You’ve heard the platitude that hindsight is 20/20. It’s true enough and, though I’ve been a regular skeptic about what policymakers used to call the Global War on Terror, it’s always easier to poke holes in the past than to say what you would have done. My conservative father was the first to ask me what exactly I would have suggested on September 12, 2001, and he’s pressed me to write this article for years. The supposed rub is this: under the pressure of that attack and the burden of presidential responsibility, even “liberals” – like me, I guess – would have made much the same decisions as George W. Bush and company.
Many readers may cringe at the thought, but former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has to be taken seriously when she suggests that anyone in the White House on 9/11 would inevitably have seen the world through the lens of the Bush administration. I’ve long argued that just about every Bush-era policy that followed 9/11 was an unqualified disaster. Nevertheless, it remains important to ponder the weight piled upon a president in the wake of unprecedented terror attacks. What would you have done? What follows is my best crack at that thorny question, 16 years after the fact, and with the accumulated experiences of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Taking it personally
9/11 was an intimate affront to me. It hit home hard. I watched those towers in my hometown burn on televisions I could glimpse from my plebe (freshman) boxing class at West Point. My father worked across Church Street from Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Only hours later did I learn that he’d safely escaped on the last ferryboat to Staten Island. Two uncles – both New York City firemen – hopelessly dug for comrades in the rubble for weeks. Stephen, the elder of the two, identified the body of his best friend, Captain Marty Egan, just days after the attacks.
In blue-collar Staten Island neighborhoods like mine, everyone seemed to work for the city: cops, firemen, corrections officers, garbage men, transit workers. I knew several of each. My mother spent months attending wakes and funerals. Suddenly, tons of streets on the Island were being renamed for dead police and firefighters, some of whom I knew personally. Me, I continued to plod along through the typically trying life of a new cadet at West Point.
It’s embarrassing now to look back at my own immaturity. I listened in as senior cadets broke the news of war to girlfriends and fiancées, enviously hanging on every word. If only I, too, could live out the war drama I’d always longed for. Less than two years later, I found myself drunk with another uncle – and firefighter – in a New York pub on St. Patrick’s Day. This was back when an Army T-shirt or a fireman’s uniform meant a night of free drinks in that post-9/11 city. I watched the television screen covetously as President Bush delivered a final, 48-hour ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. I inhaled, wished for a long war, and gazed at the young, attractive lead singer of the band performing in that pub. She was wearing a patron’s tied-up New York Fire Department uniform blouse with a matching cap cocked to the side. It was meant to be sexy and oh-so-paramilitary. It might seem unbelievable now, but that was still my – and largely our – world on March 17, 2003.
By the time I got my “chance” to join America’s war on terror, in October 2006, Baghdad was collapsing into chaos as civil war raged and U.S. deaths were topping 100 per month. This second lieutenant still hoped for glory, even as the war’s purpose was already slipping ever further away. I never found it (glory, that is). Not in Iraq or, years later, in Afghanistan. Sixteen years and two months on from 9/11, I’m a changed man, inhabiting a forever altered reality. Two wars, two marriages, and so many experiences later, the tragedy and the mistakes seem so obvious. Perhaps we should have known all along. But most didn’t.
How to lose a war (hint: fight it!)
From the beginning, the rhetoric, at least, was over the top. Three days after those towers tumbled, President George W. Bush framed the incredible scope of what he’d instantly taken to calling a “war.” As he told the crowd at a Washington national prayer service, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” From the first, it seemed evident to the president: America’s target wasn’t anything as modest as the al-Qaeda terrorist network, but rather evil itself. Looking back, this was undoubtedly the original sin. Call something – in this case, the response to the acts of a small jihadist group – a “war” and sooner or later everyone begins acting like warriors.
Within 24 hours of the attacks, the potential target list was already expanding beyond Osama bin Laden and his modest set of followers. On September 12th, President Bush commanded his national counterterror coordinator, Richard Clarke, to “see if Saddam did this… look into Iraq, Saddam.” That night, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the president and the entire cabinet, “You know, we’ve got to do Iraq… There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan… We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong…”
Nonetheless, Afghanistan – and its Taliban rulers – became the first military target. Bombs were dropped and commandos infiltrated. CIA spooks distributed briefcases of cash to allied warlords and eventually city after city fell. Sure, Osama bin Laden escaped and many of the Taliban’s foot soldiers simply faded away, but it was still one hell of a lightning campaign. Expected to be brief, it was given the bold name Operation Enduring Freedom and, to listen to the rhetoric of the day, it revolutionized warfare. Only it didn’t, of course. Instead, the focus was soon lost, other priorities (Iraq!) sucked the resources away, venal warlords reigned, an insurgency developed, and… and 16 years later, American troop levels are once again increasing there.
Over the days, the months, and then the years that followed, the boundaries of the Global War on Terror both hardened and expanded. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush ominously included Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea (though he left out “liberated” Afghanistan), in what he called “an axis of evil.” Who cared, by then, that none of those countries had had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks? In a flash the president conflated all three in the public mind, ultimately constructing a self-fulfilling prophesy. Saddam would be toppled and Iraq occupied 15 months later and, had it not been for the ensuing chaos, Iran and North Korea might have been next. Unsurprisingly, both countries intensified their bellicosity and grew all the more interested in nuclear weapons programs.
So much followed the 9/11 attacks that it’s no small thing to sum up: the Patriot Act, warrantless domestic wiretapping, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, a Taliban resurgence, an Iraqi civil war, drones as global assassins, the Arab Spring, the overthrow of Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of his country, the Syrian bloodbath, the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and that’s just to begin a list.
In short, U.S. policies have left the Middle East in chaos: perhaps a milliondead, Iran empowered, and radical Islamists resurgent. Meanwhile, this country has become a garrison state, forever at war, its military budget doubled, its populace seemingly indifferent, and its warrior caste shattered – physically and mentally. Sixteen years have passed and Washington is no closer to its goal (whatever that was). Retired general David Petraeus, our nation’s prodigal “hero,” has now ominously labeled the Afghan War (and by implication the rest of the war on terror) a “generational struggle.”
Few, to be honest, even remember the purpose of it all. Keep in mind that Army recruits today were perhaps two years old on 9/11. And so it goes.
It didn’t have to be this way. Nothing about it was predetermined. Much of the necessary information – certainly the warning signs of what was going to happen that September 11th – were already there. If, that is, one cared to look. History is contingent, human beings have agency, and events result from innumerable individual decisions. The CIA, the FBI, and even the Bush administration knew (or should have known, anyway) that an attack of some sort was coming.
As the 9/11 commission report painfully detailed, none of those agencies collaborated in a meaningful way when it came to preventing that day’s attacks. Still, there were warnings ignored and voices in the dark. When Richard Clarke, counterterror czar and a Clinton administration holdover, requested through official channels to deliver an emergency briefing for Bush’s key foreign policy officials, it took four months just to arrange an audience with their deputies. Four more months elapsed before President Bush received a briefing titled, “Bin Laden determined to strike the U.S.” Unimpressed, Bush quickly responded to the briefer: “All right… you’ve covered your ass now.”
Barely more than a month later, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were burning.
Whatever else it did, 9/11 presented the United States with an opportunity, a Robert Frost-like fork in a divergent path. And we Americans promptly took the road most traveled: militarism, war, vengeance – the easy wrong path. A broad war, waged against a noun, “terror,” a “global” conflict that, from its first moments, looked suspiciously binary: Western versus Islamic (despite Bush’s pleas to the contrary). In the process, al-Qaeda’s (and then ISIS’s) narratives were bolstered.
There was – there always is – another path. Imagine if President Bush and his foreign policy team had paused, taken a breath, and demonstrated some humility and restraint before plunging the country into what would indeed become a war or set of wars. There were certainly questions begging to be asked and answered that never received a proper hearing. Why did al-Qaeda attack us? Was there any merit in their grievances? How did bin Laden want us to respond and how could we have avoided just such a path? Finally, which were the best tools and tactics to respond with? Let’s consider these questions and imagine an alternative response.
Why they (really) hated us
Americans and their government were inclined to accept the most simplistic explanation for the terror attacks of 9/11. As George W. Bush would assure us all, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda just “hate us for our freedoms.” The end.
Something about the guilelessness of that explanation, which was the commonplace one of that moment, never quite seemed right. Human motivations and actions are almost always more complex, more multifaceted, less simpleminded than that. While Bush boiled it all down to “Islamic” fundamentalism, even a cursory look at bin Laden’s written declaration of “war” – or as he called it, jihad – demonstrates that his actual focus was far more secular and less explicitly religious than was suggested at the time. Couched between Koranic verses, bin Laden listed three all-too-worldly grievances with America:
- The U.S. military had occupied bases in the vicinity of Saudi Arabia’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina. (Well… that had indeed been the case, at least since 1990, if not earlier.)
- U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq had caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. (This was, in fact, a reality that even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright awkwardly acknowledged.)
- America’s leaders had long favored Israeli interests to the detriment of Palestinian wellbeing or national aspirations. (A bit simplistic, but true enough. One could, in fact, stock several bookshelves with respected works substantiating bin Laden’s claim on this point.)
