Robin Yassin-Kassab

Decline and Fall

with one comment

Twenty years ago who would have thought that Salafi-Jihadism would win its battle against the United States? Because that’s what seems to have happened. Two decades after the September 11th attacks, even more extreme groups than al-Qaida have proliferated, and are stronger, more relevant, more deeply embedded locally, and have greater geographical reach. The capacity of the United States to project power, meanwhile, has been greatly reduced.

Of course, al-Qaida didn’t exactly win. The nihilism of its ideology means it will always be a symptom of dysfunction rather than an alternative governance model, and today it’s somewhat less likely to attempt mass casualty attacks on western targets. So it didn’t win, but the US – provoked by its terrorism into lashing out blindly – certainly lost. The two unplanned, incompetently prosecuted, and corrupt wars which followed 9/11 exposed the emperor’s nakedness. For the previous decade, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American power had appeared unassailable, but this was an illusion. Now hubris led to wars of choice rather than of necessity, and to a reliance on violence rather than intelligence. The point of the wars was not to prevent greater disasters but to erase the humiliation of 9/11, to demonstrate Western power primarily to the West itself. They signaled self-absorption rather than global engagement.  The silliness of ‘shock and awe’ soon boomeranged – nobody was awed, but everyone was shocked as American pretensions were turned to dust not by first-world armies but by small groups of third-world reactionaries.

The invasion of Afghanistan (as opposed to police work to track down al-Qaida) was foolish to say the least. Once America had committed to it, however, it should have done a better job. It may have spent a trillion dollars, but most went on overpaid foreign consultants rather than building the infrastructure of the poorest country on earth, one wrecked by Soviet invasion and then civil war even before the Taliban arrived. The Americans handed power to the corrupt warlords who had made the Taliban look like a reasonable option to many Afghans in the first place, and then almost immediately they lost interest, and rushed into Iraq.

An overwhelming majority of Iraqis were pleased to see the end of the Saddam Hussain tyranny. Nevertheless, American ignorance, arrogance and magical thinking soon created a series of insurgencies, and then a civil war. When the West exited, Iran inherited broken Iraq. ISIS flourished in response.

The humiliation quickly made America forget the one thing George W Bush was right about – that there’s a direct link between dictatorship and Islamist violence. In 2009 Obama lectured from Cairo on the necessity of Arab democracy. In 2011, a democratic revolution actually unseated the Egyptian dictator. But when the Egyptian military re-established its rule in 2013, imprisoning the country’s first elected president and murdering hundreds of his supporters in the streets, America continued to fund and otherwise support its tyrannical client.

Britain and France, meanwhile, degraded Qaddafi’s ability to slaughter Libyans, rescuing Libya from the Syrian scenario, but didn’t find the will to stay for a few months more, until the newly founded militias were disarmed. There were no consequences when the Saudi and Bahraini regimes collaborated in crushing the democratic uprising in Bahrain – business continued as usual with these despotisms. Democratic revolutionaries in Syria received no support from the West, not even when the Assad regime escalated its counter-revolutionary response towards mass extermination and the mass expulsion of Sunni Muslims. The US didn’t even try to deter hostile foreign powers from exacerbating the Syrian crisis. In fact the Obama administration deliberately handed Syria over to Russian and Iranian imperialisms, and thus to total destruction.

Self-inflicted failure had destroyed America’s will to act – except in whack-a-mole fashion against ‘terror’ targets such as ISIS, which was itself in large part a symptom of American failures. And as American policy enabled fascist regimes abroad, as leftist and rightist Americans chose to believe fascist narratives, even the crude propaganda emanating from Tehran and Moscow, so fascism was mainstreamed domestically.

In 2016 Americans elected a president who made George W Bush look like an intellectual. If Reagan was the first TV president, here was the first reality TV and social media president, an openly racist, proudly misogynistic, ‘post-truth’ rabble rouser who mouthed ‘America First’ even as he bowed to Putin, gave the North Korean dictator a series of propaganda victories, wrecked America’s relationships with democratic allies, and generally trashed America’s reputation internationally. When he lost the 2020 election, Trump attempted an anti-democratic coup. Most of the Republican Party went along with him, and most Republican voters still believe their candidate actually won. Today America’s commitment to democratic governance seems as shaky as Tunisia’s.

Who would want to ally with America now? In Syria, Trump betrayed the southern front of the Free Syrian Army when Putin asked him to, and then betrayed the Kurdish PKK forces which Obama had (stupidly) relied on to fight ISIS. And today Biden, following the chaotic retreat from Kabul, blames the Afghans for his own failure, as Obama once blamed the Syrians for his. That’s the Afghans who lost dozens of thousands of men fighting the Taliban, as well as thousands of men, women and children to American bombs. Biden isn’t as crude and thuggish as his predecessor, but is just as isolationist. It isn’t at all clear how he will fulfill his proclaimed desire to contain China when China’s neighbours can see very clearly how little will and competence is possessed by America.

The Kabul debacle, meanwhile, has shown how isolated and irrelevant ‘global’ Britain is after Brexit. The US didn’t consult the UK over its negotiations with the Taliban or its galloping retreat from Afghanistan. Then Biden refused to take Boris Johnson’s phone call for 36 hours as the Taliban walked into Kabul. This was as gratuitous an insult to an old ally – one which had generously/stupidly agreed to spend money and blood on America’s wars – as anything achieved by Trump. And Britain had just decided that it didn’t need its European neighbours and trade partners on account of its ‘special relationship’ with America.

Brexit was an act of idiotic self harm – which isn’t to say that the EU is in any way an admirable organization, or that its member states are capable of sensible action. Germany’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its terror-bombing of Syria is to insist on the construction of a pipeline to deliver Russian oil westward. And France allied with Russia to back Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to reestablish dictatorship in Libya.

Brexit is one instance of the return of mythology to the heart of western politics, and Brexit’s overnight creation of passionate communities is one sign of social polarization in the west, not over any practical conflict but over the empty symbolism of the so-called ‘culture wars’. The prominence of conspiracy theories represents the return of religion in its most debased forms. Most of what passes as oppositional thought is neither oppositional nor thought-through, but a mélange of social media-driven self-advertisement, archaic ideology, and fantastical perceptions of social and geo-strategic realities. In the face of enormous and imminent threats, from rapid shifts in global power relations to galloping global heating, the west responds with nostalgia and continually inflating fantasies.

Western decline is precipitous. The person who went by my name twenty years ago would have been pleased to know it was coming, but today I see nothing to celebrate.

Open-ended occupations and wars for the sake of symbolism are certainly wrong and counter-productive, but military action to prevent mass slaughter and mass expulsion is intelligent. Unlike leftists, I don’t believe that military operations to stop the genocides of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo were ‘imperialist crimes’. The responsibility to protect is a very worthwhile notion, but one which is now dead in practical terms. That’s great news for such inheritors of the world system as the genocidal, hyper-imperialist Chinese state, and very bad news for Uyghurs, Rohingyas, Syrians, and all the others who will be destroyed by the mindless and strong.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 10, 2021 at 12:35 pm

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Good piece. And extremely bleak.

    David Derrick

    September 11, 2021 at 9:28 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: