The 9/11 attacks were an atrocity, impossible to justify whatever the grievances of others against America. Terrorism — targeting civilians to achieve political ends — is an immoral means, irrespective of the end.
Yet that catastrophic day demonstrated that Americans were not invulnerable, exempt from retaliation as their government intervened around the world. There are many reasons why some foreigners hate the U.S., and polls indicate that it is primarily Washington’s policies, not America’s people, freedoms, or products, which others loathe. The willingness to kill, and especially the readiness to die doing so, typically reflects a deep desire to effect political change.
Terrorism long has been a political tool of those who are weak. Terrorists assassinated two czars, who ruled the autocratic Russian Empire. In June 1914 a terrorist killed the heir to the Austro‐Hungarian Empire, triggering World War I. Terrorists, including suicide bombers, have targeted India, Israel, Sri Lanka, and Russia. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has demonstrated that most of these killers are motivated by government policies, usually occupying territory and people.
Seeking to understand terrorism does not mean justifying murder. But it does suggest that policies can be adjusted to minimize antagonism. Sometimes it is necessary to make enemies. However, it is foolish to make enemies without good reason.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration took the popular but deluded position that terrorists attacked America because it was beautiful, that Americans were killed because they were so free. President George W. Bush ignored the importance of U.S. government policies on the attitudes of others. For instance, the U.S. was imposing a high profile, destructive embargo against Iraq (when confronted about the human cost, then‐UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright responded “we think the price is worth it”) and backing oppressive Israeli occupation policies in the West Bank (few Americans would docilely accept decades of foreign rule). Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the deployment of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia had “been a huge recruiting device for al‐Qaeda.” It was time to ask: Were the costs of such policies greater than the benefits?
Failing to diagnose the cause of the attacks turned America’s legendary confidence into paranoia. People saw the U.S. under siege, compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, and termed the war on terror as World War III. Our way of life was threatened; the nation’s future was in the balance. Officials also promoted a climate of fear because it served their political interest.
Truth be told, terrorism never posed an existential threat to America. Even after 9/11, the risk of being a victim of a terrorist incident in the U.S. was minimal. And the likelihood that terrorists could “defeat” America, whatever that would mean, was even less.
Europeans, who lived through two horrendous conflicts which ravaged their continent in the 20th century, took a more measured approach to combating terrorism — which was far more persistent in Europe than in America. In contrast, the U.S. government dramatically over‐reacted, turning American society upside down, militarizing foreign policy, doubling Pentagon spending, curbing civil liberties, creating vast new security bureaucracies, and placing terrorism at the center of politics. For all of the Bush administration’s choreographed bluster, its policy smacked of panic. Argued Michael Hirsh in National Journal, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that al‐Qaida outthought America — at least provoking Washington to make the wrong strategic choices at the outset.”
Indeed, President Bush guaranteed failure by adopting the neoconservative agenda as his own. It was imperative that Washington punish the Taliban for hosting al‐Qaeda, but the administration quickly focused on Iraq, which had no connection to 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction. Of course, many people believed the latter, in large part due to the administration’s careful molding of equivocal and contradictory evidence, essentially dismissing any doubts anyone had about what turned out to be utterly fanciful claims. No one wanted to believe that high administration officials would conjure up “mushroom clouds” from so little. But they did. The result was what President Barack Obama recently called a “hard decade of war.”
The quick shift from Afghanistan to Iraq had extraordinarily important consequences. The administration left the former conflict unfinished, attempting to nation‐build on the cheap. Hirsh noted that Washington “began diverting money and attention to Iraq within weeks of the fall of the Taliban.” Afghanistan became secondary. For four years, wrote Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the U.S. failed to monitor “Taliban activity in four southern provinces — Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Nimroz — or across the border in Quetta” because of inadequate human and satellite intelligence: “the Iraq war had drained away resources.”
Equally bad, as Rashid documented in Descent into Chaos, Bush administration officials were played for fools by the Pakistan government, which protected Taliban leaders and enabled the insurgents to quickly revive. Whether creating a stable and effective central government in Kabul was ever possible is impossible to know, but President Bush made failure likely despite President Barack Obama’s desperate attempt to recover lost ground.
Even worse, the administration initiated a completely unnecessary war of choice in Iraq based on ignorant assumptions, unrealistic expectations, and costly illusions. Indeed, administration hawks consciously excluded officials who actually knew something about Iraq from post‐war planning. In a major understatement, former Secretary of State Colin Powell observed: “Mr. Cheney and many of his colleagues did not prepare for what happened after the fall of Baghdad.”
The presumed “cakewalk” led to years of guerrilla conflict and the destruction of Iraqi society. The Iraqi Body Count reports that officially recorded civilian deaths run between 102,000 and 112,000, with another 15,000 suggested by the WikiLeaks State Department cables. But the IBC figures the actual death toll to be at least twice as high, and other estimates race upwards towards a million. Lancet recently published a new study which figured more than 12,000 deaths from suicide bombings alone. More than four million Iraqis were displaced from their homes, many forced overseas. Many others were kidnapped, robbed, or otherwise traumatized. Add in the casualties from Afghanistan and the numbers are astronomical.
Eventually looming disaster in both theaters forced a response, less effective because it was late. In a new Rand Corporation volume, The Long Shadow of 9/11, former U.S. ambassador James Dobbins wrote: “reinforcing only under the pressure of failure has thus proved a far more expensive approach to nation‐building than was the strategy developed in the 1990s of going in heavily, establishing a safe and secure environment quickly, and then drawing down gradually once peace had been established and potential adversaries deterred.”
At the same time Iraq created a marvelously effective recruiting tool for al‐Qaeda. Rather than kill terrorists before they attacked, say, Kansas City, as Bush administration officials claimed might happen, the U.S. created terrorists who assaulted American troops in Iraq — and civilians in allied nations. Some of the insurgents who gained combat training fighting U.S. forces in Iraq have turned up battling Moammar Qaddafi’s government in the recent Libyan civil war.
The Bush administration made much of its alleged commitment to democracy, but in practice President Bush’s devotion to political freedom remained as inconsistent and hypocritical as that of his predecessors. Argued Dobbins: “American policy is seen by most of the Middle East as at best cynically opportunistic and at worst anti‐democratic, a perception that the invasion and botched occupation of Iraq did nothing to correct.”
Iraq also empowered the most destabilizing force in the Middle East, Iran. With Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, Iraq’s Shiite majority gained control and established close ties with the Shia‐majority regime next door. U.S. officials have only reluctantly and perhaps not entirely abandoned the dream of permanent bases in Iraq to contain Tehran, but no government in Baghdad is ever likely to follow such a policy. Iraqis do not want to be dominated by the Iranian regime, but they certainly are not going to do Washington’s dirty work against friendly fellow Muslims.
Ironically, Barack Obama dramatically demonstrated the shortsightedness of the Bush administration’s “war‐first” policy. A mixture of enhanced intelligence, international cooperation, and Special Forces operations was always the better way to address terrorism. These tactics have done the most to greatly weaken al‐Qaeda. They also killed Osama bin Laden, nearly a decade after the Bush administration failed to close the net around him in Afghanistan at Tora Bora. While targeted raids and drone strikes are not problem free — they have helped make the U.S. extraordinarily unpopular in Pakistan, especially given the widespread belief that innocents are routinely killed — they are far less costly and create far less hostility than bombing, invading, and occupying entire nations.
Washington’s post‐9/11 policies made America less safe. The Bush and Obama administrations squandered thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in unnecessary wars. The constant fighting and endless occupation badly strained the U.S. military; President Bush’s “us or them” attitude frayed alliances. The willingness to trample life and liberty of anyone thought to be in the way lost America the international goodwill that it gained right after the 9/11 attacks.
At the same time as it was making war in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Bush administration was turning the American heartland into a battlefield. While it is oft‐said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact, one of the country’s hallmarks is its commitment to individual liberty. Increases in government power should be carefully considered, limited to steps necessary to meet serious and real threats, and constrained by effective oversight and accountability.
President Bush demanded power, but essentially without limits. Like the Clinton administration before it after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Bush administration cobbled together a wish list of investigative and prosecutorial powers, many unrelated to preventing another 9/11, and almost none subject to congressional or judicial review.
Indeed, the administration ostentatiously claimed the president to be essentially an elective dictator, possessing unlimited “war powers” authorizing him to do anything believed necessary to defend the U.S., including ordering the arrest of an American citizen on U.S. soil and his incarceration without limit and with no recourse to an attorney or the courts. Since the battleground was America and the war was unending (there will always be a potential threat of a terrorist attack), all constitutional rights were theoretically subordinate to the president’s whim.
Ironically, the president who insisted that America was attacked because “they” hated our freedoms did much to destroy American freedoms. He was so effective that his program almost looked like a conscious attempt to eliminate al-Qaeda’s cause for acting. Unfortunately, making America less free did not appease bin Laden.
In the two and a half years that he’s been in office, President Obama has changed the tone of the war on terror. However, he has left his predecessor’s militarist international strategy largely intact. Only time will tell whether Washington’s intervention in Libya’s civil war created a new terrorist opening, since Islamic extremists were among the beneficiaries of Qaddafi’s fall. Equally disappointing, the president has done little to restore lost civil liberties at home, let alone punish Bush administration officials for violating the law, especially for the use of torture.
The U.S. once was “a shining city on a hill,” as President Ronald Reagan often said. But America has changed since 9/11. The U.S. is less confident, secure, and free. Sadly, the nation’s most grievous wounds are self‐inflicted. And America’s transformation may be permanent.