9/11 + 9/12: COMPOUNDING TRAGEDY

22 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post is the second part of my interview with Daniel Falcone that was published by CounterPunch on

September 12, 2021. It explores further the effects of the attacks and ongoing sequences of reactions, which were appropriately attributable to the events of 9/11 and those internal moves of surveillance and detention that were independently favored by the U.S. governmental leadership, but were too controversial to take until they were able to make to claim the cover of the War on Terror. A similar, even more pronounced dualism, is helpful in distinguishing the 9/12 developments that were plausible responses to the mega-terrorist transnational attacks and those escalated responses that reflected a preexisting disposition of the neoconservative foreign policy advisory circle around President George W. Bush to use American military capabilities against governments that were geopolitical outliers with respect to the neoliberal consensus on globalization or were hostile to American alignments in the Middle East and elsewhere.]

                             Part Two

International and Internal Impacts of 9/11, 9/12

Daniel Falcone: How has foreign policy and institutional approaches to global diplomacy changed over the past two decades in your estimation?

Richard Falk: The most notable change in American statecraft during this period is the abandonment of a core emphasis on economic globalization, with a corresponding swing in national security policy to counterterrorism, tactics and technological innovations that minimize visible U.S. warfighting and casualties on distant and dispersed combat zones situated within foreign sovereign states. While this counterterrorist impulse prevailed during the Bussh presidency, it placed heavy reliance on torture to obtain information relating to potential terrorist operations and the identity operatives. In the process, it turned official policy to ‘the dark side’ of counterterrorism, which meant a dismaying repudiation of international humanitarian law with respect to the belligerent conduct, and a total denial of human rights to those accused of a terrorist connection, however remote. It was contemptuous toward those who urged compliance with international law and human rights standards. The detention center at Guantanamo became

a word of international opprobrium, dehumanizing conduct, shaming the nation, and forever tarnishing its liberal credentials.

As well, declaring a war on terror made the entire world into a potential battlefield featuring the targeting of individuals or their places of habitation as suspected of terrorist affiliation. It also foregrounded reliance on unmanned drones for attack and surveillance, the deployment of small special operations detachments with capture or kill missions in 85 countries, whose governments often were not consulted or asked for permission with respect to penetrations of their sovereign space to engage in non-accountable acts of political violence. The execution of Osama Bin Laden, given safe have in Pakistan, by such a mission was the most significant and publicized instance of this form of counterterrorism.

Other changes in warfare unrelated to 9/11 involve the use of features of digital networking to disrupt, steal industrial or state secrets, attack vital electric grids, disrupt nuclear facilities through computer viruses. In other words, cyber age conflict is characteristically carried on in mostly settings other than territorial battlefields.

During the Trump presidency these doctrinal and ideological tendencies were carried further as alliances were deemphasized and bilateral transactional relations and the search for ‘deals’ with adversaries were given high profiles. Multilateralism declined, and a chauvinistic, territorial nationalism was raucously promoted, and affected many countries, explained in part as protection against immigration by the forces of ‘radical Islam,’ but additionally as a reaction against the perceived failures of globalization, with its privileging of capital at the expense of people.

The Biden presidency commencing in January 2021 seemed to revert to the pre-9/11 and pre-globalization Cold War approach to foreign policy, reviving and initiating alliances, championing an emerging geopolitical rivalry with China, and configuring military capabilities toward more traditional forms of warfare, as well as continuing the non-territorial concerns addressed under the label of cyber security. Biden seems to view international relations through an ideological lens that seeks to align ‘democracies’ for a great struggle with ‘autocracies,’ above all with allegedly ‘socialist’ China, but secondarily with once socialist Russia. In this sense, there is a foreign policy transition under way from counterterrorism to geopolitical rivalry, although this shift could be reversed or modified by new mega-terrorist events that recalled the spectacle and trauma of 9/11. The stakes are high—global hegemony more politely described as ‘global leadership.’

