Shifting Sands: Going beyond a post-9/11 world

(NOTE: Yesterday I shared an example of a political science piece focusing on Philippine history and politics. Today, I bring back an article written February 15, 2006 on one of my favorite subjects ever: international politics. In broad strokes, I look at the post-9/11 world and how we can all get over it.)

Soon after 9/11, President Bush acknowledged that the War on Terrorism is a war against an invisible enemy. For a realist, the admission that the greatest threat to America came not from states defined by political ideology but from non-state actors bound by religious (though fundamentalist) zeal, was as uncharacteristic as it was admirable. Thus, it was only more ironic when he moved against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq in an attempt to crush the terrorist threat.

Bush foreign policy at that time was a relic of the Cold War, and adopted a policy of containment on an enemy they couldn’t even see but could only speculate on at best. For as we all know, Osama bin Laden is still alive and well and even if he is dead, it wouldn’t matter. America’s enemies in the War on Terror are not only as invisible but are as immortal as the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism and religious totalitarianism. Wherever these ideas can find their audience, terror will easily take root.

Thomas Friedman writes that “terrorism is only a tool.” To eradicate terror, if at all possible, will not eliminate its roots. The destruction and democratization of Afghanistan and Iraq did less to stem the tide of terror than it did to accelerate it. Proponents of the two wars attribute the absence of a second 9/11 to their victory; however they miss the point that the reason a second terrorist attack of such size and scale has failed to materialize thus far is that 9/11 was a carefully orchestrated logistical ballet of agents and tools that is difficult to pull off again, and that the paradigm of 9/11 has been replaced by 3/11, a paradigm epitomized by the Madrid, Bali and London bombings. In simplistic terms, the shift has moved from quality to quantity. Osama bin Laden has inspired an entirely new generation of self-started terrorists with only the shared notion of liberating the world through Islam and Islam from the world.

It has been five years from 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers has defined a new era. We now speak and write of a post-9/11 world in the same way that the months before September 2001 were marked as the post-Cold War world, an era of unparalleled globalization and increase in interconnectivity between and among states, markets and non-state actors, organizations, institutions and even individuals. 9/11 heightened that, but also ushered in an era of fear and pushed the boundaries of national security to include preemptive strikes on those that may threaten your homeland.

Similar (and perhaps too similar) to the Cold War when democratization was a response to communism, so too has democracy become an imperative of American foreign policy in the Middle East. And so with this, we witness the reemergence of the nation-state as the primary actor in world affairs and for some time, the discourse of American hegemony remained unchallenged. (People even spoke of the death of the United Nations, though somewhat prematurely.)

However, five years is a long time. 9/11 did not end globalization, but we have been left with images of American superiority and the proliferation of infinite points of authority, legitimate (ie. international institutions, international NGOs) or not (ie. terrorist networks, drug cartels). Nonetheless we can say now that we live in a post-post-9/11 world, where the traditional power of the nation-state has become much more relevant again in making sure that we all get to connect, collaborate and globalize.

Such an observation can be arrived at by looking at how the Middle East has responded to American impact since 9/11. Though democracy and American liberalism at large are the main objects of contention in Islamist societies, countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq allowed themselves to experiment and flirt with the ideal. And yet it proved a double edged sword. The greatest irony about democracy is that it can put tyrants in power. With the recent victory of Hamas in Palestine and the earlier election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency, we see that it can put terrorists into power too. (At least, terrorists in the West’s eyes.) Not too long, Western hegemony is challenged.

The recent protests over the controversial cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist (which in effect does two things: violates the sacred creed that the prophet should never be depicted or illustrated, and casts asides all Muslims as terrorists) have fanned the flames of traditional Muslim anger against the “far enemy” by first targeting Denmark and the other European countries. Their anger filters out the underlying themes of freedom of speech and liberalism which both run full circle into protests against America and the West at large. America, by being a liberal country like Denmark, is guilty by association.

This is more dangerous when hardline leaders such as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Ahmadinejad in Iran take advantage of the moment to launch their own political platforms. The February 20, 2006 of Newsweek provides the following overview.

For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is dominated by members of the Alawite sect often seen as heretical by other Muslims, the cartoons are an ideal distraction. By allowing the Danish and Norwegian embassies to be attacked and ransacked in Damascus, he upped the level of global televised violence. A day later, members of a Muslim group with close ties to Syrian intelligence were among the Islamic flag-wavers attacking the Danish Embassy in Beirut, where Assad is still trying to prove that the only alternative to Syrian domination is sectarian chaos.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad exulted in cartoon-inspired hysteria, allowing protesters to try to storm the Danish Embassy, and endorsing a Tehran newspaper’s competition for Holocaust caricatures. His now well-established policy is to confront the West, isolate his country, then wave the flag to consolidate his grip on power.

America’s campaigns into Afghanistan and Iraq solidified their position as the sole superpower in the world. Their hegemony is unquestioned, but the years following 9/11 reveal that they aren’t unchallenged. For instance, Iran has clearly drawn a line in the sand. Are we truly heading towards the inevitable “clash of civilizations?” American may finally be given the fight they have been looking for when they began the War on Terror. Now, the enemy isn’t invisible but there seems to be no rush to confront Iran. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad’s recent moves to pursue nuclear research has bothered the West and now they contemplate bringing the matter to the Security Council. Are we witnessing the roots of a Cold War II? History is often the final judge and thankfully, the verdict has yet to be passed. It is never too late to avoid a Cold War II, especially if it is merely a prelude to a World War III.

So apparently, realism in international politics isn’t as antiquated as the discourse on globalization may suggest, and the nation-state has roles beyond what Thomas Friedman prescribes as making sure they get their people “connected to the Flat World”. For Iran, there are concerns of national and religious pride. For Syria, there is the need to be relevant to their people. For America, there is a promise they have to keep to their children, and to the world’s children, that democracy and freedom are as good as they say.

Globalization has not relegated the nation-state to the sidelines. A world beyond 9/11 isn’t that much different from what it was before terrorism elevated itself to the top of every government’s agenda. If at all, the sense of urgency has heightened. Terrorism illustrates that globalization shows no signs of slowing down and that the flat world provides equal opportunities for all countries. As the world prepares to launch itself to new heights from a global platform based on technology, connectivity and the promise of opportunity, there is the increasing need for governments to ensure that their people do not get left behind. And of course, different countries address this need on different levels; some struggle to keep up, some seek help, and others are just too frustrated to give a damn. Globalization makes all those possible at speeds that would either move us forward, or leave us behind.


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