The legacy of September 11

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The 11 September terror attacks were used to justify the West's "war on terror". But what is the legacy of 9/11 today?

On the face of it, 9/11 appears to be the defining moment of the last decade. The attacks in New York provided a provocation against which the US, with Britain as a key ally, could prosecute what became known as the "war on terror". In reality, this was to be the execution of a strategy that had been discussed in Washington years before.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the US without any rival superpower able to compete with it on equal terms. Yet the US ruling class was nervous. The emergence of the eurozone raised the prospect of a unified European economy that could match US output. China, whose economic growth far outstripped that of the US, seemed even more threatening - though the assumption that China could sustain such growth indefinitely was always flawed.

Before long talk of a "unipolar world", characterised by unchallenged US hegemony, gave way to predictions of a "multipolar world". Yet the US still held an ace up its sleeve - its military.

US military spending, already huge in 2001, has risen sharply in recent years. In 2010 it peaked at almost $700 billion - which compares with just over $100 billion for second placed China. The military was used as a crutch to shore up US power in the face of its slowly declining economic dominance. This shift was not just evident in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel remained the largest recipient of US military aid, which now averages $3 billion annually. The second largest recipient was Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt.

The 11 September attacks presented an opportunity to set an aggressive new strategy in motion. The attack on Afghanistan was rationalised as an attempt to root out Al Qaida - despite the fact that none of the 19 hijackers came from Afghanistan, although 15 came from Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the Middle East. The response to 9/11 was not inevitable - it was a political choice, one designed to entrench US power. The Middle East, which contains two thirds of the world's known oil reserves, is a strategically crucial area.

If the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan had been tenuous, the case for war on Iraq had to be built on a pack of lies. Crucial to building this case was the growth of racism towards Muslims. The 9/11 attack was used to stoke fears that the West was under threat from an enemy that was culturally alien and irrationally vicious.

The toxic atmosphere was such that well-heeled liberal novelist Martin Amis felt able to say: "There's a definite urge - don't you have it? - to say, 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.' What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan...Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children." Muslims in Britain were to be disciplined, while abroad, Iraqis and Afghans were slaughtered. This was cemented by repressive laws, like the US Patriot Act and its British equivalent, the Terrorism Act, which sought to further intimidate Muslims and criminalise protest.

Yet many people in Britain and beyond rejected Bush and Blair's wars. The demonstration against the invasion of Iraq in February 2003 mobilised up to two million on the streets of London - the biggest demonstration in British history. The invasion of Iraq proved deeply unpopular, while support for the occupation of Afghanistan has waned as the "good war" has gone from bad to worse.

It became commonplace for people to ridicule Bush, branding him an idiot. He certainly was an idiot - but a useful one, from the point of the view of US imperialism. His Texan delivery and down to earth manner enabled him to sell the war to ordinary Americans in a way that condescending Washington neocons could never have managed.

As anti-war campaigners have argued for a decade, 9/11 was never a justification for war in the Middle East. Though the West hasn't bothered to keep an accurate count of their killing, estimates indicate up to a million dead in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan. From Fallujah to Kabul, countless atrocities on the scale of 9/11 have been perpetrated. A callous arithmetic is at work here: a Western life is worth more.

So what has changed in ten years? We still live in an era of rapacious wars. Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan and rained death and destruction on Libya with the support of David Cameron. Yet the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan - and the ignominious defeats suffered by US allies in Lebanon in 2006 and Georgia in 2008 - have demonstrated the limits of US power. In particular the brief conflict in Georgia - in which US sponsored forces were crushed by Russia - was a telling example of a regional imperial power flexing its muscles.

The limits to US power are ideological as well as material. A succession of scandals over "extraordinary rendition" - the outsourcing of torture - and the hideous abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons have made a mockery of the West's claims to be the guardians of decency and democracy. The Arab revolutions against Western-backed dictators have spectacularly shown that true liberation comes from people's struggle for self-determination.