What is lacking in the political scene, sadly, is any strong moves toward the demilitarization of foreign policy or related adjustment to the failures arising from the militarization of political challenges. There seems to be no discussion of what we can learn from the methods and results of China’s remarkable achievement of economic development, which overcame the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of Chinese and spread its influence and achievements to many other countries by a win/win foreign economic policy that did not engage in intervention or state-building with respect to the internal politics of foreign countries. China’s Road and Belt Project that has brought many tangible developmental gains, especially in infrastructure, for countries throughout Africa and Asia, and virtually no military intrusions. The post-colonial West has developed nothing comparable, and is as reliant as ever on its military capabilities to hold its own geopolitically.

Daniel Falcone: What are your thoughts on how certain terminology has evolved in the context of the post 9/11 world? For example, “terrorism,” “extremism,” “state building,” “legitimacy,” and “international community” are all words that change meaning within the discourse, correct?

Richard Falk: Yes, language always reflects changing patterns of hegemonic politics, and this was certainly true in the aftermath of 9/11, more so than in 9/12 contexts. The overall effort was to stigmatize certain behaviors as beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior while legitimating other patterns of action as providing justifications for previously dubious claims to encroach upon the sovereign rights of others or ignore the human rights of adversaries. Not since the death camps of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union has there been comparable image of abusing prisoners held in captivity. As suggested, Guantanamo is a name that defames America throughout the world. In effect, the discourse of international relations tries to provide geopolitical actors with ethical and legal justifications for their policy agendas and to discredit behavior adverse to their interests. This is especially true when new challenges emerge that make frameworks of permissible response seem insufficient.

Of the words in your question that acquired new relevance after 9/11: ‘terrorism,’ ‘state-building,’ and ‘extremism’ are particularly salient, and seem to describe the U.S. counterterrorist long-range efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, although there were antecedents for each pre-9/11. The words ‘legitimacy’ and ‘international community’ were useful in evading the strict prohibitions of international law as with respect to ‘torture,’ further disguised as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ ‘International community’ was also helpful in suggesting that the political backing of the UN reflected an anti-terrorist consensus that created an almost unconditional mandate for pursuing counterterrorist tactics without questioning their impacts on innocent civilians, in effect, an implied license to kill on suspicion or to intervene to replace governments accused of being connected with 9/11 either by providing safe haven or material support.

The most radical idea accompanying counterterrorist intervention entailed replacing the former regime with a governing process thatth would fit the broader, longer range policy priorities, political ideals, and material interests of the intrusion on sovereign space.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how Bush 43 through Biden have navigated the presidency while implementing select 9/11 narratives as a backdrop?

Richard Falk: Bush rallied the country primarily by demonizing the perpetrators of the 9/11 events, characterizing them as sub-human, to be ‘hunted’ as if wild animals. More than this he lent credence to the idea that non-state political violence was inherently extremist, wherever it occurred and regardless of justification, as posing a terrorist threat to all ‘civilized’ countries. Calling upon governments throughout the world to join with the US in this war on terror, or if unwilling to do so, be treated as siding with terrorism. In effect, Bush unilaterally by geopolitical fiat invalidated a neutral diplomacy as a legitimate policy option in the context of ‘the war on terror.’ Bush also, whether knowingly or not, allowed counterterrorist foreign policy to be converted into a vehicle for executing the pre-9/11 neoconservative agenda of regime change, state-building, and democracy promotion in the Middle East where the terrorist allegations or links to 9/11 were tenuous or non-existent, yet alleged. In Afghanistan the links to 9/11 seemed self-evident and rationalized a limited counterterrorist operation against al-Qaeda. It should have not surprised any close student of American foreign policy to take note of the speed with which the initial counterterrorist justification morphed into a failed twenty year politically, materially, and psychologically failed and expensive war against the Taliban.

Next Obama came to the White House as of 2009 with a pledge of a more restrained foreign policy approach, which meant operationally that Bush’s war on terror would go on but with more outward respect for international law and a less grandiose conception of an extended counterterrorist mission in the Middle East. Obama wanted to limit counterterrorism to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Manifesting geopolitical ambivalence, Obama favored a troop surge in Afghanistan, apparently believing that the state-building mission was on the verge of success. Obama also rejected the regime-changing, democracy-promotion neoconservative hijacking of the 9/11 provocation for its preoccupation with restructuring the politics of the Middle East in a manner that was particularly responsive to Israel’s goals, angering Netanyahu especially when extended to Iran. A highlight of the Obama presidency was the diplomacy that produced an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015, known as Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (or JCPOA) that was designed to give assurances that Iran would not cross the nuclear threshold and the United States would over time reduce the sanctions it had imposed.

Obama went along with stretching international law so as weaken some restraints on the use of force, especially by an increased reliance on attack drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda operatives were active. Obama supported the 2011 intervention in Libya, although demeaned by Republicans for ‘leading from behind’ when it came to the controversial NATO-led regime changing military operation that left the country at the mercy of prolonged violent ethnic strife. Qaddafi’s Libya although autocratic, had high ratings for social development, and is a further confirmation that intervention rarely achieves its purported goals.  

When Trump’s turn came in 2015, there was a confusing mix of policies. Trump went further than any prior president in shaping American foreign policy in the Middle East to accord with the regional goals of Israel and the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. This led to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the adoption of a policy toward Iran of ‘maximum pressure.’ At the same time, Trump set the stage for withdrawal from Afghanistan, denouncing forever wars as a waste of money and lives that were costly as well as tarnishing the US reputation as a fearsome hegemon. Trump’s America first, anti-immigration, pro-military policies were less a security posture directed at would be terrorists than an effort to build a right-wing, autocratic political movement in the United States that was hostile to all forms of internationalism, including multilateral diplomacy. Trump and Trumpism intensified a nativist Islamophobia that blamed ‘radical Islam’ for terrorism and generated a related negative form of identity politics that gave aid and comfort to the white supremacy movement. This was exemplified by Trump’s comments on a neo-fascist march through Charlottesville that was resisted by protesters, contending that there were ‘good people on both sides.’ Despite the home scene, geopolitical concerns about a rising China began displacing counterterrorism at the top of the foreign policy agenda, a dynamic already started during the Obama presidency under the rubric of a ‘pivot to Asia.’

The Biden presidency is still new, and its record mixed. It has moved to correct the criminal failures of Trumpism in dealing with the COVID challenge and climate change but has irresponsibly intensified rivalry with China and has exhibited continuity with much of Trump’s policies toward the Middle East despite reaffirming the moribund two-state approach to peace between Israel and Palestine. Biden deserves credit for pushing ahead with steps to end the war in Afghanistan, despite the unnecessarily humiliating and reckless final act, and maybe finally bringing to an end the debilitating intervention/state-building cycle. One hopes he recollects and builds upon his opposition to Afghanistan troop surge and Libya policy while serving as Vice President in the Obama administration rather than recalls his enthusiasm for embarking upon the Iraq War in 2003/.   

Daniel Falcone: Scholars and writers such as Noam ChomskyLawrence Davidson and Isabel Allende have written about 9/11 – and September 11, 1973 in Chile. Can you talk about this historical analogue? 

Richard Falk: The most illuminating insight drawn from a comparison between 9/11 and the Pinochet coup against the elected Allende government in Chile 28 years earlier encouraged and then supported by Washington, relates to the humanitarian and political costs for the United States of intervention in foreign societies. The whole 9/11 impetus for the U.S. to engage in state-building overseas in the aftermath of regime-changing interventions led to an estimated 929,000 deaths, more than eight trillion dollars of wasted expenditures, counterterrorist operations in 85 countries, and an estimated 38 million displaced persons according to the Cost of War Project of the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. This background of post-9/11 war-making is a major explanation of the unmistakable imperial U.S. decline abroad and alienating polarization within America. These failed efforts to control adverse political and economic tendencies at their source, often as in Chile were motivated by the pressures mounted by large corporate investors. They involved assaults on the most fundamental of human rights, that of the right of self-determination acknowledged as constitutive of more specific rights by being highlighted as a common Article 1 in both human rights Covenants.

