Winners and losers: An interim assessment

Two years after 9/11, is there a scorecard of who is winning and who is losing? While it is not too early to attempt a preliminary and cautious assessment, we must bear in mind that all 9/11 related issues remain extremely dynamic.

Thus, for example, the Bush presidency first gained, and is now losing. An untried president emerging from a contested election was "defined" by 9/11. He rose to the occasion and demonstrated leadership and determination in America and beyond. The conquest of Afghanistan–striking directly at al Qaeda’s leadership and cadres and the regime that supported them–was a "no brainer," and in any case proved doable at low cost in lives and money.

Yet the Taliban and Qaeda leaderships remain at large, and now the world is aware that the occupation and reconstruction of Afghanistan are problematic and hard to sustain. Still, these difficulties experienced by the Bush administration pale compared to Iraq. The neoconservative ideological approach to dealing with hostile radical Islam and the Middle East that Bush bought into has led the United States into a far more dangerous situation in Iraq, for which it is already paying dearly in lives, funds, prestige and clarity of strategic purpose. The notion that the three disparate ethnic-religious components and multiple tribal elements of Iraq, once conquered, could be governed democratically and peaceably and rebuilt cheaply, and that the impact of the benevolent American presence there would radiate throughout the Middle East and catalyze processes of democratization, moderation and reconciliation (between Israelis and Palestinians, for example), seemed ludicrous from the outset.

In this regard the world’s leading intelligence establishments, in Washington, London and to some extent Tel Aviv, have registered serious failures in the past two years. First, they failed to pick up the signs and predict 9/11, which will go down in history as an intelligence surprise on the magnitude of Pearl Harbor and the Yom Kippur War. Then they allowed themselves, to an alarming degree, to adapt their assessments to political trends and provide a foundation for endorsing the Iraq adventure. This setback at the level of national intelligence assessment has damaged their credibility.

The United Nations has come out a loser, largely because its institutions, and especially the Security Council, have not adapted to the post-Cold War age in which the United States, the world’s hyperpower, will act without its blessings. US President George W. Bush, we recall, distanced himself from international treaties and institutions (Kyoto, arms control) well before 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, he was able to persuade the other world powers to back him in Afghanistan. But not in Iraq, where he was doing an admirable thing (getting rid of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein) for all the wrong reasons: there were no weapons of mass destruction and no terrorist connections.

The US now realizes it went into Iraq without an effective post-war plan, and cannot go it alone. But it is still at odds with its potential allies, who increasingly fear what they identify as American neo-imperialism, and who have plenty of petty national ego hang-ups of their own.

The Arab world, as usual, is engaged in a balancing act based on each regime’s reading of its own narrow interests. It is cordial and helpful with the Americans because they are strong and they are now neighbors. But it treats Washington’s "with us or against us" mentality and its zeal for democratization with great suspicion. These days, in view of the chaotic situation in Iraq, most Arab rulers are breathing easier, in the knowledge that their regimes are not likely to be threatened by a successful and dynamic experiment in grassroots democracy in Baghdad or even by US military might based there.

Saudi Arabia offers the most clear-cut case of a key non-combatant Middle East country that has suffered obvious reverses as a result of 9/11. The Wahabi origins of Osama bin Laden and many of his followers; the evidence that the state-sponsored export over recent decades of the Wahabi Islamic philosophy has radicalized Muslims in Chechnya and Islamist streams in southeast Asia; the trail of terrorist support funds traceable to official and non-official sources in Saudi Arabia; the recent arrival of al-Qaeda terrorism to the heart of the kingdom–have all triggered alarm signals in both western and Middle East capitals. One consequence is that the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, is actively seeking to generate alternative sources to Saudi oil–in Iraq, for instance.

Finally Israel has, on balance, gained from the events of the last two years. The American commitment to the war on terrorism has provided Israel with a vital ally in its own fight, particularly against Islamic radical organizations like Hamas. Washington’s determination to eliminate rogue state sources of weapons of mass destruction, most of which are in the Middle East, is also a net gain for Israel, which is concerned with nuclear weapons programs in countries like Iran that openly boast of targeting Tel Aviv. And the defeat of Saddam’s army has effectively eliminated any near term threat of a classical military offensive against Israel launched by an Arab coalition.

There is also a downside. If, and as, the US falters in Afghanistan and Iraq, its regional deterrent profile will weaken, with negative ramifications for its Israeli ally. And America, which found relatively little by way of terrorist infrastructure in Iraq, is now drawing terrorists into that country from across its borders, and its presence is inspiring terrorism elsewhere in the region.

One conclusion is that the saga of 9/11 is in many ways just beginning. Hopefully, intelligent lessons will be drawn from these early mistakes made in the campaign against Middle East rogue regimes and Islamic radical terrorism.