Message to the West: ‘know thyself’

Since 9/11, terrorists have lived like parasites off the already-existing disorientation of Western elites.

In his opening remarks to the latest US National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released in June, President Barack Obama notes that ‘to defeat al-Qaeda, we must define with precision and clarity who we are fighting’.

Ten years on from 9/11, then, it would appear that one of the key protagonists in what used to be known as the ‘war on terror’ (subsequently rebranded as the ‘long war against terrorism’ and now simply redefined as a ‘war on al-Qaeda’) is still busy attempting to identify and understand its enemy.

This speaks volumes about where the fundamental difficulties of the past decade, as well as the next one, may lie. For all the much-vaunted differences with his predecessor, President Obama comes across as just as confused as George W Bush. At a time when 9/11 was probably still just a twinkle in Osama bin Laden’s eye, Bush Jr addressed an audience at Iowa Western Community College, as part of his election campaigning. He expounded that: ‘When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was Us vs Them, and it was clear who Them was. Today, we are not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there.’

Perhaps both presidents Bush and Obama should have visited the fabled Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Ancient Greek warriors consulted the oracle in advance of engaging in a protracted conflict. In the temple forecourt the presidents could read the infamous inscription: ‘Know thyself.’

For 10 years, the world’s sole superpower has allowed one of its key strategies to be defined for it, and has also allowed itself to be buffeted around as its understanding of who the enemy is continually changed. As its locus of interest has shifted relentlessly – from terrorists and terrorism to states that may harbour terrorists to technologies that might facilitate terror – so America has consistently and unwittingly advertised to the world that wherever the ‘they’ lead, the US follows.

This is the very opposite of strategic vision. Such vision would require knowing what you are for, what your aims and ambitions are, even in the absence of having to respond to the presumed threats posed by external forces. Knowing your enemy is, of course, a necessity, but the primary task for any nation is to be clear about its own interests in the first place.

And so it is precisely a better understanding of Western culture – its conflicts and contradictions – that might have helped the US authorities appreciate the extent to which the trajectory they were about to embark on was born of their own internal confusions and incoherence.

Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and those who have sought to emulate them have also spoken of an inchoate rage against modernity that rapidly eclipsed the various Western anti-globalisation movements of the time. For all their purported claims to be representatives of others in the South and the East, the most striking thing about bin Laden et al was the extent to which their ideas were largely Western in origin. While being mindful to dress themselves and their language in Islamic garb, their complaints were predictable and had been well-rehearsed by others in the West. As I have put it before, ‘Islam was their motif, not their motive’.

Sadly, by imbuing these people’s puerile and purposeless violence with deeper meaning – to the point of even describing it as an ideology or an understandable reaction – countless international analysts both effectively absolved those involved of responsibility for their actions and helped encourage others to follow their lead.

But what these analysts often missed is that while the ‘war on terror’ may be 10 years old, for its real origins we need to go back at least another 15 years. In the mid-1980s the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, appeared dramatically to alter the rules of the Cold War through promoting the twin policies of glasnost and perestroika. He had little choice if he was to delay and soften the blow of his country’s impending implosion. The consequences were to prove just as dramatic for the West as for the East.

It was in this period – before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and while the CIA was still busy training the Mujahideen to assist them in rebutting the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan – that the need for Western elites to reorganise their own systems and ideologies first emerged. By the time Francis Fukuyama was celebrating ‘The End of History’ it was already becoming clear that the only force that had held conservative elites across the world together during the Cold War period was the supposed twin threat posed by Soviet Marxism and internal state socialism.

Without these forces, the old political right rapidly suffered intellectual exhaustion and then disintegrated, leaving the future up for grabs. In the 1990s there was a constant search for new enemies against which states – in danger of losing their own meaning and purpose – could cohere themselves.

But none of the new litany of demons – from the Contras in Nicaragua or General Aideed in Somalia, from Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia to Saddam Hussein in Iraq – could really live up to the caché of the military and material urgency that had been imposed by the Red Army. Ethical foreign policy came and went – invented by Tony Blair’s New Labour government and adopted later by the Bush administration.

It was in this period that the old remnants of the left, fearful of being consigned to the dustbin of history, embraced both the environmental movement and the politics of risk and precaution as a way of gaining legitimacy. Originally formulated in relation to addressing ecological problems, this rapidly spread to issues pertaining to public health, consumer safety and beyond. It provided a cohering framework in an age without one. And a key element of the precautionary outlook then being developed was the need for public officials to project worst-case scenarios for society to respond to.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s 1987 bestseller Risk Society was translated into English in 1992 and rapidly gained traction through its ability to reflect the emerging mood and policies.

An outlook shaped on the fringes of local authorities and supra-national bodies of marginal relevance soon became the new organising principle of the West. And what had, until then, been largely dismissed as an exercise in left-wing political correctness by the old right, was catapulted and transmogrified through the tragic events of 9/11.

Unwittingly, then, the new terrorists were both a product of these confusions, as well as inadvertently providing the authorities with a flimsy new purpose. Criticism of the West had long been around, but never before had it taken such a degraded form as in this post-political age.

In any other previous period of history, the actions of the Islamic radicals ought at best to have featured as minor disturbances in the footnotes of history. Only in an age schooled in presuming the worst in all eventualities could such mindless violence come to be seen as full of meaning and requiring an all-consuming response.

Ultimately, extremists are merely the extreme expression of mainstream ideas. Their ideas have to come from somewhere. And looking around at the dominant thinking of the post-Cold War world order, it is not too difficult to identify where some of the sources are.

Increasingly, we have become accustomed to presuming that we live in a peculiarly dangerous and uncertain age. Globalisation, which provides most of the benefits we often unconsciously enjoy, has come to be portrayed as the amoral steamroller and destroyer of humanity and history. Human beings are increasingly depicted as being both violent and degraded, as suffering from arrogance and ignorance, or as hapless and vulnerable victims needing constant therapeutic support by a range of experts. Little wonder that such a small coterie of fools, the terrorists who espoused these ideas in an extreme form, could have such strong purchase.

But by overemphasising the extremes, as we are now prone to do, we simultaneously underestimate the significance of the mainstream. Black swans happen but white swans remain far more frequent, and drift can be just as disabling as shock, if not more so.

The Enron crisis occurred at about the same time as 9/11 – and it also cost significantly more. This was soon followed by the collapse of Worldcom, and, years later, the 2008 world economic crash happened. Yet unlike other problems that have emerged over this period, there was never quite the same sense of urgency in addressing these issues. Maybe that’s because, at some deeper level, many world leaders know that they cannot be tackled without significantly more far-reaching measures that, despite the culture of precaution, they have studiously sought to avoid.

Despite the billions of dollars expended on the ‘war on terror’ thus far, the US and others are still far from understanding, not just what it is they think they are up against, but also themselves. Without such an understanding there can be little hope for positive progress and development. In the past, some believed they suffered from a US that was too confident and assertive in the world. Today, we see the legacy of a US that is both confused and ambivalent. And we don’t seem to be any better off.

First published on spiked, 8 September 2011