Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The most important events of the 2000s - how have they impacted upon the world?

As with any review or analysis of the past ten years there really is only one place to start, and that is with September 11th. For years the terrorist network Al Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden, had objected to the presence of United States soldiers in Saudi Arabia and the policy employed by the US towards Israel. Two separate fatwa’s were issued, the first in 1996 calling for American soldiers to leave Saudi Arabia, and the second two years later encouraging violent action against United States citizens in order to reverse the country’s position on Israel. Bin Laden had previously declared a holy war against the US and by 2001 was ready to carry out an attack. This constituted a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks on targets throughout America, the most high-profile of these the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11th, 2001. 9/11, as it has since become widely known, took the lives of 2,976 victims from a total of 90 nations, as well as the 19 hijackers, and constituted the highest death toll of any ‘suicide attack’ in history. The Pentagon was also attacked, whilst a fourth jet liner crash landed in a field near Shanksville in Pennsylvania, following a struggle between passengers and the hijackers.

The images of brutality and suffering shocked both the United States and the world, and resulted in the commencement of the ongoing ‘war on terror’, the passing of the USA PATRIOT act, which strengthened the ability of law enforcement agencies to gather intelligence on potential terrorists. As with nearly all major events in American history, 9/11 has been immortalised in a number of Hollywood films, but no airbrushed, heroic epic starring Matt Damon or Tom Cruise could ever have such an impact as the image of the Twin Towers, icons of the capitalist world, burning and sending thick black smoke over the New York skyline. September 11th can essentially be seen to sum up the world we live in; innocent civilians attacked due to governmental actions in foreign lands, great heroism amongst the emergency services and individuals caught up in the attacks, and the retaliatory ‘war on terror’ promising huge retribution on essentially any county the United States chose, and providing the US with a 'blank cheque' to democratise the Middle East by force. For many 9/11 constitutes the moment the world became unsafe again; having been subjected to the threat of nuclear annihilation for nearly fifty years during the Cold War, 9/11 uncovered the new threat; more willing to enact destruction upon innocent people than many before it, and prepared to involve the most powerful country in the world in an ongoing conflict in order to achieve its aim.

Following the tragic events of September 11th President Bush immediately launched an invasion of Afghanistan, accused of harbouring many of the terrorists involved in the attack. Operation Enduring Freedom, as it was officially know, resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the institution of free elections, from which Hamid Karzai was elected President. Although millions of dollars have been distributed in aid and for the creation of infrastructure, Karzai’s government is believed to hold little power outside the capital Kabul, with the Taliban still wielding strong influence in many regions. Whilst the invasion arguably achieved its objectives, and constituted a multi-national operation with troops representing over forty countries, it has understandably been thought of as an American conflict, and a key part of the United States’ post-9/11 retaliation. Whilst back in 2001 88% of Americans and 65% of the British public backed military actions in Afghanistan, by late 2008 68% of Britons favoured withdrawal as soon as possible, with around 33% of the US public feeling the same. More than 1,000 coalition troops have given their lives for the war, a number which continues to rise, and for a conflict with no end in sight.

It is arguable that no matter how many troops are deployed to Afghanistan the Taliban may never be removed. Indeed it is probable that Taliban insurgents will simply continue to concentrate their support amongst isolated rural communities and use strategies including terrorist attacks and roadside bombings to inflict huge casualties on coalition troops. The efforts to ensure a ‘free and fair election’ in Afghanistan this summer were hugely disrupted by Taliban attacks, and despite Karzai apparently gaining 54% of the vote, thousands of votes and polling ballots were accused of being fraudulent. With the International Council on Security and Development stating that the Taliban had a “permanent presence” in 80% of the country, it appears that the United States’ policy on Afghanistan will be to continue supporting an “appropriate” regime with negligible control over the majority of the country, against an enemy allegedly provided with funding and armaments by the CIA in the early 1980s in order to resist the Soviet invasion. What is clear however is that the war in Afghanistan is a long way from being won, and will likely require even greater troop commitment and sacrifice in order for any progress to be made. Meanwhile both Britain and the United States are vulnerable to terrorist attacks perpetrated by groups such as al Qaeda who remain able to operate in Afghanistan.

When attempting to provide an overview of the past decade it is impossible to ignore the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the ‘coalition of the willing’, led by the “defenders of the free world”, the United States. If the war in Afghanistan was part of the ‘war on terror’, then for me the Iraq conflict was simply an attempt by the United States to remove a man who for the past fifteen years had defied, embarrassed and refused to co-operate with both the US and United Nations. The man in question is of course Saddam Hussein, captured by American forces in December 2003 and executed by the Iraqi authorities under US supervision three years later having been charged with the execution of 148 Iraqi Shi’ites accused of planning his assassination. The justification for the war was the now-infamous “threat” to the United States posed by Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, which was quickly proved to be non-existent, and despite the largest ever anti-war demonstration in Rome of more than three million people a month before the invasion, Bush’s will was unaffected.

