a nation committed to protecting its empire from Soviet encroachment. Japan subordinated itself as a vassal of the United States, and became, as Chalmers Johnson writes, « America's satellite in East Asia. »

By 1985, America's balance of payments had slipped so badly that Japan surged ahead to become the world's leading creditor nation, and the U.S. the leading debtor. The political demands to correct America's quickly deteriorating economic condition compelled Reagan and his team to ask the world to submit to a massive manipulation of global financial markets. At a meeting of G7 finance ministers at New York's Plaza Hotel, Japan and the U.S. agreed to push down the dollar's value against the yen, ultimately making everything in the U.S. by the subsequent year virtually 50% less valuable in yen terms than the year before. Because Japan's trade and investment flows to the U.S. had never really been produced by market realities but rather than by political ones, the exchange rate intervention mostly pushed the merchandise trade imbalance the wrong direction and produced economic conditions which led to a tidal wave of Japanese investment into the U.S. financed by Japanese assets that had doubled in value virtually overnight. In other words, in order to continue to struggle against the Soviet empire - the central obsession of the Reagan administration - U.S. leadership pursued policies resulting in a massive sell off of U.S. assets, including forfeiting control of much U.S. sovereign debt to one of its satellites. When the land on which the imperial palace sits in Tokyo became worth more than all of California - it was obvious that markets were not functioning normally. This September 1985 event was the first shock foretelling the coming end of the Cold War because the costs of maintaining the American empire were politically and economically unsustainable.

The 1997-1998 East Asian economic crisis which spread virally to much of the developing world also signaled the dissipation of Cold War created institutions. The Soviet Union and the United States in their competition forced most of the world to choose sides, building a sprawling architecture of trade, military aid and presence, and diplomacy to keep nations in their spheres of influence from defecting to the other side. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the cost benefit circumstances of nations in America's empire dramatically changed. Without the specter of the Soviet threat, America's own willingness to absorb costs to maintain empire changed as well as the demands of allies and satellites to subordinate their sovereignty to American prerogatives. While many shallowly argue that the East Asia financial shocks were caused by 'crony capitalism', poor bank governance, and short term capital flight, the real driving cause of the economic collapse in Asia was that America, without a superpower rival, was unwilling to further tolerate the conditions in these countries that had always existed, frequently by American design or with American protection.

The U.S. compelled East Asian nations to begin a process of rampant, high speed financial market deregulation without a system of governance or transparency to prevent manipulation of markets and collectively irrational investment. The Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund led the charge for the U.S. of forcing Southeast Asian nations and Korea to adopt the neoliberal economic framework that American capital demanded as the price of its investment. In the end, the failed policies of the IMF and the U.S. led to over-investment and unsustainable expectations of growth in the region. The collapse caused an embryonic middle class in many of these countries to fall precipitously back into poverty, while American and European investment houses were bailed out. The 1997-98 crisis that shook Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile would have been inconceivable during America's Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, which would have tried to take advantage of America's missteps with these countries. Essentially America's dominance of the global military and economic order has promoted self-serving at the expense of other nations and prompted substantial resentment of America's triumphalist and culturally calloused behavior.

President Bush, the father, led the battle against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War and while successful in pushing Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, had to appeal to the international community for financial support to help pay for the extraordinary costs of that military intervention. Many nations contributed. Japan provided $13 billion, and the Pentagon received the credit for winning a war at the end of the 20th century. In the end, George Bush succeeded in running the Gulf War operation at a financial profit, with only minor numbers of U.S. military casualties. This only emboldened the generals and political elites to maintain their expensive defense architecture, not to reform or adjust it.

The inability of the American military establishment to transition to something other than empire management after the dissolution of the Soviet Union is best seen in the decision to deploy U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. According to the official history of the Third U.S. Army, in the late summer of 1991 because of Saddam Hussein's aggression against Israel and regional collaborators of the U.S., « the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia requested immediate assistance from the United States to provide protection from ballistic missile threats to their country. The U.S. Army quickly responded by deploying two Patriot air defense artillery battalions from Europe with a brigade headquarters in October 1991. » These 7,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia were supposed to be temporary but after a decade appear permanent. There presence frustrates many whose sensibilities of Islamic cultural and religious purity as well as national sovereignty are fragile, American military planners might have considered the careful balance between the time period that deployed troops might be stabilizing - and the tipping point at which the mere presence of American troops becomes the key source of instability.

While American media and strategists have argued incessantly about whether the U.S. has vital interests at stake in the Bosnian situation and has quarreled about the deployment of approximately 3,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia, and now a smaller number in Macedonia - there has been total silence in Washington policy circles on the question of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Largely prompted by Chalmers Johnson's observations about the radicalizing effects on the local population of a five and half decade deployment of nearly 40 U.S. military installations on Okinawa, Japan, I have been asking American defense intellectuals for the last several years to describe the differences between pre-revolutionary Iran and Saudi Arabia today. Should not America worry about a military presence that erodes the legitimacy of Saudi rulers in the eyes of their domestic population and radicalizes fundamentalist Islamic adherents against the U.S.? This subject has either been pushed aside because of the conventional notion that U.S. troops stabilize the region against Iraqi misbehavior or because it was a taboo topic and that essentially America has a very difficult time withdrawing from its international outposts, once dug in.

In a meeting discussing his Foreign Policy essay on the rising number of self-determination movements in former Soviet controlled territories, former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott commented that the subordination of culture and identity of the peoples of the Soviet empire resulted in amazing radicalization of parts of the population. I asked him whether we should worry about the same thing in the American case, asking whether our long term troop presence on Okinawa which has linguistic, cultural and historical roots distinct from Japan could be radicalized in the same way. I asked the same regarding the Saudis. Talbott responded that he didn't realize that the Okinawans were any different than the Japanese, that this notion had not occurred to him, and that troops are stationed abroad to be « anchors of stability. »

Despite his status as an international parasite now, Osama bin Laden's words on this are important to read. Whether one is blinded in anger and considers bin Laden's voice totally illegitimate now, the fact is that many well-established elites in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Kuwait - all of which America is supposedly protecting - share bin Laden's views. In his forthcoming book Holy War Inc., Peter Bergen reports that bin Laden stated:

« The collapse of the Soviet Union made the U.S. more haughty, and it has started to look at itself as a master of this world and established what it calls the new world order… .The U.S. today has set a double standard, calling whoever goes against its injustice a terrorist It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose on us agents to rule us….and wants us to agree to all these. »

Bin Laden is a terrorist, but his words ring eerily close to the comments of leaders of many nations in the developing and developed world; as well as to the protestors against globalization that unleashed their fury in the « battle in Seattle » protesting a new round of WTO negotiations, in Davos at the World Economic Forum meetings, and at the Washington meetings of the IMF and World Bank.

After his 1992 victory over George Bush, Bill Clinton tried to modify the calculus of national security by raising the priority of economic interests to a level on par with classical security considerations. Clinton perceived a military establishment intoxicated with its own self importance after its Gulf War victory but essentially out of step with the mores of centrist Americans. At his November 1992 Little Rock Economic Summit, Clinton made clear that his foreign policy would be driven by economic concerns - and the need to draw nations together in trade and the mutually beneficial bonds of economic enmeshment. He marginalized the nation's military elite and made them appear irrelevant to the future. He also threatened the institutionalized homophobia of the armed services by ordering that gays and lesbians be allowed to serve in the military. Few could make the world's most powerful military force feel insecure, but Bill Clinton excelled at it. Eventually, a resilient Pentagon prevailed over Clinton who was distracted by personal scandals. Had Clinton put foreign policy on a new course, the world's resentment over America's often unilateral and unconstrained economic and military behavior would have been lessened.

George W. Bush began receiving regular intelligence briefings earlier than other presidential contender in history. His defense and foreign policy team, including Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Armitage, and Paul Wolfowitz, were in place remarkably fast. Rather than appointing trusted, hand-picked loyal retainers, Bush kept Louis Freeh at the FBI and George Tenet at the CIA. Freeh had a key role in pursuing the perpetrators of the terrorist assault on the U.S.S. cole in Yemen while Tenet had emerged as a key follower and player in tracking the groups, formal and informal, that threatened to disrupt the Middle East peace talks. Fears among some informed observers were that Iraq, possibly Iran, possibly Libya were attempting to light a match in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and that weapons of mass destruction, particularly from Hussein, could become part of the morass.

Bush's one known meeting with a foreign policy public intellectual was with Robert Kaplan, author of « The Coming Anarchy » and more recently « Eastward to Tartary. » Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and Andrew Card met Kaplan alone for more than an hour on the same day that Bush had summit meetings with Japan Prime Minister Mori and Ariel Sharon. Bush takes foreign policy seriously, and reportedly told Kaplan to « relax…we are all realists here. » George Bush - who won the presidency in a contested election - could not win the U.S. public to support him on any domestic policy achievements, not even a massive tax cut. He has been prepared for conflict since he entered office, and conflict - tragically enough - is the one route that this presidency had to get Bush's poll numbers to rise. It is interesting that Bush's economic team, in contrast to Clinton's, appears second rate and has little regular access to him. On days that Bush expresses concern about the economy and argues for a capital gains tax cut, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill appears in the paper stating that recovery is around the corner. Bush is consumed by foreign policy and wants to remove the notion that the Bush family was bested by Hussein. In contrast to Nixon and Kissinger who were realists during a time of perceived American decline, Bush sees himself as a realist in a time of unparalleled American ascension and power.

This essay does not argue that Bush wanted or expected this level of tragic, horrific terrorism in America; but it gives him the excuse he had hoped for to restore the military to robust levels, to battle the ghosts haunting his father's presidency, and to break out of the confines of unpopularity caused by his contested presidential victory. For Bush, on many levels, military confrontation - like the collision of an American EP-3 spy plane with a Chinese fighter - can give him the raw materials to build a presidency that appears strong. Yet Bush and his retainers want to fight nations and don't understand the nature of 21st century threats. America is demanding that all nations, in the words of President Bush and even of Senator Hilary Clinton, decide if they are with us, or against us - that the line is as clear as day. In a gesture to American empire, the British Queen's own guard played the « Star Spangled Banner » during a tearful and dramatic changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Bush is getting the funding and authority from Congress to spend ever more on the American military and spy superstructure; civil liberties will be reduced in America; Bush will change our lives in order to pursue an enemy he can't find. Bin Laden, if he orchestrated these disasters, should be pursued as should his collaborators and protectors. But the real target of our energy should be to change the underlying conditions; to get smart and be modern. The Cold War is over - and the costs of not realizing such will rise until America comes to terms with this reality.

The day after the terrorist attacks, Chalmers Johnson's book « Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of the American Empire, » which catalogues a vast array of American interactions with the world that have resulted in some form of backlash, or « blowback » as Johnson and the CIA define the term, surged from the lower levels of Amazon.com obscurity well into the top 50 list. Kaplan's « The Coming Anarchy » made it into the top 40. Samuel Huntington's « Clash of Civilizations » into the top 30 purchased books on Amazon. But of the top 50 books listed, 17 books - including the first, second, and third ranked - were on Nostrodamus' prognostications about the end of the world. Thomas Kuhn argued that in science, innovation doesn't happen incrementally, it happens when one paradigm that has been protected, insulated, justified, rationalized from the challenge of competition ultimately crashes down. A similar fate, but not a necessary one, may befall the United States if it elects to continue to strut and crow about its dominance of the world order. America should be co-opting the Jody Williams's of the world; thinking ahead about how to turn the IMF into guidance counselors for developing states that need to create structures to promote their own middle class development and long term domestic growth rather than being subordinated to low cost producers to satisfy American consumption. America needs to get in touch with the NGOs and parts of the world that are screaming at it for compassion, rather than ideology. It is only then that the actions of a frenzied fanatic like bin Laden will not muster any semblance of legitimacy and not appear, at some horribly cynical level, quite rational.

Copyright: 2001 Le Monde Diplomatique

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