Looking to the year ahead, I suspect New Zealanders haven't yet come to grips with the significance of Nine Eleven, as the Americans call it. The toppling of the World Trade Centre in 2001 will eventually be seen as a critical turning point in modern history. It was the first time since the war of 1812 that the American mainland had been "invaded", and it has stirred forces within the world's only super power that will take a long time to settle. I suspect there is a decade or more of wars and rumours of war ahead, and a fair chance that one or more of them will be nuclear. The most powerful nation on earth has been roused like never before. During the twentieth century it saw off communism; its Chinese manifestation is capitalism by another name. Democratic socialism died a natural death, although bands of mourners, some still in positions of authority, pray for its resurrection. The new threat is not new; it's medieval; it's religiously inspired, and like the European wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, capable of causing widespread misery. It will be defeated if only because the values advanced by Muslim extremists are unacceptable to a majority of people on earth, and even to a majority of Muslims. Religious fundamentalism has never filled empty stomachs, nor satisfied a basic human craving for freedom. Mullahs won't foot it with capitalists. Proving this, however, will be a painful process.
Nine Eleven has caused the United States to re-think its Middle Eastern strategy. After World War Two the Americans played a light-handed game of balance, co-existing with a procession of undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya to name a few. America ensured that none gained hegemony over the region, and that supplies of oil flowed westward. But popular fascination with western culture and democratic values within the Middle East continually threatened the authoritarian regimes that American policy tolerated. In many non-Muslim parts of the world, autocracies were slowly crumbling. Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Greece, South Africa and the Soviet empire gradually embraced democracy. In the Middle East, however, relatively small elites governing those lands revelled so much in the oil largesse that they determined not to surrender without a fight. Religious fundamentalism has been stoked from on high for political purposes in much the same way that Europe's kings and queens once promoted it as a cover for imperial grandeur. Fundamentalism survives because mostly male elites enjoy access to education. Women in particular are denied it. Stories about Saudi oil money finding its way to El Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, and the well-documented Iraqi funding of Palestinian suicide bombings, are the tip of the ice-berg. For years now, corrupt Middle Eastern elites have stirred fanaticism in the hope that domestic unrest brought on by a democratic deficiency at home will be diverted into anti-American terrorism abroad. We shouldn't be surprised about this; throughout history, foreign adventure has reinforced dictatorships.
Nine Eleven brought the United States up with a round turn. It starkly reminded Americans that their Middle Eastern policies were self-defeating. They were vulnerable in ways they hadn't contemplated. There is now a mood amongst Americans that if the United States doesn't get the enemy first, it will become its victim. The War on Terrorism preached by Vice-President Cheney and Defence Secretary Rumsfeld has a messianic note to it. Zealotry has usually evoked zealotry. Suspecting Saddam has carefully hidden his weapons, possibly in Syria, the US administration seems determined to go into Iraq, no matter what the inspectors find. They will clean out Saddam, and attempt to erect what most Muslim elites fear most: a form of democracy. The corrupt Saudi elite is terrified; Syria's recent vote with the Security Council majority almost certainly reflected the regime's unease at the prospect of democracy next door. The ayotollahs in Iran are grappling with partial democracy and losing the battle. Further eastward, Pakistan and India, the two South Asian nuclear powers, both corrupt, both grossly over-populated, could erupt at any time, and well might when the US is preoccupied with Iraq. And we haven't mentioned North Korea.
Estimates last week of the likely cost of a war in Iraq at US$50 billion - down from earlier calculations of US$200 billion, must be gross underestimates of the costs of any pre-emptive strike. This time the consequences will be with us until some approximation of democracy is installed throughout the Middle East, and state-funded religious fundamentalism wanes. Anyone who thinks we'll be celebrating those outcomes inside a decade lives in a dream world. But the current mood within the US is going to ensure that the mission starts quite soon. The root cause lies with Muslim fanaticism's funders. Fasten your seat belts: the next decade may well be even more turbulent than 1914-18 and 1939-45 combined.
Michael Bassett recently returned from four months as Fulbright Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC.