Rogue state or indispensable nation
GENERALS are often said to plan for the next war by preparing to fight the last one. Something similar could be said about the attempts by international relations practitioners and pundits of all kind to explain US policies in the aftermath of 9/11 and especially with respect to the war in Iraq. The more restrained among its critics accused Washington of transgressing against established verities of the international system such as national sovereignty, non-interference, multi-lateralism, the imperative of international mandates and so on, while others accused it of naked aggression, imperial ambitions or a good old ‘oil grab’.
On the other side, the Bush administration and its supporters have focused on Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and, more recently, when no such weapons were found, on the removal of Saddam’s brutal regime as a justification of the war. Neither side has made much of a systematic effort to find out to what extent these arguments did or continue to make sense against the reality of a dramatically changed world.
Today, several months after Baghdad fell and with passions somewhat cooled off, it is worth revisiting this debate again. Not in order to justify American policies ex post facto, but to try to understand what exactly has changed after 9/11 and, much more importantly, where we are heading in the future.
I start out with the premise that the events of 9/11 were a watershed event in modern history of the kind Hegel called ‘world-historical’. And as the author of a brilliant, if little noticed, essay on the subject has argued, it was an event that will remain world-historical ‘no matter what the outcome may be.’1 It was, of course, a watershed event not because of the thousands that perished that day, but because it fundamentally changed the paradigm which ruled the conduct of international relations prior to that.
That paradigm was based on the belief that actors in the international relations arena were for the most part rational and willing to observe the rules of the game. This had been the case even when states and alliances were openly antagonistic as during the Cold War. Despite ineluctable ideological hostility, propaganda battles and even wars by proxy, certain lines were never crossed and a kind of armed peace prevailed.
There have been, of course, cases where small national and sub-national actors refused to play by the rules or act rationally long before the terrorist acts in 2001, but the damage they could do was relatively limited. What the 9/11 attacks brought into frightening focus was the willingness and ability of small groups of dedicated killers to inflict cataclysmic casualties on innocent civilians and the even more frightening realization that technological developments have placed the construction and/or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction within their reach.
Several logical conclusions followed from this disturbing reality. None of the traditional methods of resolving international conflicts are of any use in dealing with this new threat. Diplomacy and negotiations are useless and so are international sanctions. Deterrence does not work against an invisible enemy, especially one willing to die to achieve his objective and retaliation after the fact, even if one were able to identify the wrong doers, is not particularly effective. The only strategy that promises any chance of success is preventing the terrorists from acquiring WMD and preempting their use.
This strategy is not completely novel and has been used occasionally in the past – for instance, in Israel’s 1981 strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor – but it is certain to become the prevalent method of dealing with immediate terrorist threats in the future. Yet carrying it out will and in fact already has invalidated some of the most fundamental assumptions of our liberal international order, as we know it. It will, first and foremost, do away with the notion of unlimited national sovereignty. Very simply, states that aid and abet, let alone sponsor terrorist groups or supply them with WMD cannot expect to have their national or territorial sovereignty respected and will be subject to unilateral military intervention by threatened nations. In particularly egregious cases, such regimes could and would be forcefully removed, as has already happened in Afghanistan.
The imperative of timely intelligence, speed and covert operations for the success of such missions also makes it highly likely that they will be carried out primarily by individual nations or small international coalitions. This is also conditioned by the fact that apart from the United States very few other nations have the military capabilities to conduct preemptive operations of this kind. Another likely consequence is that the role of international forums like the United Nations and even defence alliances like NATO, in the decision-making and operational aspect of counter-terrorist efforts will be rather limited, though it will remain important in the peace-keeping stage.
To critics of US policy, all of this is the result not of a prudent response to an existential threat, but the unwarranted belligerence of an imperial bully out of control. A key to their argument is their reading of the terrorist threat. In their view, the threat is either not nearly as serious as Washington makes it out to be or, to the extent that it exists at all, it is the result of America’s own misguided policies, especially with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. America, in other words, got what it deserved. Thus, a better grasp of the nature of the terrorist threat is essential for any cogent discussion of the wisdom or lack thereof of current counter-terrorist policies and prospects for the future.
