Helena Cobban writes a regular column on global affairs for The Christian Science Monitor and is the author of the Justworldnews.org blog.
Viewed from today, the summer of 2001 seems like an age of innocence. On the morning of 9/11, I was checking my e-mail when the AOL front-page came up with this photo of a New York tower on fire. And then on television I saw a plane flying straight at the second tower, exploding into a plume of flames. An hour or so later, my editor at the Christian Science Monitor called. "Helena, can you do us a special column on this? And can you get it to us by four this afternoon?"
What could I say but yes? Writing about foreign affairs is what I do. But what could I, a naturalized citizen of this now-wounded country, actually say? I ended up penning a column that argued for calm, and stressed international policing rather than responding militarily to the terror attacks of that day. I also wrote this: "We may not know for many days yet how high the human casualties of Tuesday's attacks will mount. But we should take care that some of our country's basic values don't fall casualty to the attacks, too..."
So the Bush administration didn't take my advice. In the name of what they called their "Global War on Terror" they proceeded to invade and occupy two distant countries, to subvert the governance structures of many others, establish a globe-girdling network of "black-hole" prisons into which suspects disappeared without trial, and assault many of our liberties here at home. What was even more depressing for me, as an American, was that twice over—in 2002 and 2004—my fellow citizens went to the polls and appeared to give these policies a strong nationwide endorsement.
Today, five years after the Twin Towers attack, I urge Americans to change course and reconnect with the multilateral, negotiations-focused approach to foreign policy challenges that in the aftermath of World War II was one of the United States' greatest gifts to the world. This means recognizing that the United States has no mandate, divine or otherwise, to go round the world solving the world's problems in a manner of our own choosing. It means taking seriously the now well-established global principles stressing human equality and the importance of searching hard for nonviolent means of resolving differences. It means strengthening global institutions like the United Nations, instead of undermining them.
One of the basic flaws in the way the administration responded to 9/11 was its deep arrogance. An arrogant person is one who wrongfully arrogates to him- or herself decision-making power that rightly should be exercised by others. Immediately after 9/11, a world shocked by the hate-fueled and inhumane nature of those attacks rallied around the United States in an unprecedentedly sympathetic way. The vast majority of people and governments around the world felt that what had been attacked that day was not just 3,000 (mainly) American people, not just "America"—but the values of humanity as a whole.
So the world gave Washington a free pass—though it shouldn't have—when President Bush sent the U.S. military to invade and occupy Afghanistan in late 2001. The administration didn't even go through the motions of assembling a robust policing-plus-sanctions response to the al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan before launching that invasion! Then in 2002, Bush adopted the infamous "National Security Strategy" document that explicitly claimed for the United States the "right" to use military force anywhere in the world where U.S. decision-makers alone might determine that they could "prevent" a claimed future threat. And throughout 2002, as we now know, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were hard at work stealthily assembling and deploying forces for their planned invasion of Iraq.
When they launched that second invasion, in early 2003, the rest of the world did not give them a "free pass" to do so. But they went ahead anyway, once again arrogating to themselves decisions that ought to have been made by a wider body. And now, some 42 months later, we can see the ghastly results: In Iraq, where more Americans have now been killed than were killed in the attacks of 9/11 and in Afghanistan, where tensions have been rising steadily throughout the past two years, as well as in the parlous state of our civil liberties here at home. And also in the fractured, uncertain state of the United Nations, a body that has been used and abused by the Bush administration so many times that it's sometimes surprising that it survives.
As someone who has studied and written about the United States, the Middle East and the world for more than 30 years, I have found all these outcomes deeply tragic. But also quite outrageous, because they were all, all along, so clearly avoidable; and almost certainly they would have been avoided by any national leader who had had even the tiniest exposure to the realities and the terrifying destructive capacities of war.
Over the past five years, I have watched with horror as first Afghanistan and then Iraq were plunged into the vortex of invasion, occupation and resistance. Then this past summer, the Israelis exacted their deadly toll on civilian life and the elected governance structures in Palestine and Lebanon. The situation—and responses—of America after 9/11 and Israel after the Hezbollah attacks of July 12 were both borne from a similar view of the world. In both countries there was an understandable sense of having been badly and illegitimately wounded, and a strong sense of rage and anger. The policy responses fashioned by both countries then also shared the essential features that they were unilateral, they eschewed any reliance on existing international mechanisms and they were very violent. These responses also turned out to be extremely damaging to civilians in the countries targeted—even if that was not the intent—and they have therefore have come to be judged by most of the rest of the world as completely disproportionate.
They have also been counter-productive. In Lebanon and Palestine the political "moderates" are now much weaker than they were before the Israeli assaults of recent months. In Iraq completely new forces of instability, internal schism and violent anti-Westernism have arisen where before the U.S. invasion there were almost none. And in Afghanistan, the failure to address very basic issues of governance has allowed broad swathes of the country—and of neighboring Pakistan—to fall back into the control of the Taliban.
I grew up in a country, Britain, whose people also once thought it was their "destiny" to control the affairs of other lands very far from their own. Politicians and jingoistic thinkers anywhere can cite scores of alleged justifications for such a situation, many involving a nation’s claimed right to "security" and "defense." But other peoples of the world tend not to buy these arguments. They cling admirably to Enlightenment-era notions about human equality, the need for mutual respect and self-determination. Other peoples of the world also harbor more vivid memories than Americans do of wars having been fought on their homelands, and are therefore quite realistic about the terrible human and social costs of war.
So now, five years after 9/11, we should finally be able to look back and calmly assess to what degree our policy choices that day were helpful or counterproductive. My judgment is that because those choices unleashed further forces of violence around the world and undermined existing institutions of international cooperation, they have made everyone around the world—including us Americans—that much less secure. Today, in this globally interdependent world, our security as Americans is also reliant on the wellbeing and security of that 96 percent of the world's people who happen not to be Americans. Have enough of us learned that lesson yet? I hope so. But with President Bush increasingly framing the upcoming election as a poll on the righteousness of his responses to 9/11, many people around the world will be watching in November to see how many of us still support his view.