Train Wreck

26 February 2004

Train Wreck

By Gwynne Dyer

History has been derailed. It was chugging along quite satisfactorily until the end of 2000: the Cold War long over, no threat of a major war anywhere, democracy spreading even to the most unexpected places by non-violent means, and a growing commitment to multileralism in all the major powers. Now there is a great (and greatly exaggerated) fear of terrorism, American troops rule over 50 million deeply unhappy Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 55-year-old NATO alliance is starting to come apart under the strain, and even the United Nations is at risk.

If it were a train wreck, the investigators would not just be asking what happened; they would also be asking how likely it was to have happened. Was this just a fluke accident, or was it a system failure that was bound to happen sooner or later? Well, this is a different kind of train wreck, but the same question is still worth asking: was the world bound to end up in this mess, or have we been the victims of a huge historical accident?

The two main forces that have driven us off the familiar track and down this worrisome detour are the Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda and the neo-conservatives who populate the upper reaches of the Bush administration. Was it really inevitable that al-Qaeda would invent a novel way to carry out a massive terrorist attack that would cause thousands of casualties? And was it equally inevitable that American neo-conservatives would use that terrible event as a launching pad for their own project?

Al-Qaeda and the other radical Islamist organisations associated with it are very small, very weak, and very isolated even within their own society. In almost thirty years of trying, the Islamists have not succeeded in toppling even a single pro-Western government in the Arab world. Before 9/11, most observers of the Arab world would have said that the Islamists had already peaked in terms of popular support — without ever becoming truly popular — and were starting down a long, slow decline towards irrelevance.

Then Osama bin Laden’s people hit upon a new means of attack that could cause mass casualties: suicide teams of aircraft hijackers that included trained pilots. Nobody had ever considered that within the realm of probability before, so nobody was really watching out for it, and the attack was a spectacular success. But it was a one-off success, unlikely ever to be repeated, since now the security forces know what to look for — nor are there dozens of other novel ways for terrorists to wreak huge damage just waiting to be discovered.

All of al-Qaeda’s subsequent attacks have been perfectly conventional car-bombs, and the casualties they have caused over the past thirty months do not exceed one thousand people. Even with the short-term boost that their spectacular attack on 9/11 gave to the Islamist cause, they have still failed to overthrow a single Arab government. They just got lucky once. It was a fluke.

As for the neo-cons in the Bush administration, it was an electoral fluke of the first order that they were even in office at the right time to exploit the Islamist attack for their own purposes. Their project was the unilateral exercise of American power to create a US-friendly global environment — ‘pax americana’, they used to call it — and they had even chosen an attack on Iraq as the way to launch it (which is why an attack on Iraq was on the agenda in the very first Bush cabinet meeting in January, 2001). But they had not even mentioned this project during the 2000 election campaign, and in normal circumstances they would have had a hard time persuading the US public to back it.

It was the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that convinced a majority of Americans that the world was full of dangerous people who had to be dealt with, and gave the neo-cons the chance to hitch their ‘pax americana’ project to the ‘war on terror’ that Mr Bush proclaimed after 9/11.

The invasion of Afghanistan would probably have happened even if Al Gore had been president: popular pressure to punish the regime that had given the terrorists bases was enormous, and the attack on Afghanistan was seen both in the US and elsewhere as a legitimate and entirely legal response to the terrorist attack. But Iraq was a very different case.

From the start, Iraq was the vehicle the neo-cons preferred for the launch of their project: the point was to create a horrible example of what happens to countries that consistently defy the United States, in the hope that everybody else would be scared into line lest it happen to them too. Could the Bush administration ever have persuaded the US public to go along with such a project if not for the terrorist attacks on 9/11? Probably not. It was the marginal project of the Islamists that gave wings to the equally marginal project of the neo-cons.

In other words, we are in the midst of a genuine train wreck. None of this was bound to happen. In fact, it was quite unlikely to happen. Nevertheless, it has happened, and now we are living with the consequences of that. We may be living with them for some time.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. “All…fluke”; and “The invasion…case”)