Brutal Imperialism: The Deeper Political Meaning Of 9/11
Upon the anniversary of the infamous 9/11 it is instructive to put that and current events into an overarching context. 9/11 was an act of terrorism and a very effective one. That said, it was more than that. By understanding the “more” we are better equipped to confront the war that underlies this war.
9/11 was the modern Pearl Harbor in the fight between Empire and the “Empire of Liberty.” The sooner we get clear on the superior legitimacy of our worldview over that of our rival the sooner ISIS will be extinguished.
As Clausewitz famously once stated, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” What are the politics?
Osama Bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, was very explicit about his politics. And although Bin Laden is dead the politics live on. As Prof. Juan Cole wrote in 2004 at the George Mason History News Network:
In order to evaluate the aftermath of September 11, we first must understand that event. What did al-Qaeda intend to achieve? Only if we understand that can we gauge their success or failure.
From the point of view of al-Qaeda, the Muslim world can and should be united into a single country. They believe that it once had this political unity, under the early caliphs.
From al-Qaeda’s point of view, the political unity of the Muslim world was deliberately destroyed by a one-two punch. First, Western colonial powers invaded Muslim lands and detached them from the Ottoman Empire or other Muslim states. … Second, they formed these colonies into Western-style nation-states, often small and weak ones, so that the divisive effects of the colonial conquests have lasted.
For al-Qaeda to succeed, it must overthrow the individual nation-states in the Middle East, most of them colonial creations, and unite them into a single, pan-Islamic state. …
Al-Zawahiri then hit upon the idea of attacking the “far enemy” first. That is, since the United States was propping up the governments of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc., all of which al-Qaeda wanted to overthrow so as to meld them into a single, Islamic super-state, then it would hit the United States first.
If the Muslim world can find a way to combine the sophisticated intellectuals and engineers of Damascus and Cairo with the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf, it could well emerge as a 21st century superpower.
Bin Laden’s dream of a united Muslim state under a revived caliphate may well be impossible to accomplish. But with the secular Baath gone, it could be one step closer to reality.
The emergence of a successor to al-Qaeda, the brutal ISIS, a self-proclaimed Caliphate, is an internally logical, by terms of the internal narrative, development. This has implications.
First, the turmoil in the Middle East is a power struggle among rival claimants to power, and, even, hegemony. It is an existential struggle.
Second, the tragic refugee crisis now besetting Europe can be seen, at least in part, as a brutal vector being sent out by the would-be Caliphate to help destabilize Europe and undermine allies that help sustain the extant nation-states that are the main obstacle to the creation of an Arab super-state.
Third, the efforts to restore the Caliphate dramatically run against the prevailing historical trend. As last year I wrote here on the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:
At the moment that Princip fired his pistol 80% of humanity lived under an Imperial world order. Five Imperial dynasties reigned: Austria-Hungary; Russia; China; the Ottoman Empire; and Great Britain. Four of these toppled within a decade. The British Empire, the least autocratic of these, went into irrevocable decline. Thousands of years of reigning monarchy and Imperial rule ended in shockingly brief compass.
Rather than “making the world safe for democracy,” however, tyrannies arose. It took a second world war to eradicate the dictatorships of the West and Japan — Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese military imperialists — and to implant liberal republican governance in Western Europe and Japan. It then took a third world war, the Cold War, to dislodge Stalinist-type tyranny in Eastern Europe and implant liberal republican governance principles, however imperfectly, there and in Latin America. (Too many nations remain tainted by oligarchy antithetical to free market capitalism and liberal republicanism. Yet it is a clear step up from dictatorship.)
After the Cold War we were hit by 9/11. Reading the fine print, as pointed out by University of Michigan’s Prof. Juan Cole, among others, Al Qaeda’s (and now ISIS’s) stated goal was a revanchist effort to expel America from the Middle East in order to restore an imperial world order, the Caliphate: the Ottoman Empire.
Restore the Caliphate?
It is far more likely, as Jeffrey Goldberg observed and observes in The Atlantic Monthly, that the end result will be to rearrange the Mideast into smaller states. This will entail the peoples of the Middle East redrawing the artificial national boundaries put in place by the Western colonial powers after World War I into more organic nation-states. This bloody reorganization, however, is most unlikely to restore an atavistic Imperial order, whatever the grandiose pretensions.
The efforts of al-Baghdadi and other revanchists to establish a theocratic imperial world order are a throwback to an Old World Order. That order was liquidated almost a century ago.
The Rebel Alliance to ISIS?
The Kurds have been heroically effective.
Egypt, with a strong army (and its own aspirations for regional influence) calls for an Arab coalition against ISIS.
Saudi Arabia unites with Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE join in a potent, and affluent, alliance. (The Gulf States find themselves, in their internal struggle with Iran, implicitly aligned with Israel.)
Iran, a non-Arab power, itself the seat of the former Persian Empire, is a leader in the fight against ISIS with aspirations of its own for regional hegemony. Turkey, another ambitious non-Arab state and seat of the Ottoman Empire, finally has gone to war with ISIS.
Now al Qaeda’s leader al-Zawahiri attacks al-Baghdadi as illegitimate. It’s an internecine power struggle between two reactionary forces, of course. Yet notable and potentially potent.
What has gone mostly missing is a compelling narrative to help make sense of the action through the fog of war. 9/11 was the “Pearl Harbor Attack” in an effort to restore, in one part of the world, the ancien regime, the old imperial world order. The Caliphate.
What ensued, and continues, best can be interpreted as a fight by the nation states. It is led by the most liberal republican of these, the United States, joined by the comparatively liberal Europe, together with illiberal but non-imperialistic nations of the Middle East.
This is a fight for what America’s founders called (check the back of any dollar bill) the “Novus Ordo Seclorum” — the “ New order of the ages” — against the restoration of the Old World Order.
Such an interpretation would provide an organic coherence to the apparent anarchy in the Middle East. It is not, quite, anarchy. This war is a struggle between worldviews and also a political struggle. It is, above all, a struggle for legitimacy: Empire vs. liberal republicanism. ISIS represents the manifestation of a very old enemy: the brutal imperial world order.
Most of the world has just concluded a “Hundred Year War” beginning with bringing down the imperial world order, roughly contemporaneous with WWI. This was succeeded, through WWII and the Cold War, by progress to or toward liberal republicanism.
Liberal republicanism has served the world much better than did Empire both in human dignity and prosperity. The sooner we see 9/11 for what it was — the opening gun in a revanchist effort to restore an imperial world order — the sooner we become immensely more powerful. The revanchists, deprived of all pretense of legitimacy, will move into final collapse.
The world continues the long fight to replace Empire with what Thomas Jefferson called the “empire of liberty.” Let us recognize the war that 9/11 ignited as a war by the Empire of Liberty against Empire. Upon that recognition, to paraphrase Cato the Elder, ISIS delenda est.
ISIS will be destroyed.
Liberty will lead to justice for all.
Originally posted on Forbes.com.
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