Opinion

The Great Debate

9/11 in history: chapter or footnote?

By Dominic Streatfeild
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Historians like to break up human progress into bite-sized pieces. It’s a useful technique: segregated and labelled, historical eras offer prisms through which to view the past, making it easier to comprehend. Typically, they’re bookmarked by inventions: the wheel, the steam engine, the atom bomb. Intellectual movements fit nicely, too: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism. Each innovation provides a paradigm shift, ushering in a way of thinking previously inconceivable but, after its emergence, unignorable.

Occasionally, waypoints are provided by momentous events. A happening of sufficient magnitude (the argument goes) jars the historical process decisively, severing the connection between past and future, sweeping away the old and paving the way for the new. The Flood in Genesis, the birth of Christ, the attack on Pearl Harbor – all “watershed” moments. Bookmarking such events not only provides useful academic waypoints, it also offers another important service: reassurance. With the sweeping away of the old comes trepidation. The birth of a “new era” provides a link to the past: there have been epochal events before. Things have changed rapidly, and not always for the better. We have survived them. We will again.

The impact of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8.46 a.m. on 11 September 2001 was immediately labelled a watershed event. Seventy-six minutes later, after both the South Tower and the Pentagon had been hit, United Airlines Flight 93’s calamitous descent into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,marked the end of the attacks – and the start of a still-ongoing attempt to define what, exactly, they meant.

Certainly, the strikes were unprecedented. For George W. Bush, they marked a change of political eras ‘as sharp and clear as Pearl Harbor’. Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed. ‘Not only is the Cold War over,’ he explained, ‘the post-Cold War period is also over.’

Around the world the media reiterated the global significance of the event, most famously Le Monde. “Today,” stated the French newspaper, “we are all Americans.” Perhaps Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department, put it most pithily: “History starts today.” Intuitively, all of these statements made perfect sense. The magnitude – and audacity – of the 9/11 attacks were staggering. All, however, was not as it seemed.

The 9/11 generation

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called “the 9/11 generation,” the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.

“They’re a generation of innovators,” he declared. “And they’ve changed the way America fights and wins at wars.”

The following day, at a ceremony marking his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus affirmed Tom Brokaw’s similar praise as the two men toured Iraq in 2003.

from Ian Bremmer:

Post-surge Afghanistan and post-surge Obama

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

When President Barack Obama announced in late 2009 that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, few were as pleased as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. A holdover from the George W. Bush administration, Gates had championed the 2007 surge of troops into Iraq, a move that helped turn both the tide in that country and public opinion in the U.S. on its future. Gates and the generals hoped for similar success against the Taliban.

But how do you measure success in a place like Afghanistan? Soldiers, no matter how many, can’t build democratic, financial and industrial institutions overnight. At best, they can help make Afghans safer and life much harder for those who would launch attacks beyond the country’s borders. By that measure, the record of both surges is mixed, if generally positive. But post-surge, one thing is certain: Obama allowed Gates to prosecute the war on his terms, but new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will be asked to implement a plan that has less to do with Kandahar than with Capitol Hill.

Withdrawal is the right move, maybe the only move, for Team Obama. The president has gotten the politics of the moment exactly right, yet again. In the first half of his term, he retained Bush’s team at the Pentagon and reshuffled his top generals, namely David Petraeus, through various leadership positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A surge that seemed to be working was allowed to play out, and Bush was likely to take the blame if the strategy failed. But President Obama knows that Bush’s burdens are now his—the economy, jobs and the wars.

Obama, Moses and exaggerated expectations

-Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-

President Barack Obama is close to the half-way mark of his presidential mandate, a good time for a brief look at health care, unemployment, war, the level of the oceans, the health of the planet, and America’s image. They all featured in a 2008 Obama speech whose rhetoric soared to stratospheric heights.

“If…we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I’m absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs for the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last best hope on earth.”

The date was June 3, 2008. Obama had just won the Democratic Party’s nomination as presidential candidate. He was also winning the adulation of the majority of the American people, who shrugged off mockery from curmudgeonly Republicans who pointed out that the last historical figure to affect ocean levels was Moses and he had divine help when he parted the Red Sea.

