(Part of UPI's Special Package on Sept. 11)
MUNICH (UPI) -- There is a theory in the Arab world, frequently aired on the TV discussion shows of Qatar's Al-Jazeera news channel, that the real impact of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 was less the 3,000 dead than the devastation wreaked on the American and broader Western economy.
In this grisly arithmetic of terror, the $7 trillion knocked off the value of American stocks, the body blows to the airline industry, the rise in the oil price and the global slowdown, targeted with gruesome precision the true vulnerability of American power. Osama bin Laden was not just the mastermind of the most devastating single terrorist strike in history; he was also the ultimate financial criminal, the Wall Street ghoul of all time.
This theory has its flaws. It ignores the fact that the high-tech bubble in stocks had burst a year before the hijacked airliners flew into the twin towers. It skates over the reality that the airlines were heading into financial trouble and the oil price was already skittish and the European and Japanese economies slowing even as Mohammed Atta was taking his flying lessons.
Yet there is somber truth in this curious Arab hypothesis. The real target of the terrorist strikes was less American lives than American self-confidence; less the symbolic architecture of the Pentagon and World Trade Center than the sheer vigor of the liberal capitalist model that America had developed and exported to much of a world increasingly converted to the core American principles of free trade and free markets, of free speech and free ideas.
And Osama bin Laden's shock troops zeroed in on a haunting paradox of the modern world; that a strong and rich and self-confident America is good for a world that increasingly resents it. When America booms, Europe prospers and Japanese exporters start to lift their stagnant economy from its decade-long doldrums. When Americans splurge on imported goods, business flourishes in China and South Korea, in India and Latin America.
And with the growing trade, local entrepreneurs start to make money, and to save and invest it. In that very process, as they consider how best to ensure the education of their children and the security of their old age, they start demanding honest government, decent schools and sound currencies. They start acting, in short, just like the articulate and politically engaged middle class of the Western democracies. This phenomenon has already transformed the political life of Mexico and Taiwan, Chile and South Korea. It is America's greatest export and its most potent secret weapon, devastating in its impact on dictatorships and theocracies.
The paradox is that this sweeping effect of liberation and social transformation is not necessarily popular. Indeed, one of the first signs of a nascent public opinion in much of the world is a demonstration against some form or other of American policy, often discreetly encouraged by regimes hoping to deflect popular unrest against the familiar target of Uncle Sam. Turn the paradox upside down and it still holds true; a weakened, chastened America is bad for a world that nonetheless loves to see the American colossus restrained and cut down to size -- even if the price is a global recession.
This paradox may be seen in the jeering response to America's first black secretary of state at last week's global summit in Johannesburg. It was on display in last week's meeting at the Arab League of foreign ministers whose regimes often rely on American support, and can constantly be encountered in the opinion pages of liberal European newspapers that should know better. And all of them seem to assume that America will continue to sit back and take it, like the good global citizen that America has tried to be in the last 60 years of defeating Fascism, Nazism, Communism and helping spread more wealth and more freedom to more people in more places than ever in human history.
They are wrong. The real effect of Sept. 11 is that American patience and tolerance for its global critics, most of whom do rather well out of America's benign hegemony, seems just about exhausted. And however it was that Osama bin Laden expected what he has called "the American Empire" to react to his murderous assault, if indeed he thought that far ahead, he seems not to have calculated that America might react by tearing up the old rule book of international affairs.
Empire is a bizarre term for the United States, which is led by a temporary elected president who is subject to the rule of law and the budgetary authority of Congress. It is hard to equate this with the classic empires of the past. The United States, with the temporary exceptions of the occupation forces in Japan and Germany after World War II, has not ruled others and shows little intention of doing so. But equally, looking at the new organizing principle of American policy that the War on Terrorism appears to represent, and the new military bases mushrooming across Central Asia, it may be that Sept. 11 has triggered something dramatic, a serious determination to accept the new challenge and play the role and assume the burdens of empire.
So it seemed to some participants at a conference earlier this year at Ditchley, a stately country house in Britain's Oxfordshire countryside. Winston Churchill took refuge there on moonlit nights during World War II, lest German bombers target his official country residence at Chequers. It has since become celebrated to its initiates as the spiritual home of the Anglo-Saxon alliance that has endured since Churchill's day. It is a discreet and very up-market conference center, supported by Britain's Foreign Office, where powerful officials and politicians from London and Washington, plus a handful of selected academics and journalists, have for more than 60 years met to discuss the state of the world. They all don black ties for a splendid dinner in a stately hall on Saturday nights, before gathering around the piano in song. In such convivial ways is the British conception of the "Special Relationship" studiously tended, although in recent years the ranks have widened to include other NATO allies and even the occasional Russian.
But the Ditchley conference in question was less amicable than most. From reports that have leaked from the usually confidential sessions, senior Bush administration officials had a blunt message to deliver. The European allies (the British excepted) were not pulling their weight in the alliance. Their defense budgets were far too low and they deployed too little fighting power from what they did spend. (This is true; Germany, for example, currently spends 1.5 percent of GDP on defense, less than half of America's 3.4 percent. Britain scrapes a passing grade with a whisker under 3 percent).
Moreover, those European allies that were members of the European Union were playing a dangerous game by courting a new European Union Rapid Reaction Force, designed to be separate from NATO, although typically still relying on NATO (by which they meant American) assets to be at all effective.
The Americans suspected that the Europeans were downgrading NATO, and if so, they could hardly expect the Americans to award the alliance its traditional weight. The Americans made no final judgments. The Europeans, whose waspish comments about Texan cowboys and unilateralism and Israel had not passed unnoticed in Washington, had to show that these suspicions were misplaced. Conveniently, a litmus test was at hand: the determination of the Bush administration to take its War on Terrorism to Iraq. If the Europeans played the supportive role expected of allies, fine. If not, Washington would draw the proper conclusions about NATO's future.
This was a disagreeable way to speak to allies, even at a closed and informal gathering. And in Paris, it seemed to pile yet another layer of authoritarian intransigence upon the wall that was growing between the United States and its European allies. From a French, and often from a wider European viewpoint, the Americans seemed to be steadily abandoning their traditional loyalty to the Atlantic Alliance and to the West as a whole. From the Kyoto Protocol on global warming to the International Criminal Court, from the Biowarfare protocol to tariffs on steel, from the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty to the international agreement against land mines, the Bush administration seemed careless of any idea of the common good, when this might appear distinct from American interests.
But then the Europeans seem deaf to American arguments, whether over Iraq, or the reliability of Yasser Arafat as a peace partner or anything else. They brush aside Washington's cogent criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol as a cosmetic exercise that does not include the real pollution threats of the 21st century, the fast-growing and energy-hungry demographic giants of China and India. The Europeans were deaf to American appeals that an exception be made in the land mine treaty for the South Korean border, where fewer mines would require more troops to protect it. Only grudgingly did the Europeans accept that America as the only credible global policeman might have a unique difficulty with an International Criminal Court, after the Europeans had rejected a reasonable American compromise to submit cases to the UN Security Council.
"When the Europeans demand some sort of veto over American actions, or want us to subordinate our national interest to a UN mandate, they forget that we do not think their track record is too good," a senior U.S. diplomat said recently in private. "The Europeans told us they could win the Balkans wars all on their own. Wrong. They told us that the Russians would never accept National Missile Defense. Wrong. They said the Russians would never swallow NATO enlargement. Wrong. They told us 20 years ago that détente was the way to deal with what we foolishly called the Evil Empire. Wrong again. They complain about our Farm Bill when they are the world's biggest subsidizers of their agriculture. The Europeans are not just wrong; they are also hypocrites. They are wrong on Kyoto, wrong on Arafat, wrong on Iraq -- so why should we take seriously a single word they say?"
If the Europeans are in for a rude awakening as America takes its own decisions over the War on Terrorism and dealing with President Bush's "axis of evil," then the Arab world is in for an even deeper shock. The United States has spent 30 years trying to play by what we might call European rules, seeking to play the role of honest broker between Arabs and Israelis, while paying them both handsomely for the privilege. (Israel and Egypt are the first and second recipients of U.S. aid). America has watched while the Saudi "allies" use their petro-dollars to buy off internal dissent against their indefensibly sexist and undemocratic feudal regime by exporting their intolerant and puritan Wahabist creed throughout the Islamic world.
Whether Europeans and Arabs like it nor not, Iraq will be getting not just a change of regime, but a change of system. There is a post 9-11 mood in Washington to ask why, with the kind of American resolve and wisdom that turned the World War II enemies of Japan and West Germany into peaceful and prosperous democracies, an Iraq liberated from Saddam Hussein, or a Palestinian state liberated from the corrupt incompetence of the Arafat gang, or an Afghanistan liberated from the Taliban, might not enjoy a similar transformation. The Saudi monarchy might hate such an emergence of democratic and representative government in its wretchedly ill-ruled region, but Washington understandably cares less and less for the concerns of a dubious ally whose nationals formed the bulk of the Sept. 11 terrorists.
Note that this is not the case of an enraged and vengeful America telling the world "no more Mr. Nice Guy." It is America saying "Enough" to the European "internationalism" of compromise and appeasement, and holding true to its core principles -- that democracy is in itself a good thing for all states and all peoples. The most valuable export America can send out to the world is its values and its freedoms and its readiness to devote blood and treasure to the mission. That would be the real memorial to the victims of 9-11.
(This analysis is part of UPI's Special Package on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks).