The second anniversary of September 11 has now passed, and Americans are increasingly divided over the nature of its legacy. In the ensuing two years, some Americans (and most Europeans) have managed to convince themselves that they are living in a world pretty much the same as the one they saw themselves inhabiting on September 10, 2001.
For most Americans, however, September 11 constituted a wake-up call, alerting us to the fact that all our previous paradigms for interpreting reality have to be reexamined in light of a new enemy: Islamic terrorism.
The consequences of this debate are enormous. If one believes that America today is essentially a nation at peace, then the rate of casualties and money invested in Iraq is intolerable. If, on the other hand, we are in the middle of what Elliot Cohen has termed World War IV against Islamic terrorism, then the number of American casualties has to be weighed against some remarkable achievements, including the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the capture or killing of two-thirds of Al Qaeda’s top leadership.
From the moment the hijacked commercial airliners crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, President Bush has lined up with those who view the world as dramatically altered for the foreseeable future by September 11. Bush reiterated that belief in his September 7 2003 speech to the nation in which he described the progress in the ongoing ``war on terror."
Despite the progress in that war described by the president, the dystopia pictured the Hudson Institute’s Max Singer, in which September 11 turns out to be only the prologue to a series of such attacks throughout the West cannot be dismissed out of hand. The spread of radical Islam around the globe has not abated. Saudi-exported Wahhabism fuels Islamic terrorism against Western targets in Southeast Asia. Sharia, Islamic law in all its cruelty, is the law of the land in Nigeria, one of America’s most important oil suppliers. And the threat posed by terrorist-sponsoring states will be multiplied many times if Iran succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons.
The source of the seething hatred of the West that gave rise to Islamic terrorism in the first place has not lessened over the past two years. That hatred has its source in the failure of Moslem, and in particular Arab societies, vis-à-vis the West. As the London-based Arab columnist Zuheir Abdallah wrote recently: ``What have we offered civilization, in terms of human sciences or inventions or anything else of value, from the beginning of the industrial revolution to the present? Unfortunately, the answer is: almost nothing."
A U.N.-sponsored study by Arab intellectuals last year detailed the collective failure of the Arab world in every field of human endeavor. Over the last twenty years, Arab nations have experienced the second lowest growth in per capita income in the world, and between 1960 and 2000, productivity in the Arab world actually declined.
The bitterness of Arab failure is heightened by its contrast to the prosperity all around. Harvard historian Michael Ignatieff describes the ``remorseless growth [in Arab lands] of lawless shanty towns that collect populations of unemployed or underemployed males who can see the promise of globalized prosperity in the TVs in every café, but cannot enjoy it themselves."
President Bush quite rightly noted, in his September 7 speech, that this Arab failure and the hatred it generates is an immediate threat to the United States: ``The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will become an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations."
In the battle against Islamic terrorism, the usual choice between military confrontation and some form of appeasement/accommodation does not exist for two reasons. The first is that appeasement is impossible with enemies who view one’s very existence as an affront. The United States and the West are hated by Moslem terrorists not for what they have done but for what they are.
The second is that nothing encourages Islamic terrorism more than the perception of Western lack of resolve. ``In the writings and speeches of Osama bin Laden and of his allies and disciples," writes Bernard Lewis, ``hatred of America is less significant than contempt – the perception that America is a `paper tiger,’ that its people have become soft and pampered -- `hit them and they will run.’" In that sense, the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby is surely right that 9/11 had its roots 22 years earlier when the U.S. embassy in Teheran was seized and America found no response and in the subsequent two decades of terror attacks on U.S. targets around the globe that went unavenged.
President Bush is correct that the massive American military response in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone far to remove the impression that free nations are ``decadent and weak." But that impression of Western cowardice has not been completely removed, and it can be quickly revived by any sign of a lack of American determination in Iraq.
Iraq is thus crucial for two reasons. First, it provides the best opportunity to create a model for an Arab society that is more than a tribal autocracy. Again President Bush put the matter clearly: ``The terrorists thrive on the support of tyrants and the resentments of oppressed peoples. When tyrants fall, and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject the ideologies of terror. . . Everywhere that freedom takes hold, terror will retreat."
Second, Iraq is the ultimate test of American resolve. That is why even those Americans who opposed the war should pray that America is not perceived as retreating from Iraq, as it once retreated from Beirut. Not for the sake of the Iraqis – though that would be reason enough for such prayers – but for our own sake. A lack of American determination will embolden terrorists around the world and thereby render the West more vulnerable to future 9/11s.
Our enemies clearly understand this. Islamic terrorists of various stripes have poured into Iraq from Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia because they recognize how much of a threat a free, fairly governed, and economically dynamic state would be to their vision. Their targets, points out Michael Gove in the Times of London, from the sabotage of Iraq’s crumbling infrastructure to the assassination of future leaders in a pluralist Iraq, such as Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Hakim, have all been carefully chosen to prevent ``the transformation of Iraq into a different sort of Arab country." The collection of killers ``desperately trying to undermine Iraq’s progress and throw the country into chaos," mentioned by the President in his speech, is a sign not of American failure but of the magnitude of the threat to them of American success.
That success is far from guaranteed and certainly will not be achieved on the cheap or without a long-term American commitment. In today’s world, Ignatieff sharply observes, American imperialism is the precondition for democracy. But an inept or indecisive American imperialism would be the worst possible scenario. The process of developing democratic institutions in Iraq must be guided by Iraqis themselves, writes Bernard Lewis, the foremost modern student of the Arab world. But that development must be underwritten by American money and power.
``Premature democratization – holding elections and transferring power, in a country which has had no experience of such things for decades, can only lead to disaster, as in Algeria. Democracy is the best and therefore the most difficult of all forms of government," concludes Lewis.
President Bush showed in his September 7 speech that he understands clearly what is at stake in Iraq. The war on terror, he said, ``would be a lengthy war, a different type of war, fought on many fronts and places. Iraq is now the central front. Enemies of freedom are making a desperate stand there – and there they must be defeated."
America is engaged in promoting freedom in Iraq, the President explained, in no small part to make itself more secure. Both are worthy goals, and if the President succeeded in explaining the connection in a way that Americans can understand, they will be a lot closer to being achieved.