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Fall 2002

After Sept. 11: Evaluating the 'War on Terror'


Peter Grosvenor, assistant professor of political science, examined the world after Sept. 11.

The end of the Cold War triggered an energetic debate about the structure of international relations and about the place of the United States within it. Over the course of the 90s a wave of democratization spread through the former Soviet Union and its collapsed Eastern European empire; the South African apartheid regime fell; the military junta disappeared from Latin American politics; and pro-democracy movements appeared in China and across Asia. An American-led international coalition reversed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Human rights began to trump state sovereignty, as demonstrated by the NATO intervention in Kosovo, by Australia's venture into East Timor, and by the emergence of an International Criminal Court. Some observers predicted a "liberal convergence" that offered the prospect of a sustained "democratic peace." In this analysis, the protection and promotion of democracy around the world was in the interests of both the United States and the world community as a whole.

And then Sept. 11 tilted the debate in favor of the "clash of civilizations" thesis, according to which the ideological conflicts of the Cold War have been replaced by intercultural conflicts that are fought over race, ethnicity, and religion. Yugoslavia dissolved into irredentist slaughter. Somalia's rival warlords placed the country beyond the possibility of outside help. A Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi squared off against a newly nuclear Pakistan. Inter-tribal violence continued to plague Central Africa. And the Palestinians' catastrophic second intifada effectively destroyed the Middle Eastern peace process.

But Sept. 11 does not mark the end of " liberal convergence," either as an actual process, or as a compass for American foreign policy. It is not, as is sometimes suggested, a Western conceit to claim that the good life is best achieved through popularly accountable government, the rule of law, andsocially-regulated free markets. The conceit lies in assuming that the West has some proprietary rights over these ideas. In reality, the developing world has no shortage of people willing to risk everything to achieve democracy and human rights in their countries. But the pathologies that threaten world order - inter-communal violence, abject poverty, illiteracy, and Malthusian population pressures - are endemic to those parts of the world where secular rationalism has not yet established itself. And so it remains the enlightened self-interest of the existing wealthy democracies to promote and cultivate democracy and economic development at every practical opportunity.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the anti-terrorist offensive necessarily came to dominate American foreign policy. Only a committed pacifist could deny that the United States was right to prosecute a war against an enemy that had killed more Americans in a single day than at any time since the Battle of Antietam in Sept. 1862. But over 80 nationalities were represented among the dead in the World Trade Center. The war on terrorism is not America's fight alone.

Ordinary Americans have proven themselves well deserving of the outpouring of international sympathy post-Sept. 11. To their eternal credit, they have refused to live under the "something wicked this way comes" paranoia hoped for by al-Qaeda., and the terrorist attacks did not even have the anticipated lasting impact on the American economy. Corporate fraud may well have done more damage to the stock market than Osama bin Laden.

The Bush administration conducted the war against the Taliban with efficiency and resolution, and also with serious efforts to minimize the nonetheless inevitable civilian casualties. The war's intended deterrent effect has been seen in the public denunciations of terrorism by states like Libya, Syria, and Somalia. And the deployment of anti-terrorist advisers in the Philippines and the former Soviet republic of Georgia is a logical extension of the administration's policies. Terrorism has lost what the novelist Tom Wolfe called "radical chic," as is shown by the IRA's recent apology for thirty years of civilian casualties, and the drying up of the organization's funding.

There have, of course, been the predictable objections that the United States has itself promoted terrorism in the past (e.g. against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua), and that it is has enlisted oppressive regimes (including reactionary Islamic ones) in its pursuit of the Sept. 11 terrorists. But international politics is an arena in which moral consistency is precluded by power-political realities that cannot be simply wished away. Winston Churchill once confessed that "If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."

Ultimately, wars are to be judged by their results. Following the recent loya jirga, terrorist cells have been dispersed and Afghanistan has its best prospects in decades for internal peace and stability. But the Afghan war was only the beginning of a campaign against terrorism that will depend less on direct military engagement than on multilateral cooperation. This will require the long-term maintenance of the new anti-terrorist coalition. But that coalition is already under some strain.

Key allies, such as Canada and Spain, are reluctant to extradite terrorist suspects to the United States because of the persistence of the death penalty, the prospect of military tribunals, the federal violation of suspects' civil liberties, and the highly questionable legal status of Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo.

The coalition is also jeopardized by the Bush administration's instinctive unilateralism. It has rejected the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court, with the minimum of rationalization. It has set conditions for future negotiations over Palestine, and threatened war against Iraq, without consulting other key players. And, in contradiction to its stated free trade ideology, the United States has protected its steel and lumber industries, and lavishly subsidized its domestic agriculture.

As Harvard's Professor Joseph Nye has recently pointed out, the "war on terror" illustrates a paradox: in a world of complex interdependence, America may undermine its own interests when it pursues those interests in ways that alienate actual and potential allies. When America flaunts its ability to compel, it risks diminishing its ability to persuade. The existing and emerging democratic world will welcome the leadership of the United States. But it will reject and resist American domination, and the ensuing divisions could seriously weaken the democratic world in relation to its enemies.

Peter Grosvenor is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department at Pacific Lutheran University

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