Prediction Is Hazardous—Reflections on 9/11, Global Terror, and Global Democracy

Ten years ago, just days after the World Trade Center attack, Charles Tilly courageously put forth for the SSRC thirteen predictions about the attackers, their operations, and the consequences of their actions. Let me address his two last predictions:

12. Bombing the presumed originator(s) of Tuesday’s attacks and forcing other countries to choose sides will therefore aggravate the very conditions American leaders will declare they are preventing.

13. If so, democracy (defined as relatively broad and equal citizenship, binding consultation of citizens, and protection from arbitrary actions by governmental agents) will decline across the world.

Tilly was concerned that bombing Bin Laden’s outposts in Afghanistan would boomerang against the United States and its allies. I doubted it and responded that the Taliban was primed for a quick defeat by indigenous forces if backed by the United States and that no other major Islamic regimes would step in to help the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

In my view of the Taliban’s vulnerability, I was correct, as the Northern Alliance with US support quickly overthrew the Taliban. However, what none of us could have foreseen in 2001 was that the Bush administration, spoiling for a reason to reshape the Middle East by overturning Saddam Hussein’s regime, would use the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for attacking Iraq. Indeed, one of the reasons given for attacking Saddam was that he was allegedly giving operational support to Al-Qaeda in its attacks on Western targets, a claim that has since been overturned by several investigations, including the 9/11 Commission.

While no Arab state and few Muslims shed tears for the overthrow of the Taliban by the US-backed Northern Alliance, the invasion of Iraq was another matter altogether. The invasion, and the abusive treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, provided Al-Qaeda and its offshoots enormous propaganda resources for recruitment and indeed did “aggravate the very conditions American leaders will declare they are preventing.” It was followed by terror attacks in Madrid and London and other less successful attempts at mass terrorism. Within Iraq itself, Al-Qaeda found a haven in regions of Sunni-led resistance against the US-installed provisional government and fomented a sectarian war that killed untold thousands and forced America to commit tens of thousands of troops for what is now eight years and counting.

Meanwhile, the occupation of US troops in Iraq has meant the neglect of Afghanistan, giving the Taliban an opportunity to regroup and build resistance to the US-supported Karzai government there. Tens of thousands of US and allied troops have had to be mobilized and sent to Afghanistan to prevent a seizure of power by the same Taliban organization that was so swiftly defeated a decade ago.

So Tilly turned out to be right after all. The overreaction of the United States to the events of 9/11 did aggravate terror attacks. But the overreaction that mattered was not simply the direct pursuit of the 9/11 terrorists. Rather, it was the effort to move from that more limited task to the grander vision of reshaping the Middle East by regime change in Iraq that truly aggravated the situation. And the direct invasion of Iraq was not a response to 9/11 that any academic analyst had anticipated at the time.

Fortunately, however, Tilly was wrong in his very last prediction—that pursuing a war on terror would lead to the decline of democracy across the world. No doubt the most surprising consequence of the 9/11 attacks, a decade later, is the overthrow of precisely those anti-democratic regimes that received US backing in the name of defense against terrorism—first in Pakistan, Tunisia, and Egypt, and now in Libya.

For most of the first decade after 9/11, Tilly would have had the better argument. As he predicted, the insistence that you are “with us or against us” in the “war on terror” led the United States to support authoritarian regimes across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Uzbekistan, in its effort to build alliances “against terror.” US allies included such dictators as Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and a seemingly “rehabilitated” Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. All felt immune from any need to make concessions to opponents or tolerate democratic openings, inasmuch as they thought themselves vital to US interests in the conflict with Al-Qaeda and its followers.

Even the US government, engaging in warrantless eavesdropping and the use of torture and creating a “Constitution-free zone” at Guantanamo Bay, was clearly retreating from higher to lower standards of democracy in the name of prosecuting the war on terror.

Yet by August 2011, each of the dictators mentioned above—Musharraf, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi—had been turned out of office by popular democratic movements that had no relation to Al-Qaeda or to jihadist terrorism. Bin Laden himself was dead, and Al-Qaeda’s operations and capabilities had been greatly, perhaps permanently, degraded.

How did things change so rapidly? Just as Al-Qaeda’s initial attack on the United States provoked a US reaction that led to a reduction in democracy at home and support of anti-democratic regimes abroad, the actions of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and America’s unquestioning support of “friendly” dictators both produced counter-reactions of their own.

