The wrong future

Issue: 132

“The future begins today,” declaimed Richard Armitage, US Deputy Secretary of State, the day after the 11 September 2001 attacks on Washington and New York.1 This kind of hype seems very distant now. For all the genuine emotion present in the ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11 at Ground Zero, the reaction of much of the Western policy elite was a big yawn. These remarks by Francis Fukuyama, America’s official philosopher of history, are representative:

It is my view that in a longer historical perspective, al-Qaida will be seen as a mere blip or diversion. Bin Laden got lucky that day and pulled off a devastating, made-for-media attack. The United States then overreacted, invading Iraq and making anti-Americanism a self-fulfilling prophecy … Since 2001 the most important world-historical story has been the rise of China. This is a development whose impact will almost certainly be felt in 50 years’ time. Whether anyone will remember Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida at that remove is a different matter.2

There is a certain amount of bad faith in Fukuyama’s breezy dismissal of 9/11. Though he later broke with the neoconservatives who were a driving force behind the administration of George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Fukuyama was in 1997 a founder of the neocon “Project for the New American Century”, one of whose main planks was to settle accounts with Saddam Hussein. Shortly after 9/11 he signed a call for military action against Iraq.3

A major reason why China’s rise has been the big “world-historical story” of the past decade is that the US adventure in Iraq that Fukuyama initially supported failed abjectly. There is a debate going on within Barack Obama’s administration over whether to keep 3,000 to 4,000 or 14,000 to 18,000 US troops in Iraq after the deadline for the withdrawal on 31 December. Either would be a betrayal of Obama’s election promises, but even the higher figure would be a shadow of the 140,000-strong occupation force when he took office. Any remaining American military presence will have to be approved by a Shia-dominated Iraqi government that, closely aligned to Iran and dependent on the support of the militantly anti-imperialist Moqtada al-Sadr, will bargain hard.4

This is not where the Bush administration’s strategists had planned to be ten years after 9/11. Seizing Iraq was intended to tighten the grip of the US on the Middle East and thereby discipline its rivals, all heavily dependent on the region’s energy reserves.5 Instead, America became bogged down in unwinnable guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while China’s expansion, reinforced by its rapid recovery from the slump in 2008-9, has made it the second biggest economy in the world, realigning geopolitical power-lines.

George Friedman of the strategic intelligence website Stratfor takes comfort in the thought that “for all its mistakes and errors—common to all wars—the United States has achieved its primary mission. There have been no more concerted terrorist attacks against the United States”.6 But, whatever nonsense Bush apologists may continue to talk about Saddam’s role in 9/11, invading Iraq wasn’t about defeating al-Qaida—it was about reinforcing US global hegemony. Part of the disaster of the occupation of Iraq was that it actually gave a base for the Bin Laden offshoot al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, which has been stepping up its attacks recently.

The liberal American journalist Jim Lobe argues that:

by invading Iraq, the US fell into a trap set by Bin Laden who, convinced that Moscow’s decade-long occupation of Afghanistan contributed critically to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse, clearly believed that the US was susceptible to the same kind of over-extension.

“We, alongside the mujahedeen, bled Russia for ten years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat,” he said in a 2004 video-tape describing what he called a “war of attrition”.

“We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” he added. “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaida’, in order to make generals race there and to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations,” he went on.7

So, by the time of his assassination by US Navy Seals, Bin Laden could claim victory: despite the blows the US has struck at al-Qaida, the Iraq adventure has accelerated American decline. But, even if the US has succeeded in badly damaging al-Qaida on a world scale, no one should hold their breath in expectation of an end to the “war on terrorism”, under whatever name it continues to trade. The grand edifice of global surveillance and coercion that was built up under Bush and has been inherited and strengthened by Obama—centred on a militarised CIA operating in tandem with US Special Forces and an armada of Predator drones—is likely to remain a key means of projecting American power. And, as is all too clear from the British case, repressive state apparatuses around the world are unlikely to surrender the splendid justification for expanding their powers that “counter-terrorism” provides.

