Today I read "What's at Stake" on www.opinionjournal.com. It sounded like the typical argument that I keep hearing: we need to stand strong as a beacon of freedom and justice against this onslaught on our freedom by terrorists. I think that this misses the point. Either through hubris, ignorance, isolationism or all of the above, we keep thinking that this is all about us--that 9/11 was an attack on the American way of life or on freedom or something like that. It's my opinion that it was nothing of the sort.
Bin Laden wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate throughout the Arabic Middle East. To do that, he needs to remove the secular regimes that are currently in power. Most are supported by the US (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, etc.). Most are autocracies of one form or another (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, etc.). He probably thinks (in my opinion correctly) that removing US support to these regimes is a key part of any plan to make them fall. He also needs to polarize the average person in these countries against their leadership and the US. He does this in part by linking the US with Israel. This is also achieved by making the US out as an occupying, corrupt force in the Middle East, using the era of British imperialism as a model.
In my opinion, this is what 9/11 was about. It wasn't a strike on freedom: if we were sponsoring freedom, then we wouldn't be supporting all those regimes that I mentioned above that stifle it. We would just let people follow the course that they want to follow. Even in Iraq, for example, we aren't really fostering freedom. We're working on ways to better shape their elections, because if they are held today the country would elect a Shiite, pro-Iran party by a large margin (60%), and we can't accept that kind of free outcome. The Kurds would vote overwhelmingly for autonomy, and we can't allow that either (that would be freedom, but it would also annoy our allies the Turks).
People in the Middle East are, understandably, cynical about our motives. If a truly freely elected Iraqi government elected to nationalize their oil infrastructure, would we just stand by? No one can claim to KNOW the answer to that, but they can point to history. We didn't choose to support the side of freedom when Iran nationalized their oil infrastructure, nor with Cuba (who didn't request Soviet assistance until after we had passed an embargo after their nationalization). Normally people argue that nationalization is illegal due to "property rights", but conveniently overlook that in most of the world these property rights were established during an age of overt imperialism (Iran and Cuba both apply).
The problem here, in my opinion, isn't that we support freedom, or that we don't support freedom. It's that we act in our own selfish interest, and when applicable we use "freedom" as a cover. When not applicable, we find another cover, like "defeating the spread of communism" (Central America), "stability" (supporting 50 years of Indonesian dictators), etc. This is why we have no credibility in the international arena: everyone outside the blanket of US news coverage can see and hear what's actually happening, and then they can hear us calling these actions "upholding democracy" and "supporting freedom". At least overt imperialism is honest.
Now some will respond to this that "Hey, we're American... I don't live in Beirut or someplace like that, and, after all, you've got to look out for #1".
There are two basic economic theories:
1. Increase wealth through exchange. I trade something that I have a lot of, and you have little of, for something that you have a lot of and I have little of. We both benefit, and wealth is increased. Tends to produce stable, long-lasting historical patterns.
2. Increase wealth through exploitation. I use my (usually temporary) power advantage over you to take what you have lots of and I have little of. I benefit, you hate me, and my wealth is increased. Tends to produce a system of reciprocity and volatility in history.
The "got to look out for #1" theory is clearly economic theory #2. Use the cover of "freedom" to ensure that our own selfish interest is protected. Recognize that it will result in acts of reciprocity (terrorism, etc.), but that as long as we have the power advantage (dominating military), the benefit gained will outweigh the reciprocity. History tells us that, inevitable, tides will turn, and we'll end up getting exploited in a world dominated by this system. I see this as the world-view of George Bush, the neocons, etc. Is it a perfectly valid strategy? Yes. Do I think that it is the wisest course of action for our country? No.
The alternative, illustrated by economic theory #1, is to pursue mutually beneficial action. Following our selfish interest (even in the "name" of freedom) may be more profitable in the short term, but increasing our mutual wealth through following the most mutually beneficial action is the most profitable in the long term. The prisoner's dilemma in economic game theory illustrates this clearly. So does the Nash Equilibrium (have you seen "A Beautiful Mind"?). It is difficult, in an age of immediate-horizon politics and an emotionally reactionary American populace to follow such a policy, but it is possible, and in my opinion, it is clearly the wisest choice. While by no means perfect, I think that John Kerry will follow a set of policies much more in line with this principle of mutually beneficial action. He has demonstrated (and more importantly, Bush has demonstrated the opposite) that it is often necessary to make short term sacrifices to build relationships that will foster the kind of world system that provides benefit to all, not just to the powerful. Power only makes you safe as long as you have most of it. Setting aside our national hubris for a moment, we should realize that history tells us that we will inevitably, eventually be in a position where we don't have most of it anymore. When that happens, our safety, our prosperity will be determined by what kind of world-system we foster today. Memories of our temporary wealth will make us (or more likely, posterity) wonder what kind of short-sighted people our ancestors were. Just my opinion, but I think that is the true answer to "What's at Stake".