It’s Not Always About You

5 July 2004

It’s Not Always About You

By Gwynne Dyer

You can never say this without hurting the feelings of at least some Americans, but it needs to be said. At the stone-laying ceremony of July 4th on the site where the World Trade Center towers formerly stood, New York state governor George Pataki dedicated the building that is to replace them with the rhetoric that is standard in the United States on such occasions: “Let this great Freedom Tower show the world that what our enemies sought to destroy — our democracy, our freedom, our way of life — stands taller than ever.” But 9/11 wasn’t really about any of that.

Imagine the scene: it’s 1999, and a group of wild-eyed and bushy-bearded Islamist fanatics are pacing a cave somewhere in Afghanistan planning 9/11. “We must destroy American democracy,” says one. “An America run by a dictator would be a much better place.”

“Yes,” says the second, “and we must also curtail their freedom. Americans have too many television channels, too many breakfast cereals, and far too many kinds of make-up to choose from.” Then the third chimes in: “While we’re at it, let’s destroy their whole way of life. I’ve always hated American football, Oprah Winfrey sucks, and I can’t stand Coca-Cola.”

No? This scene doesn’t ring true? Then why does almost all public discussion in the United States about the goals of the Islamist terrorists assume that they are driven by hatred for the domestic political and social arrangements of Americans? Because most Americans cannot imagine foreigners NOT being interested in the way they do things, let alone using the United States as a tool to pursue other goals entirely.

Public debate in the United States generally assumes that America is the only true home of democracy and freedom, and that other people and countries are ‘pro-American’ or ‘anti-American’ because they support or reject those ideals. Practically nobody on the rest of the planet would recognise this picture, but it is the only one most Americans are shown — and it has major foreign policy implications.

This is what enables President George W. Bush to explain away why the United States was attacked with the simple phrase “They hate our freedoms,” and to avoid any discussion that delves into the impact of American foreign policy in the Middle East on Arab and Muslim attitudes towards the United States. It also blinds most Americans to the nature of the strategic game that their country has been tricked into playing a role in.

So once more, with feeling: the 9/11 attacks were not aimed at American values, which are of no interest to the Islamists one way or another. They were an operation that was broadly intended to raise the profile of the Islamists in the Muslim world, but they had the further quite specific goal of luring the United States into invading Muslim countries.

The true goal of the Islamists is to come to power in Muslim countries, and their problem until recently was that they could not win over enough local people to make their revolutions happen. Getting the United States to march into the Muslim world in pursuit of the terrorists was a potentially promising stratagem, since an invasion should produce endless images of American soldiers killing and humiliating Muslims. That might finally push enough people into the arms of the Islamists to get their long-stalled revolutions off the ground.

Specifically, the al-Qaeda planners expected the US to invade Afghanistan and get bogged down in the same long counter-guerrilla war that the Russians had experienced there, providing along the way years of horrifying images of American firepower killing innocent Muslims. Osama bin Laden and his colleagues were simply trying to relive their past success against the Russians and get some more mileage out of the Afghan scenario. In fact, their plan failed: the United States conquered Afghanistan quickly and at a very low cost in lives, and even now, despite huge American neglect, Afghanistan has not produced a major anti-American resistance movement.

The reason al-Qaeda is still in business in a big way is that the Bush admnistration then invaded Iraq. The Islamists were astonished, no doubt, but they knew how to exploit an opportunity when one was handed to them. And so the real game continues, while the public debate in the United States is conducted in terms that have only the most tangential contact with strategic reality.

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask Governor Pataki to get into any of that at an emotional ceremony that was in part a commemoration of the lives that were lost on 9/11, but when will it be addressed, and by whom? What major American public figure will stand up and say that the United States and its values are not really under attack; that the country and its troops are actually just being used as pawns in somebody else’s strategy? Many senior American politicians and military officers understand what is going on, but it’s more than their career is worth to say so out loud.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3. (“Yes…Cola”)