After 9/11, global solidarity was short-lived

Posted Sept. 07, 2011, at 6:32 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 07, 2011, at 11 p.m.

The Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was photographed donating blood. Cuba offered use of its airspace and medical facilities. And the French daily Le Monde ran the front-page headline: “We are all Americans.”

Around the world on 9/11 and in the days that followed, there was widespread empathy, and a sense of shared struggle against a new, unseen enemy. Overnight, it seemed, the fight against terrorism might redefine the global order. Old enemies would become new allies. Antagonism would give way to opportunity.

But that window proved fleeting, the sense of sympathy and solidarity short-lived.

From Egypt to Pakistan, large majorities of Muslims have an unfavorable opinion of the United States and its policies abroad 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Even among traditional allies in Europe, the United States is widely viewed as acting too unilaterally and failing to take into account the interests of other countries in foreign policy decisions.

In some countries, such as China, animosity toward the United States and suspicion of American intentions has deepened. Ordinary people describe a sense of dismay over what they see as an American preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Compared to 10 years ago, our anger is stronger, not weaker,” said Luo Ruxi, 24, a recent university graduate who was in middle school at the time of the attacks, and now joins other former students for weekend gatherings at a leftist bookshop, Utopia, in Beijing.

“I think they started all these wars to divert attention from their own domestic crisis,” Luo said. “Their hegemony is well known by everybody.”

Some of the breakdown in unity was Washington’s own doing.

Perhaps the Iraq invasion, with its months-long public debate, huge antiwar protests around the globe, and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, was primarily responsible for the fraying of that post-9/11 global solidarity. Or maybe it was reports of abuses, and civilian casualties, at the hands of U.S. troops. Maybe the world simply tired of the conflicts after a decade.

Or, as also seems likely, the shift was at least partially inevitable, since the post-9/11 solidarity was always artificial and fragile.

Even at the time, the response to the attacks was not universally sympathetic. Less reported than the collective sympathy was the fact that in some quarters there was satisfaction, even jubilation, that the swaggering superpower had met its comeuppance. While Arafat gave blood, there were also anti-American celebrations on the streets of the Gaza Strip, with automatic weapons fired into the air and gunmen handing out candy to children.

In China, too, anti-Americanism had already been widespread, due in part to the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo war and the death of a Chinese pilot earlier in 2001, after his jet collided with a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea.

When word came to China of the Sept. 11 attacks, the initial reaction of many in the public was joy.

“I thought they shouldn’t bomb the twin towers. They should bomb the White House,” recalled Zhang Linna, a 25-year-old film and television producer, who was in high school in 2001.

Out of the tragedy of Sept. 11, many world leaders saw opportunity.

Russia’s then president, Vladimir Putin, saw a chance to engage fruitfully with the United States after the bad feelings over the Kosovo war, and became the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush after the attacks. Chinese President Jiang Zemin also saw the potential; China’s relations with the United States were at a low ebb, but Jiang didn’t want confrontation: He wanted to concentrate on modernizing China’s economy.

Of course, Putin and Jiang also had narrower motivations for joining Bush’s “war on terror.” For Putin, it was a chance to seek U.S. support for Russia’s struggle with violent Muslims in breakaway Chechnya as a fight against “terrorists.” For Jiang, it was a desire to win backing for China’s fight against Muslim Uighur separatists of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which Jiang wanted labeled a “terrorist organization.”

The hope that the United States would regard others’ fights as its own was also shared by ordinary people. Israelis who had endured years of Palestinian suicide attacks, Spaniards accustomed to assassinations by Basque secessionists of the ETA, and others many came to believe that with the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans would now lend them far more support.

Among those who hoped for greater American understanding was a Kenyan named Douglas Sidialo in Nairobi.

Three years earlier, Sidialo had survived his own brush with violence, on a bright Friday morning, inside his white Toyota Celica, stuck in a traffic jam 30 feet from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. An explosion. Then darkness.

Sidialo was forever blinded by the flying glass and shrapnel. The U.S. government initially helped the Nairobi bombing victims with medical rehabilitation, but much of the assistance has since stopped. Sidialo lost his job as a marketing executive, and he and his family survive on income from selling sugar cane at his small farm and his wife’s high school teacher’s salary.

The attacks did bring the governments of the United States and Kenya closer together. Kenya, along with neighbors such as Ethiopia and Uganda, is now among Washington’s strongest allies in the fight against terrorist groups. The United States has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the region and dispatched military experts to bolster the security capabilities of Kenya and its neighbors.

But Sidialo has seen his personal hope turn to disillusionment.

“What we imagined is that now the Americans will be filled with more compassion and more concern to support the Kenyan victims who are really wallowing in poverty, financial challenges and trauma,” he said. “But now it has been almost 10 years. Nothing has changed.”

Mohabeb Khan also imagined new possibilities after Sept. 11.

An Afghan immigrant, Khan had been living a pleasant life in Peshawar, Pakistan: steady work selling eyeglasses and repairing watches on the side. Many years before, one of his customers had been Osama bin Laden, who had stopped by Khan’s shop because the battery kept dying on his digital Al-Asr watch, white with gold buttons and an alarm set to ring five times a day for prayer. Khan still keeps the watch at home; bin Laden never picked it up.

In the months following Sept. 11, Khan and his family thrilled to watch the American soldiers arrive in Afghanistan. Like many Afghans, the family hated the Taliban’s repression and zealotry, and did not regret its ouster.

The family returned to Afghanistan. Khan’s eldest son, Imran, found work as an interpreter for the U.S. military. But in October 2009, Imran was killed by a roadside bomb while on a foot patrol with American soldiers in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province. Two years after his death, the family said it is still owed $20,000 in promised insurance money from the American company who had hired him.

The experience has soured their view of Americans in Afghanistan. “They don’t know how to treat people,” Mohabeb Khan said. “The biggest mistake we ever made was moving back to Afghanistan.”

While the United States has been consumed by its military interventions, and is now grappling with a massive federal debt, China over the last decade has continued to build and grow.

It has risen to become the world’s second-largest economy, surpassing Japan. The International Monetary Fund recently forecast that by at least one measure, China’s economy would overtake the United States by 2016, a feat for which many in Beijing, only half-jokingly, say the Chinese should thank Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

“Bush had to focus on the greater Middle East,” said Yu Wanli, a professor of American studies at Peking University. “We could focus on our economic development.”

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