9/11 more akin to the Titanic disaster than Pearl Harbour

Being on holiday during the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington spared me having to wade through excessive acres of introspection and analysis about what it can now be seen to have meant for America and the wider world.

I mean no disrespect to the 2 977 killed on that dreadful day — or those, far more, who have since died as a result — because what I have managed to read since re-engaging with the day job at the weekend suggests that most commentary has missed the big story of the decade. It wasn’t Osama bin Laden or the Twin Towers.

Yet the two camps which came into existence almost from the moment the second plane hit the World Trade Centre — confirming that this was terrorism, not pilot error — are still clearly visible 10 years on, both marking the anniversary in exaggerated terms.

The “Blame America” crowd, which said the US had it coming, dwells on the countless mistakes made during the so-called “war on terror” — errors of strategy, failures of morality, acts of myopic stupidity which have lowered America’s power and prestige.

The “America First and Last” crowd have done themselves — and others — even more harm by injecting tub-thumping, self-justificatory nationalism into their veins.

No wonder Barack Obama, situated somewhere in the middle, finds it so hard to govern. He pulls US forces back from Iraq, increases their presence in Afghanistan, where the death toll has been rising again and gets credit for neither. He sanctions the killing of Bin Laden, but refrains from triumphalism: ditto. George Bush stays largely silent. Tony Blair strikes what often sounds like a defiantly inflexible note, as he did last week over Iran, allowing the “Blame Blair” crowd to rejoice again.

Riding roughshod
It is easy now to see now that Washington over-reacted to the 9/11 attacks, planes as improvised explosive devices (“low tech, high concept”) and rode roughshod over its own standards of legality and liberty in response to the sheer shock of such an unprecedented onslaught on the US mainland, nothing so bloody as the civil war battlefields of the 1860s.

Blair’s Britain went along with it — the cost recently estimated at $3.3-trillion to the US alone — for reasons which were (I still think) strategically valid, but largely disastrous in their application. The political future of the Middle East remains as uncertain as it was before the Arab Spring, as do relations between Islam and the west.

There are grounds for both optimism and alarm. No major plot against the US or western Europe has succeeded for years. But militant Islam remains a serious threat on the edge of our society: Munir Farooqi, a Taliban jihadi recruiter old enough to know better (54) was jailed for life in Manchester only last week. But it is not the only threat: looters from the “underclass” are more numerous.

But all this is to wander away from my point, one which — from what I have managed to read so far — has been forcefully made only by the Guardian‘s Timothy Garton Ash when he asked, in effect, whether al-Qaeda was really a Chinese plot?

Economic shift from West to East
The central story of the last decade is not 9/11 but the re-emergence of China as a major world player, prospectively the major world player quite soon. The real story is of the economic shift from West to East, what they have been doing well and we have been handling badly.

In that context 9/11 and its aftermath were a distraction, a challenge which had previously been sidestepped and had to be addressed but in more proportionate form.

Easier said than done given the shocked and angry mood of America at the time and the nature of the Bush administration. But more of that $3.3-trillion — a sizeable chunk of the debt mountain Bush bequeathed to Obama, much of it held by wary Chinese creditors — would have been better spent on peaceful research and education rather than employing more homeland security staff on low wages.

The parallel story is that of the self-inflicted banking crisis in Wall St, the City and the eurozone — a crisis far from over. Many Asians used to think that, whatever our shortcomings in other directions, we knew what we were doing in finance capitalism. No longer. In the long haul the September 15 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers — an investment bank with no retail arm, Vickers committee please note — is likely to be seen as more significant than the fall of the Twin Towers.

Except in terms of live TV footage, of course where 9/11 still outperforms 9/15. But the drag anchor on our economies — now so evident – stems from hubristic over-confidence during what was billed as “the great moderation”, two decades when low inflation appeared to combine with rising incomes and economic growth.

In reality much of its appears to have been the product of cheap Chinese manufactures and cheap Chinese savings, the latter loaned to finance the purchase of the former. I simplify, of course, but rarely can self-delusion have been so spectacular or pervasive. They thought the Twin Towers invulnerable. They thought Wall St had become so too. “This time it’s different,” as the old saying goes.

In the days after 9/11 I remember thinking that the US could shake off the disaster, rebuild the World Trade Centre in a year if it put its collective mind to it — and see off al-Qaeda too. The comparison with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 was so obviously apt and the war it triggered was a foregone conclusion. Churchill said on hearing the news: “So, we have won after all.” He was right.

To my surprise I no longer think that. Barack Obama is not finished politically, but he presides over an economy and a political landscape which will not be easily fixed — not that Europe looks in any better shape, by most tests worse.

In that sense the 9/11 story may better be compared to the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 than to Pearl Harbour or the assassination at Sarajevo that triggered the first world war, as a symbol of misplaced self-confidence and over-mighty pride before a looming fall. For “tallest towers” read “biggest and fastest ship”. Bin Laden was not a Chinese agent, but an iceberg. And floating icebergs melt.

By coincidence I relaxed during my holiday (we’re all odd in our own way) by reading the Anglo-Spanish historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s 2010 book, 1492 (Bloomsbury), the year he chooses to explain how the modern world emerged in assorted countries and continents.

It’s a lively read and I was especially struck by his explanation for the failure of Europe’s dominant military and cultural power in 1492, the Ottoman Empire, to emerge as a world power in the way that Spain, France and even little England soon did. What it lacked was access to the world’s oceans which neither the nearby Black Sea, the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea could provide.

The Sultan’s formidable navy controlled the eastern Mediterranean, but not the straits of Gibraltar, where Western navies usually had an advantage. Not cultural or technical, not religious or political, but the fact of the wind and the sun behind them. They could expect to fight with their sails full.

But in discounting familiar explanations for Europe rise to world domination — capitalism, the rule of law, competing nation states or science (Asia was far richer and more sophisticated at the time) — the author does not put it all down to geographical determinism. It’s not what European explorers did — Fernández-Armesto says the likes of Columbus were fired up by medieval tales of knights on quests in search of fame, adventure and fortune — which made the decisive difference, but what the Ottomans, Indians or Chinese failed to do in the late 15th century.

The Ottomans (my example, not his) banned the new-fangled printing press while the conservative Confucian bureaucracy re-established its control of the Ming court in China. It both recalled and destroyed the great fleets which had begun exploring the world ahead of the Portuguese in their tiny ships. Many records of their discoveries were destroyed too. China opted for stability and introspection. In fairness, it’s still there — unlike those maritime European empires.

Comforting narrative
The 9/11 optimists today argue that, despite setbacks, the globalised world is steadily moving towards capitalism, accountable government and openness, free trade and markets, food enough for everyone thanks to the wonders of technology. It’s a comforting narrative in tough times and optimism is always a good idea.

But, whatever the exact model emerging for the future, it will exist more on Chinese and Indian terms, Brazilian too at a stretch, than we can yet imagine. It may not be so benign as we imagine either. The choices we collectively make, do make a difference, good or bad. That is the real lesson of 9/11: look forwards, not backwards, but try to learn from the mistakes of the past. – guardian.co.uk

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