Ten Years Later

H istory is Borges’s “garden of forking paths.” A future derived from an event, particularly an event of large magnitude and low probability, obscures and eliminates all the other futures that would be possible had the event not taken place. 9/11 was one of such earth-shattering events after which nothing would ever be like it was before. It has led to an unprecedented outpouring of grief, mourning, anguish, and anger, two wars, and ten years of strife and controversy both in the world at large and in the United States.

There are at least two competing narratives in America and globally for what transpired. In the first narrative, 9/11 represented a lasting blow to the confidence and prestige of the remaining superpower, the end of the unipolar moment. A wounded giant, mismanaged in the eyes of many by an ignorant and ideological president, embarked on an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and a disastrous expedition to Iraq, lost a number of old friends and gained a number of new enemies, and amassed enormous debts which are going to haunt it for decades to come. Far from scoring a victory over the radical Islamists, it unwittingly contributed to their gradual emergence as the only force capable of replacing the corrupt pro-American regimes in the Middle East. Today the United States is hopelessly entangled in Iraq in a strange relationship with the neighboring and ever more powerful Iran, is fighting a rear-guard action in Afghanistan, increasingly runs the risk of losing Pakistan, has largely lost the ear of once the most loyal of allies in Turkey, and is distrusted everywhere in the Arab world because of what is seen as its single-minded support of Israel.

The alternative narrative gives the United States credit for facing up to the challenge it could not avoid and for staying the course over the years in spite of mounting casualties, costs, and criticism. It recognizes the deep bipolarity of the conflict and the dangers of trying to ignore it or dismiss it as a tragic singularity or reduce it to an issue of criminal justice. While acknowledging setbacks, failures, and mistakes along the way, it sees the United States and the civilization of which it is a part as more secure today than they were on the eve of the fatal day in September 2001 and better prepared for a similar attack in the future.

The answer to the question of which of the two narratives is closer to the truth depends on the consideration, admittedly and unavoidably speculative, of the forks in the garden of history, the paths not taken. Would the world be different if 9/11 never happened? Most certainly, but would it be all that much different? An un-invaded Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban would certainly continue to shelter exporters of the global jihad. It would continue to look for and find allies in the radical Islamist groups in the wider neighborhood, starting with Pakistan, possibly creating a much broader base for Islamic militancy. Saddam Hussein would remain a threat to his neighbors and to his own citizens, constantly pushing the envelope of UN sanctions and the no-fly zone. Iran would be still working on its nuclear program, which predates September 11th, and would still be engaged in making mischief in the region through its proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. Moderate Islamists would still have governed Turkey for the last ten years. And the Middle East peace process would still exist more in name than reality.

The true significance of the horror and shock of September 11th and the dramatic events that followed may lie not in how much but in how little they changed the course of history. September 11th was not so much a driver of historical change as a symptom of the deep and increasing imbalances between the conservative and authoritarian character of large parts of the Middle East and the modernizing and democratizing rest of the world, brought into a sharp relief by globalization. These imbalances would still exist even if such an evil and bloodthirsty man like Osama bin Laden had never been born.

Paradoxically, the only thing that probably would not take place without September 11th, or would take place in a different way or at a later stage, was the Arab Spring. Bin Laden had dragged a large part of the Middle East into a confrontation it did not seek, was not ready for, and in which it could not succeed. The perpetuation of tyranny and religious bigotry in much of the region had only been possible because for decades it had existed in relative isolation from the rest of the world. The Taliban in Afghanistan had been left largely undisturbed, despite its medieval excesses. Saddam and other Middle Eastern rulers were largely free to torture, execute, and impoverish their subjects. The atrocity of September 11th and the West’s (not simply America’s) reaction to it changed all that. War is, after all, among other things, a means of communication, with each side learning about the other in the process. Despite some well-documented flaws in the American strategy and many more flaws in its tactics, stemming in large part from the lack of knowledge about the complex politics, history, and culture of the theater of operations, the tide eventually turned against al-Qaeda.

Unlike well-organized and territory-based guerilla groups, which proverbially win the war so long as they do not lose it (this may yet be the case of the Taliban), terrorist groups lose the war if they cannot intimidate their enemies and set in motion a popular movement based on visible success that will sustain their political objectives. If the enemy is not intimidated, the terrorists’ indiscriminate violence and outrages will eventually alienate as many or more of their would-be supporters as would-be enemies. Suicidal terror is also singularly unsuitable for waging long campaigns. It is intrinsically subject to the principle of negative selection, sacrificing its most ardent, determined, and daring adherents while preserving its schemers, its manipulators, and its cowards. Seen from this perspective, the killing of bin Laden might be an appropriate symbolic ending to the story of September 11th, but politically he has been dead for some time.

Just as it did for us, the rise and fall of militant Islam gave many Muslims cause for serious reflection and made them pass through agonizing stages of denial, anger, shame, and acceptance. At the end of the day, they understand much more about themselves and the rest of the world, just as we understand more about them. As a result, the choice in the rapidly changing Arab world today does not seem to include the jihadist option, but may rather be between secular liberal democracy similar to, though not necessarily identical with, that which exists in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world, and mainstream Islamism that deliberately tries to come to terms with modernity and the world at large. It is clear which of the two is more to our taste, but we can probably live with both as long as they remain open to dialogue and change. The process may still take some time to play out, but it is reasonably safe to assume that jihadism will not be the ultimate victor. If that is the lesson of September 11th, the terrible sacrifice in blood and treasure may not have been entirely wasted.


Michael Zantovsky is the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James's.

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