The Iraq War has had many severe repercussions, not least upon Iraq itself. Over 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced and made refugees since the 2003 invasion, whilst hundreds of thousands have died in order for their country to become a democracy. Whilst the American and British governments claimed the war to be in the interests of domestic and international security, Iraq was never a threat, in terms of nuclear weapons, to either nation. If anything the Iraq war has served to make the world far less safe, increase ill-feeling towards the “West” across the Middle East and promote instability in Iraq and neighbouring countries. I like many others see the invasion of Iraq as an attempt by the United States to remove an ‘inappropriate’ government at whatever cost and an attempt to pacify the desire for a ‘response’ to September 11th within the US, and it unfortunately appears to have learnt little from the failure of such a policy.

In 2004 what ought to have been a period of great happiness and joy was turned on its head by one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, which struck the Indian Ocean just after midnight on December 26th. The ‘Boxing Day Tsunami’ resulted in the deaths of 230,000 people from eleven countries, and affected many more. The hardest hit countries were India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, in which more than a million people were displaced due to the series of deadly tsunamis which resulted from the second strongest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. The effects were felt around the world, with eight people in South Africa killed due to abnormally high waves and sea levels, and around 9,000 Western tourists dead or missing. Of all the European nations, Sweden suffered the deaths of 543 holidaymakers, making it by far the hardest hit.

The sadness and devastating nature of the disaster was exacerbated by the news that around 1/3 of those killed by the Tsunami were children, due to the high populations of children in the affected areas and the fact that they were less able to resist being overcome by the surging waters. In addition to the high death toll, the Tsunami resulted in a humanitarian crisis, widespread destruction of infrastructure and homes, a series of epidemics, economic devastation and severe shortages of food and water. This promoted a huge response from the international community, which provided over $7 billion, in addition to around $600 million donated by the British public to aid organisations. However some of the problems detailed above persist in many of the affected areas, whilst the ecological and environmental damage caused by the Tsunami is still being felt and will be for many years to come.

November 4th, 2008 will likely forever be remembered as one of the most important moments in the political history of the United States. Following a whirlwind campaign Senator Barack Obama of Illinois was elected President with 52.9% of the popular vote and 365 Electoral College votes, as opposed to Senator John McCain’s 45.7% and 173 Electoral College votes. With voter turnout the highest for 40 years it was clear that Obama had captured America’s imagination, and that of the world. Given the precarious state of the US economy, the aftermath of former President George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the increasingly-important issue of global warming, it was one of the most important elections in American history. Barack Obama’s election signalled the beginning of a new period in US politics, with the rejection of a Vietnam War veteran committed to upholding President Bush’s commitments to belligerency and acceptance of a leader aiming to change perceptions of America throughout the world. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama in October 2009, making him only the fourth President to receive such an honour, illustrates the social and cultural impact of his aim to foster a “new climate” in international relations and “reach out” to the Arab world. The fact that polls show huge support for Obama in many countries show the potential impact he could have on attitudes towards the United States. Whether or not Obama will be able to meet the expectations of those within the US or around the world remains to be seen, but his election still marks the most significant socio-political change in the United States for many years, as shown by his attempts to institute an overhaul of the American health-care system.

In a decade that saw the deadliest terrorist attack in history carried out on American soil, resulting in the ‘War on Terror’, there were a number of others, the bloodiest of these being the 2002 Bali bombings. The Kuta district, an extremely popular and highly-developed tourist destination, suffered the deaths of 202 people, of whom 152 were foreign nationals. The bombs deliberately targeted nightclubs, perhaps due to their supposedly symbolic representation of the corrupt and decadent nature of Western life, and were carried out by members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent and militant Islamic group, in retaliation for the ‘War on Terror’. The attacks merely acted to confirm the fact that it is only innocent civilians who suffer in disputes between governments, religious identities and ideologies. Unfortunately the targeting of such locations is only likely to continue by such groups committed to inflicting suffering on others for the sake of whatever cause they represent.

In terms of terrorist incidents undertaken for the sake of disputes between governments and organisations, the bombing of Cercanias trains in Madrid on March 11th 2004, three days before the general election, is a textbook example. Likely designed to influence the outcome of the election, which the Partido Popular was expected to win, the attack claimed the lives of 191 people, wounding 1,800. In the end the election was won by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of PSOE, largely in response to the government’s handling of the bombings. Yet no matter the political motivations of the attack, and whether or not ETA or al Qaeda were responsible, they constitute yet another incident of citizens becoming unintentionally embroiled in an outside dispute, and giving their lives for a cause they hadn’t chose to represent.

Although nowhere near as destructive as the 11-M Madrid bombings, and with significantly lower loss of life, the July 7th bombings of London Underground trains in 2005 motivated by Britain’s role in the Iraq War, were nevertheless deeply significant. With 56 people killed and around 700 injured, the attacks reverberated around the world and shocked the British public, particularly their brutal nature and the images transmitted by news agencies of those injured in the bombings. In addition they resulted in the extension of the time limit for detaining terror suspects without trial to 28 days, albeit not the 90 day period pursued by the government, as well as the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, suspected of being a suicide bomber. On top of this 7/7 threw the liberalism vs. security debate into the open, revealing for the first time the true divergence of opinion not only in the political sphere but in society in general. For many Britons, and the majority of Londoners the images of 7/7 will probably never be forgotten, and universal support for Britain’s role in the fight against terrorism will never again be assured.

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