With the invasion of Iraq, one of the main theaters of war between Al-Qaeda and the United States became the battle between the US-supported Iraqi government and the Al-Qaeda–supported Sunni insurgency. Al-Qaeda’s tactics were to foment sectarian war between Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq as well as to attack US forces. While successful at first, Al-Qaeda in Iraq then overstepped reasonable bounds, committing such brutalities against not only Shia and US enemies but also Sunnis suspected of collaborating with the Iraqi government that Sunni tribal leaders turned against the Al-Qaeda forces in their country.

Meanwhile, as the dictators of the Arab world who received US support felt greater and greater impunity and independence from their own people, they indulged in greater degrees of corruption and oppression. Indeed, the very stability and external support of their regimes led domestic democratic forces to conclude that change by reform was impossible and that direct action would be necessary to change their governments. Organizing through labor unions, student organizations, and Internet networks, pro-democracy forces struggled for existence but gradually gained support. As the United States drew down its forces in Iraq while Iraqis took increasing charge of their own affairs, and as US and allied forces were thrown on the defensive in Afghanistan, US support for Arab dictators no longer seemed so imposing.

The first counter-reaction came following the siege and storming of the Red Mosque in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, by Pakistani forces at the command of then-President Musharraf. This action led to popular revulsion against Musharraf and judicial attacks on his power. Conflict between the judges and Musharraf escalated, leading to calls for the latter’s impeachment and his resignation following the assassination of his political opponent, Benazir Bhutto.

Though Musharraf was the first autocrat whose effort to rule based on allying himself with the United States against “terror” came undone, he would not be the last. A sharp downturn in the world economy in 2008 combined with spikes in food prices in late 2010 promoted broader mobilization in the Arab world, especially against rulers who had withdrawn food subsidies or whose interference in the economy had created anomalously high levels of youth unemployment (which were roughly twice the world average in northern Africa in 2005–2010). Such popular mobilization might have been defeated as it had often been in the past, but by 2010 the professional militaries in Tunisia and Libya had themselves started to feel betrayed by their national leaders.

As with Musharraf in Pakistan, the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt were seen as relying more on US support than on the support of their own people and were believed to be using their positions to steer resources and power to their own families rather than remaining committed to the military. The army thus stood aside when popular revolts overwhelmed the police and plainclothes security forces of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. Shortly thereafter, when a revolt in Libya began, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, much of the army stepped aside, leaving only mercenaries and a few brigades loyal to Qaddafi family members to defend the regime. When the heavy equipment of those forces was neutralized by NATO actions, the rebels were able to close in on Tripoli and destroy Qaddafi’s power.

Thus, a decade having passed since the 9/11 attacks, the outcome is hardly what anyone could have imagined. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were routed but have returned in force and will likely play a role of some kind in future Afghan governments. Elsewhere in the Middle East, US-allied dictators who sought to make themselves allies of the United States against Al-Qaeda have themselves been turned out of power. Yet Al-Qaeda’s leader is dead, and its forces are gravely weakened.

What has triumphed in the wake of 9/11 was not Al-Qaeda’s brand of anti-Western Islamist expansion, nor US “realism” and the regimes it supported. Rather, the one ideology that seems to have spread and persisted—from Pakistan to Tunisia to Egypt to Libya and perhaps next to Syria and beyond—is democracy, in the sense of demanding respect for the individual and the accountability of governments.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether any of these countries will succeed in consolidating their emerging democracies, and the quality of their democratic governance will likely leave a lot to be desired for some time. Building democracy—as it was in Europe and the United States—will be a lengthy process of institutionalizing the protection of individual rights, building support for pluralism and political equality, and creating government institutions worthy of trust and constrained by law and popular consent.

Yet it seems undeniable that the desire for dignity, individual rights, and democratic accountability has turned out to be stronger than the ideology of Bin Laden or the alliance-building of George W. Bush. This is the great irony that we see on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: that in reaction to the deaths and disruption caused by both Al-Qaeda’s attacks and America’s response, the dominant feature of the Islamic world is the rejection of both jihadist and anti-jihadist forms of authoritarianism. Instead, what we see marking that anniversary is the courageous pursuit of democracy by masses of ordinary people across the Arab world.


Jack A. Goldstone is Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. His latest book is Political Demography: How Population Changes are Reshaping International Security and National Politics (2011). Follow his blog at http://newpopulationbomb.wordpress.com.