This ‘war’ waged against the exercise of the right of self-determination did not begin with 9/11 but was a feature and legacy of the Cold War, receiving a second life thanks to the response of neoconservative Republican leadership to 9/11 as abetted by a history of complicit bipartisan passivity on the part of the Democratic Party opposition. We should pause in our reckoning and thank Barbara Lee as the sole member of Congress to vote against the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001’ legislation that to this day gives executive leadership a green light to wage war at will without either domestic constitutional oversight or respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

The United States should have learned the blowback consequences of interfering with the internal dynamics of self-determination when it conspired back in 1953 to overthrow the elected government of Mossadegh in Iran, supposedly to bolster the geopolitics of containment of the Soviet Union, but at least as much to satisfy the greed and ambition of ‘big oil.’ The whole political turn toward Islam, eventuating in the mass movement of 1978-79 led from exile by Ayatollah Khomeini, can be traced to the unifying impact on diverse strands of Iranian society due to the restored imposition of the Shah’s regime as a result of externally motivated and sustained intervention. The same lesson was made even plainer for detached observers to learn in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War where the intervention was overt and massive, and yet in the end led to a humiliating defeat.

Of course, the most relevant geopolitical pedagogy should have been absorbed as a result of the long experience of the West in Afghanistan stretching back to the time of ‘the great game’ of colonial competition to control the country. The recent post-colonial variation on the great game started with the effort to mobilize resistance to a Kabul government in the 1980s that was seen as leaning toward Moscow. With a cavalier disregard of consequences, the U.S. stimulated and supported the Islamic resistance to Afghanistan’s first secular modernizing elected government with training and weapons, including strengthening and emboldening the militia that evolved into al-Qaeda under the leadership of a charismatic religious ideologue, Osama Bin Laden! As hardly needs mention, it was this chain of imprudent moves that provided the proximate causes of 9/11 (together with the imprudent Western encroachments on the course of self-determination in the Middle East, including support for the colonizing project that produced decades of Israel/Palestine struggle with still no end in sight).

Why does this manifestly destructive and self-destructive cycle American foreign policy continue and repeat itself despite consistent failure? How can this cycle be disrupted? The political class in the United States and elsewhere in the NATO West, adheres to a worldview commonly identified as ‘political realism.’ Its central tenet is to link national interests to military superiority, with the tacit corollary that force and its threat is essential to uphold the global financial interests of neoliberal capitalism. Experience of the last 75 year increasingly demonstrates that political realism, while providing efficient geopolitical guidance during the colonial period, is dangerously out of touch with reality in the 21st century. Yet zombie-like obsolescent realism lingers because its worldview remains largely unchallenged by anti-imperial, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist ideas and oppositional politics. A new political realism, responsive to world conditions, would espouse a foreign policy that affirms the right of self-determination, shows respect for sovereign rights and international law, and recognizes the urgency of implementing human solidarity by establishing effective global problem-solving mechanisms, including the strengthening of international institutions, above all the United Nations. It would be equally important internationally, to restore trust in a humane democracy that serves the citizenry as a whole and moves to repudiate current plutocratic distortions of the social order as reflected by gross inequalities in the enjoyment and distribution of the benefits of growth and profits.

It is late in the day but let’s hope that seeds of transformative change have been planted both by the chaotic and discrediting withdrawal from Afghanistan and this anniversary occasion giving us one more opportunity to assess both the causes of and excessive 9/12 reactions to the 9/11 events. A step in the right direction would be the much belated willingness to engage in strategic self-criticism rather than to be distracted by partisan Republican accusations of tactical failures or a mind-numbing invocation of ‘American exceptionalism.’ More concretely, subjecting regime change and state-building to critique rather than focusing all attention on the bungled withdrawal dynamics might have a lasting impact on the political imagination. Such a willingness to learn from failure might actually rid the American political psyche of ‘American Exceptionalism,’ which has functioned as a huge dose of poisonous “kool-aid.” A benevolent 21st internationalism would instead give tangible expression to the imperatives of global solidarity, seeking governmental and civil society collaborators in meeting the tragic manifestations of such global challenges as climate change, pandemics, nuclearism. migration.

American democracy is under bipartisan threat due to its militarized state that orients the media propaganda machine to view internal and global security through a lens that magnifies threats and confines the political and moral imagination. Those who dare leak ‘truths’ are criminalized and faced with the vindictive choice of exile or prison (Snowden, Assange), as were those young Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden rather than fight in an immoral and unlawful war in Vietnam. A democracy that does not treat its heroes well, will not and should not endure.

[Prefatory Note: This post is the second part of my interview with Daniel Falcone that was published by CounterPunch on

September 12, 2021. It explores further the effects of the attacks and ongoing sequences of reactions, which were appropriately attributable to the events of 9/11 and those internal moves of surveillance and detention that were independently favored by the U.S. governmental leadership, but were too controversial to take until they were able to make to claim the cover of the War on Terror. A similar, even more pronounced dualism, is helpful in distinguishing the 9/12 developments that were plausible responses to the mega-terrorist transnational attacks and those escalated responses that reflected a preexisting disposition of the neoconservative foreign policy advisory circle around President George W. Bush to use American military capabilities against governments that were geopolitical outliers with respect to the neoliberal consensus on globalization or were hostile to American alignments in the Middle East and elsewhere.]

                             Part Two

International and Internal Impacts of 9/11, 9/12

Daniel Falcone: How has foreign policy and institutional approaches to global diplomacy changed over the past two decades in your estimation?

Richard Falk: The most notable change in American statecraft during this period is the abandonment of a core emphasis on economic globalization, with a corresponding swing in national security policy to counterterrorism, tactics and technological innovations that minimize visible U.S. warfighting and casualties on distant and dispersed combat zones situated within foreign sovereign states. While this counterterrorist impulse prevailed during the Bussh presidency, it placed heavy reliance on torture to obtain information relating to potential terrorist operations and the identity operatives. In the process, it turned official policy to ‘the dark side’ of counterterrorism, which meant a dismaying repudiation of international humanitarian law with respect to the belligerent conduct, and a total denial of human rights to those accused of a terrorist connection, however remote. It was contemptuous toward those who urged compliance with international law and human rights standards. The detention center at Guantanamo became

a word of international opprobrium, dehumanizing conduct, shaming the nation, and forever tarnishing its liberal credentials.

As well, declaring a war on terror made the entire world into a potential battlefield featuring the targeting of individuals or their places of habitation as suspected of terrorist affiliation. It also foregrounded reliance on unmanned drones for attack and surveillance, the deployment of small special operations detachments with capture or kill missions in 85 countries, whose governments often were not consulted or asked for permission with respect to penetrations of their sovereign space to engage in non-accountable acts of political violence. The execution of Osama Bin Laden, given safe have in Pakistan, by such a mission was the most significant and publicized instance of this form of counterterrorism.

Other changes in warfare unrelated to 9/11 involve the use of features of digital networking to disrupt, steal industrial or state secrets, attack vital electric grids, disrupt nuclear facilities through computer viruses. In other words, cyber age conflict is characteristically carried on in mostly settings other than territorial battlefields.

During the Trump presidency these doctrinal and ideological tendencies were carried further as alliances were deemphasized and bilateral transactional relations and the search for ‘deals’ with adversaries were given high profiles. Multilateralism declined, and a chauvinistic, territorial nationalism was raucously promoted, and affected many countries, explained in part as protection against immigration by the forces of ‘radical Islam,’ but additionally as a reaction against the perceived failures of globalization, with its privileging of capital at the expense of people.

The Biden presidency commencing in January 2021 seemed to revert to the pre-9/11 and pre-globalization Cold War approach to foreign policy, reviving and initiating alliances, championing an emerging geopolitical rivalry with China, and configuring military capabilities toward more traditional forms of warfare, as well as continuing the non-territorial concerns addressed under the label of cyber security. Biden seems to view international relations through an ideological lens that seeks to align ‘democracies’ for a great struggle with ‘autocracies,’ above all with allegedly ‘socialist’ China, but secondarily with once socialist Russia. In this sense, there is a foreign policy transition under way from counterterrorism to geopolitical rivalry, although this shift could be reversed or modified by new mega-terrorist events that recalled the spectacle and trauma of 9/11. The stakes are high—global hegemony more politely described as ‘global leadership.’

What is lacking in the political scene, sadly, is any strong moves toward the demilitarization of foreign policy or related adjustment to the failures arising from the militarization of political challenges. There seems to be no discussion of what we can learn from the methods and results of China’s remarkable achievement of economic development, which overcame the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of Chinese and spread its influence and achievements to many other countries by a win/win foreign economic policy that did not engage in intervention or state-building with respect to the internal politics of foreign countries. China’s Road and Belt Project that has brought many tangible developmental gains, especially in infrastructure, for countries throughout Africa and Asia, and virtually no military intrusions. The post-colonial West has developed nothing comparable, and is as reliant as ever on its military capabilities to hold its own geopolitically.

