From a speech delivered by Chas Freeman in Moscow yesterday: The objective of the 9/11 attacks was to provoke the United States into military overreactions that would enrage and arouse the world’s Muslims, estrange Americans from Arabs, stimulate a war of religion between Islam and the West, undermine the close ties between Washington and Riyadh, curtail the commanding influence of the United States in the Middle East, and overthrow the Saudi monarchy. The aftershocks of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 kamikaze operation against the United States have so far failed to shake the Saudi monarchy but — to one degree or another — the operation has achieved its other goals.
Among other things, the violent interaction between America and the Muslim world since 9/11 has burdened future generations of Americans with over $5 trillion in war debt, with more debt yet to come. This has thrust the United States into fiscal crisis. The 9/11 attacks evoked reactions that have eroded the rule of law at home and abroad, tarnished the global appeal of Western democracy, and militarized American foreign policy. They precipitated military interventions in the Middle East that have energized reactionary religious dogmatism among Muslims. In other words, the continuing struggle is reshaping the ideologies and political economies of non-Muslim and Muslim societies alike. And most of the changes are not for the better.
As Islamist terrorism has gained global reach, it has provided political justification for a general retreat from civil liberties and ethical standards of governance in secular societies everywhere, not just in the United States. Russia is not an exception to this trend. Ironically, the Middle East was where the moral values upon which modern societies are founded had their origin. The European Enlightenment transformed these norms into secular ideals of reason, tolerance, and human and civil rights that spread widely throughout the world. Trends and events in the Middle East are now setting back prospects for the advance of tolerance in that region even as they drive a widening deviation from the values of the Enlightenment elsewhere.
Although there is a long tradition of heroic sacrifice in Islam, the use of self-immolation as a weapon by Muslims began only in the early 1980s, when Israel’s invasion of Lebanon led to the widening and ultimately successful Shiite use of suicide bombings against Israeli, American, and French forces. By the early 1990s, Sunni Palestinians had embraced the suicide belt as a means of resistance and reprisal to the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza. As this century began, various forms of explosive self-destruction began to be widely employed in acts of terrorism against non-Muslims outside the Middle East, including with tragic regularity here in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia, in the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and subsequently in the capitals of Western Europe.
When the U.S. invasion of Iraq catalyzed bitterly lethal strife between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, suicide bombing quickly became the weapon of choice for Sunni extremists there. By the middle of the last decade, this technique had begun to be widely used in Afghanistan. What began as a means of last-ditch resistance to invasion and occupation is now a preferred means of retaliation against foreigners seen to have offended the peace of the Muslim umma. Although it is completely contrary to Islamic scripture, suicide bombing has become a predictable aspect of civil strife everywhere in the Islamic world and beyond it. And civil strife is widespread. Much-resented foreign intrusions into Muslim lands have exacerbated intra-Muslim sectarian differences.
Al Qaeda’s kamikaze attack on the United States drew America into a punitive raid in Afghanistan. This soon became a campaign of pacification there. It eventually grew into a widening circle of armed interventions in other Muslim societies. These include the now-ended, tragically counterproductive American attempt to transform the political culture of Iraq and the frustrating, continuing effort by the United States and NATO to do the same in Afghanistan.
It has long been said that Afghanistan is where empires go to die. Many would argue that the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan was what finally broke both its spirit and its treasury. Most Muslims believe this. They also believe that America’s misadventures in the Middle East are having a similar, if so far less decisive effect on the United States. As they see it, a great deal of the melancholy among Americans today derives from mounting recognition that U.S. military campaigns in Muslim countries are failing to accomplish their objectives, even as they become both apparently endless and ever more unaffordable.
Chas Freeman: The Middle East, America, and the emerging world order