The Power Problem: Third in a series of views on lessons learned in the exercise of American power in the decade since 9/11.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from September 11, 2001 is that even with international terrorism, local politics matter. And the domestic politics of other states can have profound implications for what happens in the United States. For instance, the Al Qaeda of the 1990s was not engaged in a global jihad. Its main focus was Saudi Arabia and the ousting of foreign and western influences from that country. Only after repeated failures did Al Qaeda broaden its sights, targeting not the near enemy at home but the far enemy abroad, and in the process transforming the movement into a global network of committed comrades. The point is that although the resources Al Qaeda mobilized were global, the issues over which they and allied groups struggled were fundamentally local.
Consider the origins of the recent Arab Spring. The oft-discussed factors of radical Islam, foreign intervention, and anti-Americanism were not in play. Rather the many demonstrations emerged from local, domestic politics of the individual states themselves. We have seen this before: it was Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘perfect storm’ combination of glasnost and perestroika that caused the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 and the USSR in 1991. Glasnost’ or “openness” made it possible for average Soviets to compare their own lives—security, liberty, prosperity—with the lives of people living in other countries, and the comparison proved very unfavorable. Then perestroika, or “restructuring,” gave this disgruntled mass a political outlet for their growing resentment. The result was an unraveling of the state that could only be stopped by extreme violence, which Gorbachev, to his everlasting credit, was not willing to authorize. In hindsight it remains unclear whether the unleashing of such violence would have succeeded anyway.
But why did so many in the West miss this process? Why did only a few, working in obscurity, predict the relatively peaceful collapse of a massive, nuclear-armed state, governed under the principles of a radical ideology? The answer has to do with a faulty reasoning that expects that only global processes lead to global transformation, and that only local processes lead to local transformations.
So the Arab Spring teaches us the same thing. Far from the expectations of many in the West who believe that because a minority of radical Islamists claim to have broad legitimacy, and that they are able on occasion to physically harm others, that they in fact represent the aspirations of people in the Arab world and beyond. Rather, the Arab uprisings revealed that today’s people (in the Arab world assuredly, but not only there) desire a system of governance that promotes accountability, transparency, and protection of individual’s needs and interests.
The problem is that this momentous political reform need not result in “democracy” in order to justify the very real sacrifice that the region’s protestors have made in toppling their corrupt leaders. This is only bad news for the West because it typically assumes that what is “good” for its own people and politics is good for everyone else’s people and politics. But it would require a willful disregard for history to assume that democracy is the only or best form of political association capable of improving and safeguarding the lives, liberty, and prosperity of a state’s people. It is just as likely that what the people who risked their lives in the Arab Spring want is better autocrats rather than democrats (at least for now: democracy may come generations down the line).
But regardless of whether it is some form of popular sovereignty or benign dictatorship that is sought, the Arab Spring is bad news for Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has justified murder—indeed mass murder—on the grounds of promoting greater justice by toppling dictators and, moreover, has promised that the only path to reform is the path of eye-for-an-eye murder. Many in the West have forgotten that for most Muslims, whether in the Arab world or beyond—Al Qaeda’s murders have not been welcomed or admired, but have instead inspired revulsion. Now that individuals, families, and small communities have united at great personal risk to topple their tyrants, their success has knocked the prop from beneath Al Qaeda’s entire ideological universe. Change can come from peaceful and nonviolent sacrifice, inshallah.
True, the demise of Al Qaeda will not mean an end to its capacity or willingness to pursue violence in the name of justice right away. But the writing is now on the wall. The irony is that Al Qaeda pioneered the notion of organizing globally to affect politics locally, and that young people with their own more modest agendas (jobs, education, healthcare, housing) and mobile phones have succeeded the same way, but with the crucial difference of making themselves the potential victims of violence rather than victimizing others in the name of justice. Welcome to glocalism.
(More on ‘glocalism’ can be found in Toft’s most recent book, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, co-authored with Daniel Philpott and Timothy Samuel Shah.)