Daniel Falcone: What are your thoughts on how certain terminology has evolved in the context of the post 9/11 world? For example, “terrorism,” “extremism,” “state building,” “legitimacy,” and “international community” are all words that change meaning within the discourse, correct?

Richard Falk: Yes, language always reflects changing patterns of hegemonic politics, and this was certainly true in the aftermath of 9/11, more so than in 9/12 contexts. The overall effort was to stigmatize certain behaviors as beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior while legitimating other patterns of action as providing justifications for previously dubious claims to encroach upon the sovereign rights of others or ignore the human rights of adversaries. Not since the death camps of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union has there been comparable image of abusing prisoners held in captivity. As suggested, Guantanamo is a name that defames America throughout the world. In effect, the discourse of international relations tries to provide geopolitical actors with ethical and legal justifications for their policy agendas and to discredit behavior adverse to their interests. This is especially true when new challenges emerge that make frameworks of permissible response seem insufficient.

Of the words in your question that acquired new relevance after 9/11: ‘terrorism,’ ‘state-building,’ and ‘extremism’ are particularly salient, and seem to describe the U.S. counterterrorist long-range efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, although there were antecedents for each pre-9/11. The words ‘legitimacy’ and ‘international community’ were useful in evading the strict prohibitions of international law as with respect to ‘torture,’ further disguised as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ ‘International community’ was also helpful in suggesting that the political backing of the UN reflected an anti-terrorist consensus that created an almost unconditional mandate for pursuing counterterrorist tactics without questioning their impacts on innocent civilians, in effect, an implied license to kill on suspicion or to intervene to replace governments accused of being connected with 9/11 either by providing safe haven or material support.

The most radical idea accompanying counterterrorist intervention entailed replacing the former regime with a governing process thatth would fit the broader, longer range policy priorities, political ideals, and material interests of the intrusion on sovereign space.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how Bush 43 through Biden have navigated the presidency while implementing select 9/11 narratives as a backdrop?

Richard Falk: Bush rallied the country primarily by demonizing the perpetrators of the 9/11 events, characterizing them as sub-human, to be ‘hunted’ as if wild animals. More than this he lent credence to the idea that non-state political violence was inherently extremist, wherever it occurred and regardless of justification, as posing a terrorist threat to all ‘civilized’ countries. Calling upon governments throughout the world to join with the US in this war on terror, or if unwilling to do so, be treated as siding with terrorism. In effect, Bush unilaterally by geopolitical fiat invalidated a neutral diplomacy as a legitimate policy option in the context of ‘the war on terror.’ Bush also, whether knowingly or not, allowed counterterrorist foreign policy to be converted into a vehicle for executing the pre-9/11 neoconservative agenda of regime change, state-building, and democracy promotion in the Middle East where the terrorist allegations or links to 9/11 were tenuous or non-existent, yet alleged. In Afghanistan the links to 9/11 seemed self-evident and rationalized a limited counterterrorist operation against al-Qaeda. It should have not surprised any close student of American foreign policy to take note of the speed with which the initial counterterrorist justification morphed into a failed twenty year politically, materially, and psychologically failed and expensive war against the Taliban.

Next Obama came to the White House as of 2009 with a pledge of a more restrained foreign policy approach, which meant operationally that Bush’s war on terror would go on but with more outward respect for international law and a less grandiose conception of an extended counterterrorist mission in the Middle East. Obama wanted to limit counterterrorism to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Manifesting geopolitical ambivalence, Obama favored a troop surge in Afghanistan, apparently believing that the state-building mission was on the verge of success. Obama also rejected the regime-changing, democracy-promotion neoconservative hijacking of the 9/11 provocation for its preoccupation with restructuring the politics of the Middle East in a manner that was particularly responsive to Israel’s goals, angering Netanyahu especially when extended to Iran. A highlight of the Obama presidency was the diplomacy that produced an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015, known as Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (or JCPOA) that was designed to give assurances that Iran would not cross the nuclear threshold and the United States would over time reduce the sanctions it had imposed.

Obama went along with stretching international law so as weaken some restraints on the use of force, especially by an increased reliance on attack drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda operatives were active. Obama supported the 2011 intervention in Libya, although demeaned by Republicans for ‘leading from behind’ when it came to the controversial NATO-led regime changing military operation that left the country at the mercy of prolonged violent ethnic strife. Qaddafi’s Libya although autocratic, had high ratings for social development, and is a further confirmation that intervention rarely achieves its purported goals.  

When Trump’s turn came in 2015, there was a confusing mix of policies. Trump went further than any prior president in shaping American foreign policy in the Middle East to accord with the regional goals of Israel and the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. This led to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the adoption of a policy toward Iran of ‘maximum pressure.’ At the same time, Trump set the stage for withdrawal from Afghanistan, denouncing forever wars as a waste of money and lives that were costly as well as tarnishing the US reputation as a fearsome hegemon. Trump’s America first, anti-immigration, pro-military policies were less a security posture directed at would be terrorists than an effort to build a right-wing, autocratic political movement in the United States that was hostile to all forms of internationalism, including multilateral diplomacy. Trump and Trumpism intensified a nativist Islamophobia that blamed ‘radical Islam’ for terrorism and generated a related negative form of identity politics that gave aid and comfort to the white supremacy movement. This was exemplified by Trump’s comments on a neo-fascist march through Charlottesville that was resisted by protesters, contending that there were ‘good people on both sides.’ Despite the home scene, geopolitical concerns about a rising China began displacing counterterrorism at the top of the foreign policy agenda, a dynamic already started during the Obama presidency under the rubric of a ‘pivot to Asia.’

The Biden presidency is still new, and its record mixed. It has moved to correct the criminal failures of Trumpism in dealing with the COVID challenge and climate change but has irresponsibly intensified rivalry with China and has exhibited continuity with much of Trump’s policies toward the Middle East despite reaffirming the moribund two-state approach to peace between Israel and Palestine. Biden deserves credit for pushing ahead with steps to end the war in Afghanistan, despite the unnecessarily humiliating and reckless final act, and maybe finally bringing to an end the debilitating intervention/state-building cycle. One hopes he recollects and builds upon his opposition to Afghanistan troop surge and Libya policy while serving as Vice President in the Obama administration rather than recalls his enthusiasm for embarking upon the Iraq War in 2003/.   

Daniel Falcone: Scholars and writers such as Noam ChomskyLawrence Davidson and Isabel Allende have written about 9/11 – and September 11, 1973 in Chile. Can you talk about this historical analogue? 

Richard Falk: The most illuminating insight drawn from a comparison between 9/11 and the Pinochet coup against the elected Allende government in Chile 28 years earlier encouraged and then supported by Washington, relates to the humanitarian and political costs for the United States of intervention in foreign societies. The whole 9/11 impetus for the U.S. to engage in state-building overseas in the aftermath of regime-changing interventions led to an estimated 929,000 deaths, more than eight trillion dollars of wasted expenditures, counterterrorist operations in 85 countries, and an estimated 38 million displaced persons according to the Cost of War Project of the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. This background of post-9/11 war-making is a major explanation of the unmistakable imperial U.S. decline abroad and alienating polarization within America. These failed efforts to control adverse political and economic tendencies at their source, often as in Chile were motivated by the pressures mounted by large corporate investors. They involved assaults on the most fundamental of human rights, that of the right of self-determination acknowledged as constitutive of more specific rights by being highlighted as a common Article 1 in both human rights Covenants.

This ‘war’ waged against the exercise of the right of self-determination did not begin with 9/11 but was a feature and legacy of the Cold War, receiving a second life thanks to the response of neoconservative Republican leadership to 9/11 as abetted by a history of complicit bipartisan passivity on the part of the Democratic Party opposition. We should pause in our reckoning and thank Barbara Lee as the sole member of Congress to vote against the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001’ legislation that to this day gives executive leadership a green light to wage war at will without either domestic constitutional oversight or respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

The United States should have learned the blowback consequences of interfering with the internal dynamics of self-determination when it conspired back in 1953 to overthrow the elected government of Mossadegh in Iran, supposedly to bolster the geopolitics of containment of the Soviet Union, but at least as much to satisfy the greed and ambition of ‘big oil.’ The whole political turn toward Islam, eventuating in the mass movement of 1978-79 led from exile by Ayatollah Khomeini, can be traced to the unifying impact on diverse strands of Iranian society due to the restored imposition of the Shah’s regime as a result of externally motivated and sustained intervention. The same lesson was made even plainer for detached observers to learn in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War where the intervention was overt and massive, and yet in the end led to a humiliating defeat.

Of course, the most relevant geopolitical pedagogy should have been absorbed as a result of the long experience of the West in Afghanistan stretching back to the time of ‘the great game’ of colonial competition to control the country. The recent post-colonial variation on the great game started with the effort to mobilize resistance to a Kabul government in the 1980s that was seen as leaning toward Moscow. With a cavalier disregard of consequences, the U.S. stimulated and supported the Islamic resistance to Afghanistan’s first secular modernizing elected government with training and weapons, including strengthening and emboldening the militia that evolved into al-Qaeda under the leadership of a charismatic religious ideologue, Osama Bin Laden! As hardly needs mention, it was this chain of imprudent moves that provided the proximate causes of 9/11 (together with the imprudent Western encroachments on the course of self-determination in the Middle East, including support for the colonizing project that produced decades of Israel/Palestine struggle with still no end in sight).

Why does this manifestly destructive and self-destructive cycle American foreign policy continue and repeat itself despite consistent failure? How can this cycle be disrupted? The political class in the United States and elsewhere in the NATO West, adheres to a worldview commonly identified as ‘political realism.’ Its central tenet is to link national interests to military superiority, with the tacit corollary that force and its threat is essential to uphold the global financial interests of neoliberal capitalism. Experience of the last 75 year increasingly demonstrates that political realism, while providing efficient geopolitical guidance during the colonial period, is dangerously out of touch with reality in the 21st century. Yet zombie-like obsolescent realism lingers because its worldview remains largely unchallenged by anti-imperial, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist ideas and oppositional politics. A new political realism, responsive to world conditions, would espouse a foreign policy that affirms the right of self-determination, shows respect for sovereign rights and international law, and recognizes the urgency of implementing human solidarity by establishing effective global problem-solving mechanisms, including the strengthening of international institutions, above all the United Nations. It would be equally important internationally, to restore trust in a humane democracy that serves the citizenry as a whole and moves to repudiate current plutocratic distortions of the social order as reflected by gross inequalities in the enjoyment and distribution of the benefits of growth and profits.

It is late in the day but let’s hope that seeds of transformative change have been planted both by the chaotic and discrediting withdrawal from Afghanistan and this anniversary occasion giving us one more opportunity to assess both the causes of and excessive 9/12 reactions to the 9/11 events. A step in the right direction would be the much belated willingness to engage in strategic self-criticism rather than to be distracted by partisan Republican accusations of tactical failures or a mind-numbing invocation of ‘American exceptionalism.’ More concretely, subjecting regime change and state-building to critique rather than focusing all attention on the bungled withdrawal dynamics might have a lasting impact on the political imagination. Such a willingness to learn from failure might actually rid the American political psyche of ‘American Exceptionalism,’ which has functioned as a huge dose of poisonous “kool-aid.” A benevolent 21st internationalism would instead give tangible expression to the imperatives of global solidarity, seeking governmental and civil society collaborators in meeting the tragic manifestations of such global challenges as climate change, pandemics, nuclearism. migration.

American democracy is under bipartisan threat due to its militarized state that orients the media propaganda machine to view internal and global security through a lens that magnifies international threats and confines the political and moral imagination to the realm of coercive responses. Those who dare leak ‘truths’ are criminalized and then face the vindictive choice of exile or prison (Snowden, Assange), as were those young Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden rather than fight in an immoral and unlawful war in Vietnam. A democracy that does not treat its heroes well, will not and should not endure. Daniel Ellsberg delivered a vital message 50 years ago–the citizens of a democracy deserve to be told the truth, and a government that refuses, deserves resistance not mute obedience–that continues to be unheeded by the enforcers of the political class.


One Response to “9/11 + 9/12: COMPOUNDING TRAGEDY”

  1. Kata Fisher September 22, 2021 at 8:28 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Thank you,

    K.F.

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