9/11 Memorial Lights, September 2017 courtesy of Shutterstock
President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared December 7, 1941 — the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor — “a date which will live in infamy” and asked Congress for a Declaration of War. Audio here. Thus began America’s entry into World War II, sealing the doom of the Axis Powers.
On May 8, 1945 Victory in Europe was declared, accepting Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender and marking the formal end of WWII in Europe. Imperial Japan surrendered on August 14th. WWII was over.
FDR was using dramatic license when stating that America: “will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.” “Never” is a long time. Generations passed. 9/11 became our generation’s version of Pearl Harbor. In the interim, the West found itself inside the Cold War, one breaking hot and heroic in Korea and Vietnam. That war lasted for over 40 years and could be termed WWIII. Then, on Christmas Day, 25 years ago, the USSR formally dissolved itself, ending the struggle between the Free World and an imperial-style Soviet Union.
Now, 16 years after 9/11, the West and the Middle East are on the verge of eradicating the barbaric Daesh, commonly known as ISIS. Its precursor was Al Qaeda, which launched the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the heroically aborted attack on the Capitol, Flight 93. Al Qaeda’s leader, Bin Laden, was killed and Al Qaeda's remnants are greatly diminished although residually sinister.
The “war on terror” is a misnomer. Terror is a tactic, not a strategy. It has been called a “weapon of the weak.” America, for a century — since it entered what became known as WWI on April 6, 1917 — has been engaged in a war against Empire, Imperialism, and tyranny.
In 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-sen (my honorary great-godfather) overthrew the Qing Dynasty in China, replacing it, at least initially, with a republican form of government. In 1917, the Bolsheviks took power from the Czar (a title derived from Caesar), replacing it with Communist Party rule. In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved. In 1923, the Ottoman empire was succeeded by the Republic of Turkey. Great Britain, the least autocratic of the five great empires that had dominated the world, went into an inexorable decline.
The world had been governed by emperors for millennia. The sudden collapse of the imperial world order is so big as to be nearly invisible. It was the Big Bang that set the stage for the current world geopolitical order.
The fall of Empire did not, in the event, bring about an instant success in what President Woodrow Wilson, in asking for a declaration of War on Germany on April 2, 1917, declared that the world “be made safe for democracy.” Tyrants replaced Emperors. Hence WWII and the Cold War wherein we replaced tyrants with classical liberal republics and moved the Communist metropoles from totalitarian to authoritarian.
The misnamed “war on terror” occludes the fact that Al Qaeda’s goal, and that of Daesh, was to restore the Caliphate: the Ottoman Empire. I observed here last year but bears repeating:
As Prof. Juan Cole wrote in 2004 at the George Mason History News Network:
“In order to evaluate the aftermath of September 11, we first must understand that event. What did al-Qaeda intend to achieve? Only if we understand that can we gauge their success or failure.
“From the point of view of al-Qaeda, the Muslim world can and should be united into a single country. They believe that it once had this political unity, under the early caliphs.
“From al-Qaeda's point of view, the political unity of the Muslim world was deliberately destroyed by a one-two punch. First, Western colonial powers invaded Muslim lands and detached them from the Ottoman Empire or other Muslim states. … Second, they formed these colonies into Western-style nation-states, often small and weak ones, so that the divisive effects of the colonial conquests have lasted.
“For al-Qaeda to succeed, it must overthrow the individual nation-states in the Middle East, most of them colonial creations, and unite them into a single, pan-Islamic state.
“Al-Zawahiri then hit upon the idea of attacking the “far enemy” first. That is, since the United States was propping up the governments of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc., all of which al-Qaeda wanted to overthrow so as to meld them into a single, Islamic super-state, then it would hit the United States first.
“If the Muslim world can find a way to combine the sophisticated intellectuals and engineers of Damascus and Cairo with the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf, it could well emerge as a 21st century superpower.
“Bin Laden's dream of a united Muslim state under a revived caliphate may well be impossible to accomplish. But with the secular Baath gone, it could be one step closer to reality.”
The emergence of a successor to al-Qaeda, the brutal ISIS, a self-proclaimed Caliphate, is an internally logical, in terms of its narrative, development. This has implications.