War on Terror: The history of an illusion

War on Terror: The history of an illusion
8 min read
09 Sep, 2021
Opinion: As we mark 20 years since 9/11, the US must realise it no longer has the means to lord it over the world, let alone decide the fate of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, writes Alain Gresh.
US President George W Bush speaks to Congress on 20 September 2001 in Washington, DC. [Getty]
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"Enduring freedom!" 

This was the slogan, as pompous as it was pathetic, which President George W Bush used to launch his "War on Terror" in October 2001.

As he had just explained to the US Congress:

"They hate what they see right here in this chamber - a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

"George W Bush said, 'Good would overcome, Evil would be eradicated and Freedom with a capital F and an American accent would shed its light on the grateful peoples of a subjugated world'"

"They" were "the terrorists", whom the US President swore he would track down to the darkest confines of the planet. It would be a long war he admitted, and the battlefield would be the whole world, but soon Good would overcome, Evil would be eradicated and Freedom with a capital F and an American accent would shed its light on the grateful peoples of a subjugated world. 

The self-proclaimed "international community", consisting in fact of western governments alone, could only applaud this martial rhetoric. Exploiting the state of shock caused by 9/11 across the world, many politicians, editorialists, intellectuals and self-proclaimed "experts" on terrorism, did their bit to mobilise against the new enemy: terrorism, often confused with Islamism or even with Muslims in general.

The first "victories" in Kabul led to optimism, not to say self-deception: 

"The Americans have won that war," proclaimed Bernard-Henri Levy in December 2001, who never misses a chance to get it wrong, "at the cost of just a few hundred civilian casualties, maybe a thousand… who can top that? How many wars of liberation waged in the past can make that claim?"

The 'new religion'

Others extolled "a resistance" as indispensable as standing up to Nazism. "Oh, I know," writer Philippe Sollers enthused, "there's still a lot of work to be done out there, in Kabul, Ramallah, Baghdad… but in the end, Evil will be laid low, it's as plain as day. Actually, my feeling is we've waited too long. Why all these delays? This hanging back? These false scruples? These UN gesticulations that don't fool anybody? We must strike and strike again. 9/11 demands it. 9/11 is the unsurpassable horizon of our time. Forget Bastille Day: 9/11. Let's hope the French, always lagging a bit behind genuine historical awareness, will finally be persuaded to join the new religion."

That "new religion" is the "War on Terror". 

Voices

But what exactly were people talking about? The Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) explained that "war was a continuation of politics by other means." And he went on to insist: 

"The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish… the kind of war on which they are embarking, and to define the objectives to be reached in order to achieve victory."

But eliminating "terrorism", that form of violence which has marked in various guises every stage of human history, resorted to by protagonists whose convictions were often diametrically opposed, is, strictly speaking, meaningless. Even the Crusades, those wars of religion against Islam, had just one concrete objective: to "liberate the tomb of Christ", not to convert the whole planet.

"Confused thinking - with its plethora of enemies and fuzzy objectives - has contributed to the repeated failures of the 'War on Terror'"

The University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database gives us a snapshot of the prevailing sense of confusion. It contains a list of "terrorist attacks across the world", with a number of interesting facts about the main zones of instability - even though these unsurprisingly turn out to be Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq. 

But the list also includes an attack by white supremacists in the US and a suicide bombing by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, as well as a handful of actions by what remains of the Colombian guerilla, and an anti-Semitic bombing in Europe, producing a thoroughly unpalatable mishmash.

This confused thinking - with its plethora of enemies and fuzzy objectives - has contributed to the repeated failures of the "War on Terror". 

As Marc Hecker and Elie Tennenbaum have written in their book, "The broad definition of the terrorist threat adopted by the Bush administration - including not only al-Qaeda, a good number of armed groups, and "rogue states", from Hezbollah to North Korea - gave rise to what can in retrospect be regarded as one of the major errors of these early years."

But just what is that "error" the name of? 

Primarily it is the name of western hubris, whose phone number, as Régis Debray nicely put it, is that of the White House in Washington, because it is there and only there that "western decisions" are made. France did indeed voice some objections at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but these impulses soon died off and France fell into line. Freshly elected and speaking before the US Congress on 7 November 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that:

"France will stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, for what is at stake in that country are our values and the values of the Atlantic alliance. I say this solemnly before you: failure is not an option."

Troublemakers thinking they are rainmakers

As for his successor, socialist François Hollande, he extended the war zone to Mali and the Sahel, reviving the colonial ventures of French socialism with the same lack of success. For, as Régis Debray has pointed out, the whole world - and not just the terrorists, Islamists, and other terrifying goblins - challenges this paternalistic navel-gazing West:

"Self-appointed captain of the vessel humanity with the task of setting it on the right course; a bogeyman who deals out not sanctions but "punishments"; a First World that doesn't deign to talk to the Third - let alone the Fourth - but monologues, humiliating any and everyone who doesn't speak its language; a troublemaker who imagines itself a rainmaker and when its interests are at stake doesn't give a damn about the principles it professes for the benefit of the gallery."

"The purity of the West's proclaimed principles - international law, peoples' right to self-determination, defence of human rights - has been corrupted by the prosaic realities on the ground"

Over the last 20 years, the West has also lost the battle for legitimacy and the rule of law. From the penal colony at Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib prison, from the illegal invasion of Iraq to the rigged elections in Afghanistan, from its support of the Egyptian dictator to its contempt for the rights of the Palestinians, the purity of its proclaimed principles - international law, peoples' right to self-determination, defence of human rights - has been corrupted by the prosaic realities on the ground.

The US fiasco in Afghanistan - in which many European countries have had a share even if they have had no say in the way the war was conducted, as we have just seen during the evacuation of Kabul - marks the failure of the West's umpteenth effort to restore its domination of the world by simply denying the enormous changes that have taken place since the second half of the 20th century and in particular the collapse of the colonial system. 

The time has passed when Paris and London could carve up the Middle East as they did after WWI and without any qualms or, against any insuperable resistance, impose their domination on reluctant peoples. The rejection of foreign domination, albeit dressed up in the virtues of "democracy" and "human rights", has become universal.

Other powers are asserting themselves as the Afghan story has shown. Pakistan, China, Russia, Qatar, Turkey, or India have as much to say as the US, and a lot more than the EU, about the future of this country. While remaining, and certainly for decades to come, a major power, the US no longer has the means to lord it over the world, let alone decide the fate of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, even while retaining the capacity, as we have seen, to destroy those countries.

The War on Terror has been the last illusion of a western world that cannot resign itself to accepting the new state of the planet and wants to turn back the clock of history.

A fanciful task, of course, but the pursuit of which can only worsen the disorder of the world, fuel the so-called "clash of civilisations" and destabilise many societies, including western ones, by dividing them along religious lines.

Alain Gresh is the Director of Orient XXI, a journalist and expert in Middle East affairs. He is the author of 'L'Islam, la République et le monde', Fayard, 2014 among many others. 

This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 
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