The wars that followed 9/11 were supposed to prove US power to the world, but, says Alex Callinicos, they have done the opposite
The attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 seemed to come literally out of the blue—raining death out of a clear September sky. Politicians and the media proclaimed that the world was changed completely by these events. But how do they look now?
The attack on the US had been incubating for a decade. Al Qaida brought together radical Islamists from different quarters, notably the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the unsuccessful campaign against Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt.
Under Osama Bin Laden's leadership, Al Qaida came to focus on the US as the guarantor of the different Arab regimes it sought to overthrow.
The US intelligence consultants Stratfor argued soon after 9/11 that if the US reacted by attacking "multiple Islamic countries" this would serve Al Qaida's "two strategic goals":
"First, exhaust the United States strategically as well as operationally, globally as well as locally, by forcing it to commit itself beyond its military abilities. Second, demonstrate to the Islamic world that the United States is indiscriminately hostile to Islam. This, coupled with growing American military exhaustion, would open the door to what Al Qaida want most—dealing US power a military defeat in the Islamic world."
From the perspective of 2011, it seems as if Al Qaida achieved these goals. It, however, was not the beneficiary. It has been marginalised in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Bin Laden himself was assassinated by the US earlier this year.
But the US walked into the trap Al Qaida had set for it. This, too, had long-term causes. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US apparently globally dominant, the "lone superpower".
But the global process of capital accumulation was relentlessly shifting the distribution of economic power to the disadvantage of the US. In the late 1990s the neoconservative intellectual Paul Wolfowitz compared the end of the 20th century to that of the 19th century. Once again the emergence of new powers, thanks to economic growth, was destabilising the international system.
One of the main advantages that the US had after the Cold War was its apparently overwhelming military superiority.
During the 1990s, the administrations of George H W Bush and Bill Clinton increasingly resorted to military power to resolve crises—in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The 1991 war against Iraq was authorised by the United Nations. But, increasingly stymied by Russia and China on the UN Security Council, the US resorted to unilateral military action, usually loyally seconded by Britain.
By 1999, the thoroughly mainstream US policy intellectual Samuel Huntington could write, "While the United States regularly denounces various countries as 'rogue states', in the eyes of many countries it is becoming the rogue superpower."
After George W Bush became president in January 2001 these tendencies were radicalised.
His administration was packed with right wing nationalists such as vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and neoconservatives such as Wolfowitz, who was appointed Rumsfeld's deputy.
Many were supporters of the Project for the New American Century. This strategy was formed in 1997 by the Republican right to reassert US global primacy by expanding its military capabilities.
But 9/11 gave the right the opportunity they had been seeking. The "war on terrorism" Bush proclaimed after the attacks was much more than a knee-jerk military response to Al Qaida's challenge.
It became an ambitious gamble to perpetuate the global hegemony of US capitalism. Here the key was less Afghanistan—even though the US first attacked there—but Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.
By seizing Iraq the US would further entrench its dominance of the Middle East. This would give it tighter control over what the Marxist geographer and economist David Harvey called the "global oil spigot", regulating the access of potential rivals in Europe and Asia to the Middle East's energy reserves.
Added to this strategic objective was the more utopian goal favoured by the neoconservative wing of the administration, but also enthusiastically endorsed by Bush's loyal ally Tony Blair, of "reordering the world" by using Western military power to unleash "democratic revolutions" in the Arab world.
But the gamble failed. The US and British invasion forces rapidly seized Iraq in March 2003, but soon found themselves confronted with an intractable guerrilla insurgency.
All Rumsfeld's theories of "transformational warfare" waged by small hi-tech armies proved ineffective in the face of the ancient truth that overwhelming conventional military power cannot force obedience on a rebellious population.
To defeat the Iraqi resistance the occupiers played on the divisions between the Shia Muslim majority, long suppressed under Saddam Hussein, and the Sunni minority.
This simply unleashed a terrifying logic of civil war and ethnic cleansing that threatened to destroy Iraq and the occupation alike.
A change in US tactics in 2007-8 eventually brought a degree of stability to Iraq.
This was no military victory but a political compromise that incorporated the bulk of the Sunni insurgents but left power in the hands of Shia Islamist parties closely aligned to Iran.
This was a huge geopolitical setback for the US.
Barack Obama succeeded Bush in January 2009, promising withdrawal from Iraq, but escalation in Afghanistan.
There too the US and its Nato allies are bogged down in an unwinnable war against Al Qaida's former allies the Taliban, who are too deeply embedded in southern Afghan society to be rooted out by the occupiers.
So the "war on terrorism", which was supposed to entrench US global hegemony, has merely accelerated this decline.
It is only one of the forces driving this trend. The global economic and financial crisis is widely seen as the breakdown of Anglo-American free-market capitalism, which the Bush administration had proclaimed the "single sustainable model of national success".
More important, the recent stagnation of the US economy has contrasted sharply with the rapid recovery of China—now the world's second biggest economy. The crisis has speeded up a realignment of global geopolitical relationships to accommodate Chinese power.
A small story that illustrates this shift was last month's revelation that Pakistani authorities allowed Chinese engineers to inspect the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed during the Navy Seal raid to kill Bin Laden. Even as close an ally to the US as Pakistan feels able to play it off against China.
Meanwhile, democracy has come to the Middle East—not thanks to either the US or Al Qaida, but through revolutions that overthrew Western client regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Nato intervention in Libya is a desperate, almost certainly unsuccessful attempt by Washington to regain the initiative.
Obama's determination to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan reflects among other things a recognition that US global strategy must focus on countering China's rise.
This doesn't mean that the "war on terrorism" is over—the deployment of Predator drones and special forces will continue in unlucky countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. And domestic anti-terrorist legislation is too useful to be dismantled. But no one now imagines that the 21st century will belong to America.