While there is general agreement that there is a key Islamic dimension to the present terrorist phenomenon, opinions diverge widely on what motivates the terrorists. As noted above, a fairly prevalent view holds that America’s staunch support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians is the real catalyst for the anti-American outrage of Arabs and Muslims that is said to feed extremism. This is also the standard propaganda line of Arab governments and one that is rather uncritically bought by the Left, along with more than a few western governments and much of what’s called the developing world.
It is a theory that holds precious little water even under the most cursory of examinations. It is certainly true that most Arabs and many Muslims are aggrieved by the perceived injustices inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel, but it is quite a stretch to see this as the cause of terrorism. The first terrorist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, while some of the key ideologues of modern Muslim extremism, such as Muhammad Rida, the Brotherhood’s Hassan al Banna, and Abu ala Mawdudi plied their trade decades before the state of Israel existed. The original terrorist attempt to destroy the World Trade Center took place in 1993, exactly at a time when the Oslo Agreements seemed poised to solve the conflict once and for all. And lest we forget, of the estimated 160,000 victims of Islamic terrorism to date, more than 150,000 have been other Muslims.
Indeed, a more powerful argument can be made that it is Islamic extremism that has exacerbated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not the other way around. The most significant development in that conflict in the 1990s was the transformation of the motivating ideology of the Palestinian struggle from PLO’s secular nationalist and socialist worldview to the radical Islamic agendas of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Which in turn made this essentially local conflict over real estate part and parcel of the larger Islamic extremism phenomenon and much less likely to be solved independently.
Nor is the terrorist threat the result of a ‘clash of civilizations’, the elegance of Professor Huntington’s theory notwithstanding. To the extent that there is a clash it is not only between the extremists and ‘Jews and Crusaders’, but also between the former and mainstream Islam, which is ultimately also threatened. This is not to argue that Islam cannot stand a major dose of reform, for instance, in separating religion and state.
But even so, this is the same religion that gave birth to a most brilliant civilization in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, one that was superior to anything the West had at the time. And later, under the Ottomans, it was the same religion that proved more tolerant than Christendom, provided sanctuary to non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution and made it possible for both Christian and Jewish communities not only to survive but also prosper. Clashing civilizations is most definitely not our problem, nor is Islam as such.
Instead, what we are facing is a perverted interpretation of Islam that in its substance is a kind of Islamic fascism much closer to a totalitarian ideology of the Nazi or Communist type than to mainstream Islam. It has metastasized out of control throughout the international Muslim community and has become the guiding ideology of all terrorist groups regardless of their origin or area of operation.
Like its fellow totalitarian ideologies, Islamic fascism rejects reason and glorifies violence as the only means towards its objectives. And like them it justifies violence by dehumanizing its designated enemies. What Jews, gypsies and Slavic untermenschen were for the Nazis and the ‘class enemy’ was for the communists, infidels and Muslim ‘apostates’ are for the Islamists – just another category of subhumans deserving to be exterminated.
This type of extremism is not new in Islamic history, and the first movement that resembles today’s phenomenon, the Kharijites, came into being shortly after the birth of Islam in the 7th century. Later, various Islamic scholars, such as Ibn Taymiiya in the 13th century, expounded on it but it did not become institutionalized until the mid-18th century when the founder of the House of Saud imposed the theories promulgated by the radical cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab as his realm’s religion.
Wahhabism, as this creed got to be known to its detractors, like most other extremist movements before it, believed that traditional Islamic virtues and beliefs had been corrupted and preached a return to the ostensibly pure Islam of the time of the Prophet and his companions. In reality, Wahhab’s extreme doctrines contradicted major tenets of traditional Islam and in a real sense represent an outright falsification of the Muslim faith.
To name just one egregious example, a key postulate of Wahhab’s teaching asserts that Muslims who do not believe in his doctrines are ipso facto non-believers and apostates against whom violence and jihad were not only permissible, but also obligatory. This postulate alone transgresses against two fundamental tenets of the Quran – that invoking jihad against fellow-Muslims is prohibited and that a Muslim’s profession of faith should be taken at face value until God judges his/her sincerity on Judgment Day.
