by Conrad Black
The greatest significance of the dramatic and evil assault on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago was that it initiated a new form of quasi-military violence against the Western democratic powers that had emerged at the end of the Cold War as the most influential political, economic and cultural force in the world. The national security policy of the leader of the Western alliance, the United States, was enunciated in two speeches to the U.S. Congress by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. In his state of the union address in January of that year, he said that America “must always be wary of those who with ‘sounding brass and tinkling cymbal’ would preach the ‘ism’ of appeasement.” In his war message of Dec. 8, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and many other sites in the Pacific, Roosevelt said, “We will make very certain that this form of treachery never again endangers us.” The burden of these assertions was that the United States would not be an appeasement power and that it would thereafter retain sufficient deterrent strength that no country would attack it again as Japan had.
Between Roosevelt and George W. Bush, 10 presidents, five of each party, had essentially upheld that double formula successfully. The United States did not appease competing or adversarial states, though it attempted to compromise with them and no other country has dared to risk the retaliatory response of American military might. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were the fruit of the imagination of the most militant enemies of America and the West: people who were not only unafraid of dying but eager to die, and were part of an organization that could not be directly linked to any sovereign state. It was, after 60 years, the double evasion of the Roosevelt formula: forces so shadowy it was not clear how they could be appeased if anyone wished to do so and so fanatical that they could not be deterred from even the most heinous acts because of their ardent desire to die for their cause. Clearly, and in the most dramatic possible way, a new threat had emerged. The spectacle on television of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers is rivalled only by the film of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy as the most vividly and widely recalled incidents in the lifetime of anyone old enough to remember them.
It must be said that the American and allied response was impressive. For the first time in history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked the war clause and the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing authority, unanimously stated that an alliance member had been attacked in an act of war and every country in the alliance responded as if it were an act of war against themselves. Forces from a large number of NATO countries were dispatched to Afghanistan, the training and staging area for the 9/11 outrages. They quickly overthrew the Afghan government, destroyed the training facilities of the terrorist groups and drove them out of Afghanistan, and virtually every country in the world other than a few militantly Islamist or very underdeveloped states united in a vast system of information exchange and paramilitary co-operation.
Those who remember 9/11 well will remember the widespread speculation and the noisy threats of terrorist spokespeople to the effect that this was merely the introduction of an endless series of massive terrorist assaults upon the West. Of course there have been some such assaults, though very few recently, and some of them were very deadly, though none as horrible or spectacular as the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago. We must not be so depressed and scandalized by the shameful end of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, at the instigation of the current U.S. president, that we fail to recognize the very thorough and almost leak-proof protection that the anti-terrorist forces of the Western Alliance and its affiliates, such as Israel and Japan, have given the civil population of the West and its allies for the past 20 years.
The disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan has been an appalling fiasco but the West was certainly not militarily defeated. The American government decided, as the Soviet Union decided in the 1980s and the British Empire decided in the middle of the 19th century, that Afghanistan had few resources, was primitive, landlocked and terribly inhospitable, had practically no strategic value and was accordingly not worth the military effort to maintain control of the urban areas, as NATO was doing with only about 10,000 members of its armed forces until a month ago. There is room to dispute this judgment, and I don’t agree with it myself, but it was a public relations, not a military, defeat. The effect of this withdrawal will be to test whether the Islamist terrorist forces wish to use Afghanistan again as the launching place for their criminal violence or not. If they do, Afghanistan will be attacked again and probably with much greater violence than it was 20 years ago.
Terrorism isn’t really war: it isn’t an effort of one sovereign authority to try to overcome and defeat another. It is an attempt by people who possess no sovereign authority, no legitimacy whatsoever, to strike at innocent people with such violence that it produces sketchily outlined concessions from legitimate sovereign countries. It has only been successful when it has been the advance activity of ultimately successful revolutionary movements within certain countries. It is conceivable that it could undermine and heavily influence some countries that are highly susceptible to militant Islam, as it has over the last 20 years. But even those countries will not explicitly adopt terrorist techniques because the retaliation from the states they attacked would be so overwhelming, it would completely overpower the small number of fanatics who want to die for their cause.
The terrible events of 20 years ago and their sequels have not threatened our civilization as Nazism and Soviet communism did. Terrorism horrifies all decent people and kills a comparatively small number, but as an instrument of advancement of the cause in which it is inflicted, terrorism is a failure. The West’s error, and it was the mistake of George W. Bush, was to try to eradicate terrorism and war by promoting democracy. This would have required a nation-building effort on such a scale that there was not the time or the resources to complete it effectively in the barren soil of primitive and undemocratic societies. And it failed to account for the democratic selection of anti-democratic political movements: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Humiliating debacle though it was, the departure from Afghanistan does represent a withdrawal by the West from an overextended position, and an opportunity for the principal Muslim terrorist organizations to try more conventional and less sociopathic methods of advancing their cause. It is obvious that there will be no toleration, anywhere in the West, or by China and Russia, for terrorism or any of its espoused objectives. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington 20 years ago were permanently shocking, but as the dramatic beginning of a campaign to shatter Western civilization, they and their sequels have been almost as conspicuous a failure as were Nazi Germany’s recourse to aggressive war in 1939 and Imperialist Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor and across the Pacific in 1941.
First published in the National Post.
Mr. Black: we met it head on? First of all this "threat" did not emerge at the end of the cold war, nor is it it "new." Try about 1400 years that Islam has existed. "Appeasement," "Compromise?" How about aiding and abetting the enemy which of course must not be named. FBI Directors and other higher ups giving awards to Muslim Brotherhood connected individuals, otherwise known as suit wearing Jihadis. Terrorism is a tactic, in a war that was initiated on the rest of the world in the 7th century. Islam is Islam, not "militant' Islam. "As Soviet Communism did?" Look around my friend, you are seeing it right in front of your eyes every day. And Islam/Muslim Brotherhood using same Gramscian tactics-cultural war.To declare the attack on Western Civilization a failure at this point is pre-mature in my view. Rose colored glasses?