In the years that followed the post 9/11 US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I wrote several essays about how, wittingly or wittingly, Osama bin Laden had successfully employed the well-known guerrilla tactic known as the â€œsucker ployâ€ on a grand scale. The sucker ploy is a tactic by which guerrillas commit an outrage or stage a provocation of some sort that draws a disproportionate response from the military that they are fighting, thereby shifting popular support from the latter to the former. A classic example is for guerrillas to shoot at passing military vehicles or aircraft with small arms fire from a village, then retreat into the surrounding countryside while the military responds by annihilating the village and its occupants.
When the US stayed in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted from government and al-Qaeda was eliminated from its territory (end of 2002), and then invaded and occupied Iraq under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda and was going to use weapons of mass destruction on the West or allow al-Qaeda to do so, it took the sucker’s bait. It embarked on a global â€œwar on terrorismâ€ that saw the US and others expend much blood and treasure in places like the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Libya, Mesopotamia down to Mali, Kenya and many more places in between and beyond, stretching to Europe and Australasia. The US expended trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on these â€œforeverâ€ or â€œendlessâ€ wars, feeding a relentless military-industrial complex while spinning off the militarisation of US policing and some sectors of civil society that is creating the conditions for civil war, hints of which have already been seen over the last couple of years.
Whatever goodwill existed towards the US in the immediate wake of 9/11, it gradually dissipated as a result of US foreign policy recklessness and arrogance over the next twenty years. Yet partisan logics of saving face by â€œstaying the courseâ€ or, if that is not enough, patriotically respecting the sunk costs invested rather than simply â€œcutting and runningâ€ locked the US into continuing the folly of pursuing forever wars in far-off places with little strategic value or which posed no existential risk to the country. Those wars have not resulted in any significant change favorable to the geopolitical position of US but have contributed to the polarisation of its internal politics.
Meanwhile US adversaries like the PRC and Russia built and rebuilt their military forces into peer competitors of the US and expanded their spheres of influence. Mostly as a result of US bungling, Russia is now the most important extra-regional power in the Levant and North Africa and is poised, however ironically, to become a major interlocutor between the Taliban and the global community. Chinese economic and diplomatic influence is world-wide in scope and its aggressive military presence is now a constant in East and Southeast Asia as well as along its land borders. Other actors such as North Korea, Iran and Turkey have been emboldened by perceived US weakness while traditional US allies fret about the stability of the international order without its central presence as a stabilizing force.
The Great Satan has seemingly turned into a Paper Tiger.
It gets worse. Across the world authoritarianism has replaced democracy as the dominant political form. Rather than embrace democracy as an antidote to the hatreds that produced 9/11, autocrats of all types have taken advantage of the post 9/11 moment to impose their rule. In another irony, this includes the US, which nurtured the conditions that led to the election of a bigoted sociopathic narcissist to the presidency and the unleashing of long pent-up hatreds within the body politic. â€œAmerica Firstâ€ in reality means â€œAmerica in Retreatâ€ into neo-isolationism and xenophobic defenses of borders, Anglo-Saxon Christians within those borders, economic nationalism and, when it comes to foreign relations, coddling of foreign dictators who shared the former president’s biases and/or his transactional view of how politics should be conducted. The Obama interregnum notwithstanding (and even he seriously compromised on the original idealism of his foreign policy perspective, which won him a Nobel Prize), the US continued to cast a blind eye on the misdeeds of â€œfriendlyâ€ dictatorships like the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis or Emiratis while barking about those in Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela (and even there, with relatively little bite).
US political/diplomatic leadership is on the wane at home and abroad. The truth is inescapable: since 9/11 the US has been in decline, for the most part due to its own ignorance and excesses.
Needless to say, there were other intervening factors and variables that contributed to the slow-moving, partial success of bin-Ladenâ€™s strategy. Sure, he was not around to see it come to fruition. Sure, there has not been a global awakening of Islamicism that threatens the socio-economic and political parameters of most established nation-states. Wahhabism and Salafism are not the dominant sects in the Muslim world. So bin-Ladenâ€™s strategy failed in that it did not produce the specific results that he desired. But 9/11 did set into action a chain of events that has left the international community very different that what was before, with the US diminished and divided and no longer the undisputed global â€œhegemon.â€ That must be acknowledged.
A key result of this decline is the collapse of the concept of liberal internationalism as a guiding foreign policy principle in the US. This principle, which long enjoyed bipartisan support in US foreign policy circles and which is premised on the notion that the combination of market economies and democratic governance is the best political-economic form (regime), was thought to be imposable by external actorsâ€”meaning the US and its democratic capitalist alliesâ€”on unstable or failed underdeveloped states where extremism was believed to breed and prosper. From that belief came the pursuit of nation-building and regime change as foreign policy objectives, even if the targets of such ambition had no history with democracy, maintained pre-modern economic, cultural and social structures in which notions of consent and compromise (two hallmarks of all democratic social interaction) were absent, and were ill-disposed to have an occupying force impose anything on them other than temporary physical security and material aid.
The futility of military and civilian “capacity-building” in such contexts is summed up by an essay written by a former US Army Green Beret about his time in Afghanistan titled “Throwing Rocks at a Fire.” The essay recounts the story of a fire in an Afghan commando barracks at an outpost outside the capital. The fire was started by a gas burner used to make morning tea, which was set on the floor of the barracks and surrounded by blankets pulled from beds for the commandos to sit on (the preferred to have their tea on the floor rather than on tables when inside due to the cold weather, much as they did in their home villages). One of them inadvertently knocked the gas burner over, which set fire to a blanket. Rather than smother the fire with dirt or water or toss the burner out a window or door, the commandos–the best of the best Afghan soldiers–threw more loose blankets on the fire, which then rapidly spread to the barracks beds and wooden floor and walls (which unlike village huts, were not made from earthen and clay materials). They then ran out of the building. When the SF trooper arrived, he found the commandos throwing rocks at the fire through the front door of the now fully engaged building. It burnt to the ground.
Rather than chalk it up to the actions of ignorant primitives, my reading is that for the Green Beret the moral of the story was the futility of attempting to impose modernity, to include modern concepts of rationality and logic, on deeply rooted pre-modern cultures and societies that were uninterested in the social aspects of so-called modern democratic living. Learning to fight better with modern weapons was one thing, but re-learning basic forms of social engagement was quite another. Their traditions worked fine for them and imposition of other forms of social organization only complicated things and turned out bad in the end. In hindsight, the Green Beret came to understand their view, but by then he was physically, psychologically, occupationally and temporally far away from that outpost.
As it turns out, for all the lip service paid to promoting democracy, the world is now governed by more authoritarians that democrats, and many of the places in which authoritarianism has flourished are those in which the US intervened the most heavily. As for the promotion of market economics, the major consequence has been greater global income inequality within a context of increased concentration of commodity production, demand and exchange. Contrary to what its adherents and proponents claim, market capitalism does not lead to a â€œrising tide raising all boatsâ€ phenomenon and trickle down (supply side) economics does not lead to a watering of the seeds of a budding middle class emerging out of poverty world-wide. Instead, it has baked in a socio-economic landscape of structural disparity and deprivation juxtaposed against and subordinate to a parallel world of opulence and waste.
In sum, there is very little that is politically or economically â€œliberalâ€ about the world today.
More can be added to this litany of unhappiness but for the moment the point is this: the era of liberal internationalism has come to an end as both a practical objective and a foreign policy theory. It remains to be seen what will emerge in its stead once the repercussions of the pandemic and US decline fully filter throughout the global community. But therein lies a basis for hope, because in a multipolar world in which no one actor can impose its vision of the â€œproperâ€ order of things and yet the need for international cooperation is more apparent than ever, perhaps the makings of more equitable and balanced global society can be made organically rather than by imposition even in the face of cultural and social difference.