A clash of civilizations

There has been no peace since the Sept. 11 attacks that launched the war on terror

[e-mail this page to a friend]

The Gazette, Monday, September 11, 2006

There are days that mark great historical divides, and Sept. 11, 2001, is one of them. It isn't just what happened that day, but how the world has changed since.

From the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1989, there was a brief Pax Americana that ended that bright September morning five years ago today.

There has been no peace since, only an uneven struggle against terrorists who have killed thousands of innocent civilians in New York and Washington, in Madrid and London, all in the name of Islam. It is nothing less than a clash of civilizations.

Before 9/11, no one could have imagined the audacity of such attacks. Planes were hijacked to Havana, not flown into buildings. Since then, no terror scenario is excluded, and several daring ones have been disabled, including this summer's apparent plot to blow up as many as a dozen airliners en route from London to the United States.

Before 9/11, the presidency of George W. Bush was focused on a domestic agenda. Since then, security has trumped all other issues in Washington. Where it was once a proud boast that Canada and the United States shared the longest undefended border in the world, the U.S. wants a secure border, while Canada speaks of a smart one. Security now trumps trade in the management of the world's largest commercial relationship.

And the Bush presidency itself might be measured by two military theatres, Afghanistan and Iraq. The entire world supported Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. But many U.S. allies, including Canada, declined to join Bush on the road to Baghdad in 2003.

The invasion and liberation of Afghanistan were entirely justified by the events of 9/11. The Taliban hosted Al-Qa'ida and its leader, Osama bin Laden. The invasion of Iraq was sold as part of the war on terror, against a bad guy left over from the first Gulf War. If the Americans couldn't get bin Laden, they could get Saddam Hussein. And they did, but at what price?

The United Nations declined to sanction the war, the NATO alliance split over it, and reputations have been ruined over it, notably Colin Powell's for his presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003 on weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be bogus.

Three times as many U.S. soldiers have died in the insurgency as were killed during the invasion. And three years later, Iraq remains a killing ground where civil war is a real possibility.

It has been tragically clear from the beginning that the U.S. had no plan for the reconstruction of Iraq - typically, it secured the oil ministry but not the national museum, which was sacked. It's also clear the United States didn't understand the neighbourhoood, or its history. Bush and his advisers would have done well to read Paris 1919, in which Margaret MacMillan tells the story of the creation of Iraq at the Versailles conference. The Kurds have always been in the north, the Sunnis in the middle, and the Shiites in the south. Putting them together in a single country might not have been a very good idea in the beginning, and is still not evidently wise today.

And if the Americans were to leave today, what then? They can't just turn the keys to the car over to the Iraqis. As Powell had warned Bush before the invasion: "you break it, you own it."

Whatever measures the United States takes to assure security at home, Iraq remains the primary focus of its anti-terrorist efforts abroad, and the main reason for skepticism about what some Canadian media describe as "the so-called war on terror," not to be confused with the alleged war on terror.

Iraq is also the reason Canada is in Afghanistan. A light Canadian contingent as part of the liberation in 2001 was beefed up to 2,000 troops in 2003. When the Chretien government declined to join in the Iraqi invasion, it could point to Canada taking on a heavier burden in Afghanistan.

Iraq is Bush's war. Afghanistan is ours. It is the difficult and inhospitable terrain where three Canadian prime ministers - Chretien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper - have chosen to make a Canadian statement about terrorism and the reconstruction of a failed state.

All of these events, and many others, are consequences of a morning when the September sky took on a new meaning in a day that changed the world.

  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard