9/11 and the American Empire
Ten years have passed since those airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. A journalist just asked me what I thought about this past decade from an Afghan American perspective: how had it changed the Afghan American community? And what about the American intervention in Afghanistan–did it help, did it hurt, is it succeeding? What are the prospects for peace in that region?
Certainly, these are all legitimate and interesting questions. They’re questions I care about.
But today, to be honest, I am thinking more about the impact of 9/11 on America than on Afghanistan. And I’m not just referring to the curtailing of civil liberties and the anxiety about terrorism that been so pervasive over the last ten years. I’m pondering the truly stunning world historical impact of the event.
I suspect that future historians will look back to this decade as the turning point for the American empire. That, they’ll say, is when the collapse began. I hope I’m wrong,but that’s what I suspect.
And it didn’t have to be. If it turns out that way, it will be because of vast and avoidable errors. It will because of the way the George Bush and his administration responded to the crime of the young century. It was never necessary for America to give Osama bin Laden what he wanted–a war. That was a policy decision–a choice. It was never necessary for the president of the United States to treat Osama bin Laden as if he had the global stature and power of a Stalin or Hitler. That was a choice. Bin Laden didn’t have an army, he didn’t have a mass following, he didn’t have territory or resources or even an authentic political program. His only power was the power of propaganda and in order to use that effectively, he needed someone to magnify his bullhorn. George W. Bush obliged.
Context is all. What was happening in America as a whole when the terrorists attacked New York and D.C.? Consider the bigger picture. In the nineties, this country pretty much lost its manufacturing base to the Third World, thanks to globalization; but it looked like it wouldn’t matter because we were inventing new technologies that would spawn a whole new “information economy.” Throughout the Clinton years, the stock market boomed and everybody had jobs because venture capitalist were investing madly in technological start-ups that seemed to have vast potential.
Except for one little problem. No one had a clue how these start-ups were going to make money. There was no business model for the information economy. Quite the opposite. People would still pay for the underlying hardware, but not for the information it carried because that could now be gotten for free, thanks to all the technological innovation. And whatever information wasn’t free was radically devalued because the new technologies made so much more information available that the law of supply-and-demand kicked in, making any particular piece of information nearly worthless. In 1995, there were a few thousand magazines being published in America, at most, and that’s where you went to for a certain sort of information. In 2005, where you went to for that sort of informatino was a blog–and in that year there were an estimated 64 million blogs. There are many more of them now.
And yet it took just as much time as ever for people to produce good information–to gain expertise in a subject, to research the particulars of a question, to draw smart conclusions, to shape data into a form usable by others. An economy in which the products cost time, effort and resources to make but cost nothing to buy–isn’t an economy.
By the time Bush took office, capital was in flight from Smell.com and its ilk. Unfortunately there was no new industry to fly to. So capitalists parked their money in real estate while they waited for something to break. And because money was coming into real estate the price of it began to climb.
But money stops being money when it’s parked, because money isn’t a thing with value per se: it’s only a measure of value, and real value consists only of economic activity and interactivity. Period. When the value of real estate climbs, nothing of actual value is increasing. Nothing is being built, no goods or services are changing hands. The price of real estate might climb but the growing value is an illusion.
These trends were already emerging when Bush took office. A crisis was coming. Someone should have done something, and I’m not saying who, but Bush was president. His great policy initiative, however, his passion and achievement, was to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans by a trillion-plus dollars. The argument was: leaving more money in the pockets of the rich would lead them to create jobs and grow the economy. But that only works when there is an economy to grow. The Bush tax breaks arrived just when the rich had run out of anything of actual value to invest in, so the additional money they suddenly had ended up parked somewhere, mostly in real estate. What else were they goin to put it into? Smell.com? The failing auto industry? And when the price of high-end real estate climbed, the price of the next level went up, and the next, and the next. At the lowest end, real estate became the thing you could buy without money and sell for a profit. Everybody was feeding at the trough of illusion.Trouble was coming. Someone should have done something.
And it was right in the middle of all this that 23 terrorists hijacked three planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center. Just as the American economy was losing its legs, just after the Bush Administration had undercut the ability of the U.S. government to take on any expensive projects, or even dotheones it was already committed to, George Bush started two really expensive wars. There is one thing, however, that an empire with hidden weaknesses can’t afford to do and that is to start a war it can’t win. And “win”, in this context, doesn’t mean forcing the other side to say “uncle.” That’s trivial. “Win” means improving some problematic situation the empire confronts. A war is a win for an empire when the result is greater order, more stability. (I’m not saying “stability” is always a good thing; I’m just saying, an empire is winning when it’s creating and expanding the realm of stability.) By this definition, the United States lost the war in Iraq. The violence has wound down there, but Iraq is a shattered mess simmering with hostility, both interfactional and anti-American. As for Afghanistan, the United States will probably pull out of that place over the next two years but when it does, Afghanistan may well see another eruption of bloody disorder, with possibly permanent damage to U.S. interests in the region. That’s not a win.
But as soon as an empire looks ineffectual, it loses prestige and influence; its rivals gain heart; its allies lose faith; its currency begins to weaken (because currency is belief); its own internal contradictions turn into conflicts; and its social cohesion begins to erode. And in the end, social cohesion is the basis of imperial strength–not weapons, not economic might, but social cohesion.
As a crime, measured against other crimes, 9/11 was virtually unparalleled. As an act of war, measured against other wars, it was a blip. Imagine if, instead of committing a trillion dollars to launching a war, Bush had responded to 9/11 by committing a billion dollars to conducting the biggest man hunt in history. Imagine if Bin Laden and his cohorts had been arrested a month after 9/11 and put on trial. Imagine if diplomatic pressure had forced Pakistan to end its support for the Taliban; Afghans would have driven that regime out by themselves. Imagine if the United Nations had then convened a conference amongst all the warring factions of Afghanistan and helped them create an actual government of national unity. Imagine if the Muslim world had seen a Muslim country restored to health and sanity with American help, but with no strings attached, no pressure on Afghans to remake their culture in the American image.
Well, I know. It’s all woulda’-coulda’-shoulda’ at this point. The question is, where do we go from here?
And the answer is–
Oops I’ve run out of time.