This extreme reactionary creed was then used to justify military conquest and violence against Muslim neighbours of the House of Saud. Already in 1746, just two years after Wahhabism became Saud’s religion, the new Saudi-Wahhabi state proclaimed jihad against all neighbouring Muslim tribes that refused to subscribe to it. Indeed, well into the 1920s the history of the House of Saud is replete with violent campaigns to force other Muslims to submit politically and theologically, violating yet another fundamental Quranic principle that prohibits the use of compulsion in religion.
Today, the Wahhabi ideology continues to be characterized by a set of doctrinal beliefs and behaviour prescriptions that are inimical to the values and interests of the vast majority of Muslims in the world, to say nothing about those of non-Muslims. Non-Wahhabi Muslims (syncretic Muslims, Sufis, Barelvis, Bahai, Ahmadis, among others) are considered illegitimate, at best, while the Shia religion is still vilified as a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ against Islam. The Wahhabis continue to believe and preach violence and jihad as a pillar of Islamic virtue, rigid conformism enforced by religious police, institutionalized oppression of women and a wholesale rejection of modernity, secularism and democracy as antithetical to Islam.
It is indeed the deeply held belief that democracy, the rule of law and western secular norms are a mortal threat to this pseudo-Islam, that have made America, the symbol and leader of the West, enemy number one for the Islamists. And it is this fascistic, jihadist creed that has become the prototype ideology of all extremist and terrorist groups, even those that despise the House of Saud. And so we now have the spectacle of Al Qaeda Wahhabi terrorists turning on the corrupt Wahhabi gerontocracy in Saudi Arabia. As ye sow, so ye shall reap.
How did this obscurantist, pseudo-Islamic creed manage to become the dominant idiom not only among the extremists but increasingly the Islamic establishment?
Part of the reason has to do with a deep-seated resentment in the Muslim and especially Arab world caused by the abject failure of their societies to keep up with the rest of the world in virtually every aspect of socioeconomic and political development. Fifty years ago, the Arabs had a level of economic development similar to that of East Asia. Today its GDP per capita is four to five times lower and its combined GDP is lower than Spain’s despite its oil bonanza.
Saddled collectively with some of the most oppressive and corrupt political systems anywhere, the Arabs manufacture nothing that even developing markets would want. They have missed the industrial revolution, let alone the technological boom and the information age, and are completely marginalized in every area of scientific pursuit. A palpable sense of deep malaise on the part of people mired in hopelessness and oppression, yet told on a daily basis that theirs is the one true and superior faith, is easily exploited by demagogues to externalize evil.
Thus, it is but a small step from the real or imagined evils of colonialism, imperialism and globalization to Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslim ‘hypocrites’ as the personification of evil and the collective ‘enemies of Islam’ that must be destroyed if the glory of the faith and the power of the ummah are to be restored. It is, of course, a fantasy, but a deadly fantasy if given a chance to play itself out.
And it has been given this chance by money, lots of it. It is not possible to understand the exponential spread of this malignant creed unless one realizes that Saudi Arabia, by its own admission, has spent over $70 billion to export and cultivate it around the world in the past quarter of a century. Though officially couched as ‘development aid’, even a superficial perusal of Riyadh’s own information reveals that the vast majority of this money went into subsidizing ‘Islamic activities’. This is by far the largest sustained indoctrination campaign in history and even the massive Soviet propaganda effort of yesteryear pales into insignificance in comparison.
The results are there for everybody to see. Saudi money has built a huge edifice of Islamic extremism worldwide that has become the key logistic base and nurturing ground of terrorism. It has bought and coopted much of the Islamic establishment, taken over Islamic publishing houses and even venerable institutions like Cairo’s Al Azhar University, which is now spewing Wahhabi venom and issuing fatwas justifying the murder of innocent civilians.
Tens of thousands of Saudi-financed madrassas throughout South Asia, Indonesia and as far as Nigeria teach little but hate and churn out legions of barely literate zealots ready to become jihadi fodder at a moment’s notice. Under Saudi/Wahhabi auspices the Deobandi creed in India and Pakistan has been radicalized to the point of becoming a jihadist ideology par excellence, as has Tablighi Jamaat, now transformed from a peaceful and apolitical pietistic movement into a militant recruiting agency for jihad.
In the West, the Saudis have built 210 Islamic centres and over 1500 mosques, most of whom continue to be subsidized and become outposts of extremism and terrorism in the heart of infidel territory. Nor do the Wahhabis shy away from directly sponsoring terrorism. Indeed, from being instrumental in the founding of Al Qaeda in the 1980s to the various Pakistani jihadi organizations, there is hardly a terrorist group anywhere that has not been helped by Wahhabi ‘charities’. More damning still, evidence is emerging from the Joint Inquiry Report and elsewhere that Saudi agents may have been directly complicit in the 9/11 attack itself.
What should by now be obvious beyond doubt is that this is a massive and unique threat to the established international order and civilization itself. And it is far from being a threat only for the Great Satan, as many America-haters fervently hope. On the contrary, those most threatened by it, in the first place, are other Muslim nations. Pakistan, already a ticking time bomb, may be the first one to succumb with dire consequences for the region and the remnants of civil society in the country. Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia itself and a host of others are more vulnerable to violence a la Algeria than is generally assumed.
Next come countries with large Muslim minorities like India where radical Islam has made much headway, thanks in part to Hindu extremism, and where the possibility of large-scale sectarian violence and destabilization can no longer be dismissed. Even in places like Turkey, you now have, for the first time since Ataturk, secularism under sustained if stealthy assault by the Turkish government itself. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that if this malignancy is allowed to spread further unchecked we may be facing a Hobesian dog eat dog world someday – a notion that is frightening to even contemplate.
Which brings us back to the role of America. To win the war on terror we must logically do two things. Destroy the ability of the terrorists to terrorize and to the extent possible destroy the worldwide infrastructure that produces and nurtures them. To do that successfully would require a truly global coalition against terror and also leadership that is truly global. For better or worse, the United States is the only nation that currently has the political, economic and military clout to lead this struggle. And the vision to want to do it. It understands something that many of its critics do not seem to. The threat the Islamic fascists pose is not just the killing of civilians. It is a threat to our fundamental values. They do not hate what’s bad about our civilization but what’s good about it. As the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has put it succinctly: ‘What they hate is democracy. They hate tolerance. They hate the separation of church and state. They hate modernity.’
This is not to say that America does not make mistakes or misjudgments. It does and like every other nation will continue to do so. In the war on terror, a good case could be made, for instance, that Washington’s misguided coddling of both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two most important enablers of terrorism, is a serious and potentially disastrous error of judgment that needs to be addressed immediately. But, in the final analysis, terrorism as the curse of our age will not be defeated without the United States taking a leading role in the war against it and carrying it out to the end at a tremendous cost to itself. In this world-historical event it is truly the indispensable nation.
Perhaps an illustration is in order. Recently I came across a rather typical anti-American diatribe in an Indian publication in which the author expressed his fervent wish to have America defeated, disgraced and chased out of Iraq so that it will never again think of committing such imperialist aggression. Let us for a moment play a mind game and imagine that this gentleman’s wish has come true. A chastened US withdrew in disgrace from Iraq, the Middle East and, in fact, the world and barricaded itself in Fortress America. What happens next? Within a very short time either Saddam or a radical Shiite regime will be back in power in Baghdad and resume the quest for WMD. This will make Iran redouble its efforts in the same direction. Other rich but weak states like Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, now threatened like never before, will also do anything possible to acquire WMD for protection.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban will regain power very quickly with the help of Al Qaeda and Pakistani jihadist groups and again under the auspices of the ISI. The further spread of Taliban fascism into Central Asia is then a foregone conclusion. A re-energized Al Qaeda and the emboldened jihadis in Pakistan can start in earnest working on making WMD and/or proliferating Pakistani nuclear knowhow to groups driven by blind hatred and unaccountable to anybody, from Lashkar-e-Taiba to Hamas. This, in turn, will lead to the total breakdown of even the precarious deterrence existing today. Israel, now faced with a threat to its very existence, will have no choice but to preempt with nuclear weapons and the same dilemma will almost certainly be faced by India as terrorist groups acquire WMD.
Absent America, there is nobody that can prevent this grim scenario from happening, not the United Nations, not France and Germany, not India. And this is just for starters in one region. Is this the kind of world America haters wish to live in? As the proverb says, ‘Beware of what you wish, because you may get it.’
1. Lee Harris, ‘Our World-Historical Gamble’, in www.techcentralstation.com/.../defense wrapper.jsp?PID=1051-350&CID=1051-031103.