A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

The legacy of 9/11 has weakened liberal democracy, not strengthened it

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Law And Order on September 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm

James Bartholomeusz

Predictably, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City has provoked an orgy of reflection on the ‘war on terror’ decade. After ten years of war, we must ask ourselves, is the world a better place? Has the life of the average Western or Arabic person been improved enough to justify the actions taken? Neo-cons and liberal interventionists alike have adopted the Arab Spring as evidence that toppling dictators is beginning to catch on in the Middle East – failing to mention, obviously, that the two most high-profile autocrats were until last winter funded and supported by the West. Whilst the democratic revolutions of this year have been welcome, it is a tempting but treacherous line which is drawn between these uprisings and the supposed victories of the ‘war on terror’. In fact, liberal democracy is looking sicklier than perhaps at any time since the 1930s.

Across the Western world, the birthplace of liberalism, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our rights and liberties. To take two British examples, detention without trial and stop-and-search legislation have undermined the fundamental concept of innocence until guilt is proven. Blair’s draconian 90-day proposal for the former was, thankfully, halted by a rebellion in his own party, whilst the additional powers afforded to police by the latter have been used disproportionately on the young and non-white, often with no regard for the potential Islamist credentials of the suspect. What is perhaps most striking about these developments has been that they have achieved cross-party consensus. After Bush and Blair, part of Obama and Cameron’s appeal was the prospect of democratic reinvigoration: progress has been almost non-existent, with Guantanamo Bay still open and Britain’s authoritarian state apparatus remaining intact.

Furthermore, in an age of multiculturalism, Islamophobia is more widespread and more acceptable than ever: Islam has been singled out as having ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts, as if that made it unique amongst religions or ideologies. The renaissance enjoyed by the far-Right, though mostly to do with the effects of globalisation, cannot be divorced from the apparent tolerance of anti-Islamic views. The EDL in-particular is opposed specifically to Muslims, and yet it shares with the mainstream Western establishment the sense that there is something uniquely barbaric and murder-inducing about Islam. In a report last year by a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism operative attributed hate crimes against Muslims to “a negative view of Muslims . . . acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media”, and even went as far to suggest that “Anti-Muslim crimes have not been afforded the same priority attention [that] government and police have invested in racist hate crimes”.

And let us not ignore the ostensibly ‘stabilising’ effects of Western intervention abroad. In Afghanistan, the civilian death toll from 2006 to 2010 is estimated at over 8,000, whilst 70% of southern Afghans think that the intervention has had a negative effect on the country. Iraqi civilian deaths have not been recorded, but estimates place the total at almost 1.5 million. As campaign organisations have consistently pointed out, torture has become commonplace treatment for those detained by NATO forces in war-zones. Extraordinary renditions – the illegal movement of humans against their will from one country of custody to another – have become the norm, as prisoners are passed from the Middle East to North America and back again. Meanwhile, profits of arms companies have soared to levels as-yet unseen, so that Afghanistan is now one of the most militarised areas of the planet: to give just one statistic, in the period 2008-10 the UK exported £32.5 million worth of arms to the country. And yet even by its own standards of murder, torture and profiteering, the West is failing. Having broken Iraq and tossed it aside, we are now in the middle of a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a compromise with the Taliban, once derided, is now looking increasingly likely.

Another unwanted effect in the Middle East of the ‘war on terror’ has been the loss of Western credibility at a time when local people sorely need support: the Arab Spring. The democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya were hailed by Western leaders as a fulfilment of the aim of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since February this year, a collective amnesia seems to have descended on the Western establishment, conviniently omitting from memory the West’s long and ongoing support for authoritarian regimes. The Arab people, however, are not likely to forget the scene of Blair embracing Gaddafi, or Hilary Clinton referring to Mubarak as “a close personal friend”. Neither are they likely to forgive the lack of serious reprimand towards Israel, despite it holding the illustrious position as the nation to have violated the highest number of UN Resolutions (along with the tacit assumption that centuries of Jewish oppression entitles successive Israeli governments to ignore Palestinian human rights). Perhaps the most egregious example of this duplicity was in Iraq, where NATO funded and armed Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s whilst he was an asset against the USSR, and then bombed him in the 1990s and 2000s when his own expansionism began to threaten oil resources. There was no miraculous change in the Bathaist regime’s morality to merit this U-turn: the human rights of Iraqis did not enter the discussion at all until humanitarian aims became usefully (and accidentally) aligned with economic ones. It was pure hypocrisy.

By no means would all of us describe ourselves as ‘liberals’ – most Brits would probably opt for ‘conservative’ or ‘social democrat’ as a label – but we cannot escape the fact that the ground on which our political intuitions are built is that of liberal democracy. Few Westerners would refuse to pay at least lip service to the fundamental ideas of individual liberty, freedom from abuse and equality before the law. And yet, as a decade of war fought to protect our way of life draws to close, Western society looks less liberal and democratic than it did ten years ago. The legacy if 9/11 has given new credence to the old truth that, in war, opponents are often far more similar than either side would like to think.

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