All the same, the decline of US power in the Middle East continues. No one should imagine that the defeat of the Gaddafi regime in the Libyan civil war marks a reversal of the trend. Western military power, fronted by Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron but with the Pentagon doing much of the heavy lifting, helped tip the balance in favour of the revolutionary forces (though heavy fighting continues). But little of the lustre of the Arab revolutions is unlikely to rub off onto the US. The biggest reason for this is Washington’s continuing support for Israel. A remarkable recent poll found that 62 percent of Egyptians agree with the policies of Recep Tayyip Erdo_an, the Turkish prime minister, who has set a confrontation course with Israel, 31 percent those of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, and 3 percent those of Barack Obama.8

In the immediate aftermath of the initial revolutionary upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, Perry Anderson complained:

To date, the mass movements of this year have not produced a single anti-American or even anti-Israeli demonstration. The historic discrediting of Arab nationalism with the failure of Nasserism in Egypt is no doubt one reason for this. That subsequent resistance to American imperialism came to be identified with regimes—Syria, Iran, Libya—just as repressive as those which collude with it, offering no alternative political model to them, is another. Still, it remains striking that anti-imperialism is the dog that has not—or not yet—barked in the part of the world where imperial power is most visible. Can this last?9

The answer is—of course not. Both the strength of support for the Palestinians among the Egyptian masses and the close links between the regime of Hosni Mubarak and the US and Israel meant it was only a matter of time before the unfolding revolutionary process widened its focus to regional issues. The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo on the night of 9-10 September—leading to the flight of the ambassador and his staff and the intervention of Egyptian commandos after Obama, at the behest of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, rang Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—marked this moment. It underlined Israel’s growing isolation, followed as it was by a triumphal visit to Egypt by Erdo_an. The Israeli media mournfully acknowledged that the “diplomatic tsunami” against which defence minister Ehud Barak warned after Mubarak’s fall had begun to hit the Zionist state.10 Obama’s ostentatious rallying to Israel’s side against the Palestinians’ proposal to the United Nations of their recognition as a state is another sign of this isolation, and of the bankruptcy of the “peace process”.

The taking of the embassy also underlined that the Egyptian Revolution itself was returning like a lion after the Ramadam break. At the end of July it looked as if SCAF had seized the initiative, attacking a protest by the families of revolutionary martyrs and winning the backing of a mass Islamist rally. But the assault on the Israeli embassy was the culmination of a demonstration that filled Tahrir Square despite the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood to demand “the correction of the path of the revolution”. The protest took place against the background of a wave of mass strikes that may represent a step change in the development of the Egyptian workers’ movement. Ahram Online reported in mid-September:

Out of the relative dormancy that marked the month of Ramadan, a strident wave of strikes, spanning the past two weeks, has given new energy to Egypt’s burgeoning labour movement.

An increasing level of coordination between certain groups, notably among the teachers, post office workers and workers within the textile industry, and the congruous nature of their demands have raised questions among many spectators as well as active members within the movement on the prospects of a general strike.11

There will be all sorts of twists and turns in coming months, but—as not merely the events in Egypt, but also the astonishing persistence of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria bear witness—the Arab revolution goes on, and with it the crisis of imperial power in the Middle East.


1: Woodward, 2002, p47.

2: Fukuyama, 2011.

3: See Anderson, 2006, for a forensic dissection of the renunciation of neoconservatism in Fukuyama, 2006.

4: Schmitt and Myers, 2011.

5: Callinicos, 2003.

6: Friedman, 2011.

7: Lobe, 2011.

8: Gardner, 2011.

9: Anderson, 2011, p12.

10: Ravid, 2011.

11: Gaber and Hussein, 2011. Thanks to Phil Marfleet for this reference.


Anderson, Perry, 2006, “Inside Man”, The Nation (6 April).

Anderson, Perry, 2011, “On the Concatenation in the Arab World”, New Left Review, II/68.

Callinicos, Alex, 2003, The New Mandarins of American Power (Polity).

Friedman, George, 2011, “9/11 and the Successful War”, Stratfor Global Intelligence
(6 September),

Fukuyama, Francis, 2006, After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads (Profile).

Fukuyama, Francis, 2011, “The Legacy of That Terrible Time Will Be Less Significant Than We Then Feared”, Observer (11 September),

Gaber, Yassin, and Marwa Hussein, 2011, “Strikes on Back-to-School Days: Labour Movement Hits Harder”, Ahram Online (18 September),

Gardner, David, 2011, “Erdo_an’s Brand Benefits Arabs and the West”, Financial Times
(15 September),

Lobe, Jim, 2011, “Al Qaeda’s Project for Ending the American Century Largely Succeeded”, Inter Press Service (8 September),

Ravid, Barak, 2011, “Barak: Israel Must Advance Peace or Face a ‘Diplomatic Tsunami’,” Haaretz (13 March),

Schmitt, Eric, and Steven Lee Myers, 2011, “Plan Would Keep Small Force in Iraq Past Deadline”, New York Times (6 September),

Woodward, Bob, 2002, Bush at War (Simon & Schuster).