9/11 and the nine year war

SEPT11/

The following is a condensed version of George Friedman’s geopolitical column for STRATFOR, a global intelligence company where Friedman is chief executive officer.

It has now been nine years since al Qaeda attacked the United States. And it has been nine years of America primarily focusing on the Islamic world. Over this period of time, the United States has engaged in two multi-year, multi-divisional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, inserted forces in other countries in smaller operations and conducted a global covert campaign against al Qaeda and other radical jihadist groups.

In order to understand the last nine years, we must understand the first 24 hours of the war — and recall our own feelings in those 24 hours. First, the audacious nature of the attack was both shocking and frightening. Second, we did not know what was coming next.

Iraq, America and hired guns

Here is a summary of America’s future role in Iraq, in the words of President Barack Obama: “Our commitment is changing — from a military effort led by our soldiers to a diplomatic effort led by our diplomats.”

And here is a note of caution about that promised change: “Current planning for transitioning vital functions in Iraq from the Department of Defense to the Department of State is not adequate for effective coordination of billions of dollars in new contracting, and risks both financial waste and undermining U.S. policy objectives.”

Obama’s statement came in an Aug. 2 speech in which he confirmed that by the end of this month, America’s combat role would end. The 50,000 American soldiers remaining in Iraq (down from a peak of almost 170,000) would advise, train and support Iraqi security forces. By the end of next year, the last U.S. soldier would come home.

WikiLeaks and the psychology of leaking

The following is a guest post by Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is the managing principal of Boswell Group LLC. He advises business and political leaders on the dynamics of authority and governance, leadership transitions, and psychological due diligence. The opinions expressed are his own.

With the publication last week of WikiLeaks’ trove of classified documents on the Afghanistan war, the focus has been on the devastating picture they provide of the war. But a critical piece of the puzzle is not being addressed: what are the motivations of the leakers?

According to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, the documents reveal “the more pervasive levels of violence” and “the general squalor of war.” Sadly, that’s no surprise.

Afghanistan and America’s troubled backyard

The United States is spending around $6.5 billion a month on the war in faraway Afghanistan, where a large part of its effort is meant to help the government assert its authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.

Closer to home, the U.S. has allotted $44 million a month to help the governments of its closest neighbours – Mexico and Central America – assert their authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.
The two cases raise questions about American priorities. If money were the only gauge, one might draw the conclusion that it is 147 times more important for Washington to bring security and good governance to Afghanistan than to America’s violence-plagued next-door neighbours — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, 6,000 people have died in the past two and a half years, a number that dwarfs the military death toll of Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. Central America, according to a U.N. report, has become the region with the world’s highest murder rate, an average of about 1,300 a month.

In Afghanistan, history rhymes

The faltering war in Afghanistan brings to mind a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain and a less famous one by Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Twain: “History does not repeat itself but it rhymes.” Gates: “Tough decisions: … how to get out, when, and without losing face.”

The Gates quote, in his 1996 memoir (From the Shadows), refers to the Soviet leadership which by the mid-1980s had decided to end its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan but had not figured out exactly how to do that.

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989, at the end of an exit strategy which began with a sharp increase in the number of troops and centered on building up government forces to fight an insurgency rapidly gathering momentum.

from The Great Debate UK:

Following the aid money with Linda Polman

As political leaders wrangle over how best to deal with warring factions in hot spots around the world, enclaves of humanitarian aid workers grapple with how best to help innocent victims of violence.

Author and journalist Linda Polman proposes in "War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times" that since the end of the Cold War, there is much more at stake than the simple distribution of billions of dollars in aid money each year to fix crisis situations. Aid agencies relegated in the past to the peripheries of war zones and refugee camps now play a very different role.

An estimated 37,000 international non-governmental organisations follow the flow of aid money and compete with each other for billions of dollars, Polman writes, reporting that Organisation of Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) donor countries contribute $120 billion (84 billion pounds) a year for developmental cooperation and an estimated $11.2 billion for emergency humanitarian relief. Some $6 billion a year is channeled into humanitarian aid out of the combined tax revenues of the world's richest countries, she says.

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