To state the obvious, none of this faintly justified the mass murder of civilians in New York and Washington. Nonetheless, at that moment, an honest analysis of an adversary’s motives would have been prudent. It might have warned us of the political landscape that bin Laden was beckoning us – in his own bloody, apocalyptic fashion – to enter. In addition, as journalist Stephen Glain astutely observed, “By obscuring the real motives behind the attacks, Bush relieved the U.S. government of any responsibility for them.” This was a fatal error. While the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims worldwide did not approve of bin Laden’s methods or his theology, much of his critique of Washington’s Middle Eastern policies was widely shared in the region.
Avoiding the Al-Qaeda script
Al-Qaeda’s leadership knew this perfectly well and they dangled it (and their suicidal acts) as a kind of bait, yearning for the sort of conventional U.S. military response that they knew would further inflame the Greater Middle East. Even in 1996, when journalist Abdul Bari Atwan interviewed bin Laden, the Saudi militant had expressed the desire to “bring the Americans into a fight on Muslim soil.” Only then, bin Laden surmised, could al-Qaeda buttress its argument, win converts from the apathetic Muslim masses, and – hopefully – bankrupt the United States in the bargain.
Suppose, for a moment, that President Bush had taken the high road, a path of restraint focused on twin tracks. First, he might have addressed broadly-shared Arab grievances, pledging a more balanced approach to the question of Israel and Palestine in his still-fresh administration, tailoring Iraq’s sanctions to target Saddam and his cronies rather than innocent citizens, and vowing to review the necessity of military bases so close to Mecca and Medina (or even the necessity of so many of the American bases that littered the region). He could have followed that with lethal, precise, targeted action by America’s intelligence, law enforcement, and Special Operations forces to hunt down and kill or capture the men actually responsible for 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leadership.
This manhunt needed to be ferocious yet measured in order to avoid the very quagmires that, 16 years later, we all know so well. Allies and adversaries would have had to be consulted and cautioned. Remember that, although al-Qaeda was disciplined and effective, on September 12, 2001, it remained diminutive in size and utterly marginal in its regional support. Dismantling its networks and bringing the true criminals of that day to justice never required remaking distant societies or occupying fragile nation-states with conventional military forces.
And keep in mind that such thinking about the situation isn’t purely retrospective. Take the Nation magazine’s Jonathan Schell. That October, after the invasion of Afghanistan had begun, appearing on the Charlie Roseshow he called for “police work” and “commando raids,” but not war. He then prophetically observed:
“I think the question doesn’t revolve so much around the justification for war but about its wisdom, and I know that’s the question for me. I know that, from my point of view, terrorism is chiefly a political issue and secondarily a police issue and then, only in a very minor way, can it be addressed by military means and I think that, on the contrary, the war we’re fighting now will tend to worsen our problems. The question I ask myself is, at the end of the day, do you have more terrorists or do you have fewer and I think… today, right now, it looks like there are going to be more.”
Of course, at the time, just about no one in this country was listening to such voices.
A prudent president might also have learned from his father. Just as George H.W. Bush had meticulously constructed a broad international coalition, including all-important Arab states, to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, George W. Bush could have harnessed widespread international sympathy after the 9/11 attacks to blaze a judicious path. A new, broad, U.N.-backed coalition, which ought to have included several Muslim-majority nations, could have shared intelligence, rooted out jihadis (who represented a serious threat to most secular Arab regimes), and ultimately discredited al-Qaeda, dismantling its networks and bringing bin Laden himself to justice.
The right tools
Global sympathy – Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call George Bush after the attacks – is as rare as it is fleeting. So that moment represented a singular and singularly squandered opportunity. The United States could have led a massive international effort, emphasizing law enforcement, not warfare, and including increased humanitarian aid, U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping operations, and a commitment to live America’s purported values by scrupulously avoiding crimes like torture and civilian casualties. Of course, it wouldn’t have been perfect – complex operations seldom are – but sober strategy demanded a rigorous effort.
One more imperative for the new campaign against al-Qaeda would have been garnering broad support and a legal sanction from Congress and the American people. Two weeks after 9/11, President Bush vapidly suggested instead that this country’s citizens should respond by getting in airplanes again and “enjoy[ing] America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” Instead, he might have steeled the population for a tough fight and inspired a new era of public service. Think: John F. Kennedy. Think: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Bush might have requested from Congress a narrow, targeted authorization for the use of military force rather than the rushed, expansive, open-ended sanction he actually demanded and received and that is still being used two administrations later to justify any acts against any group or country across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
He could have followed this with the presentation of a new National Service Act, rallying the young and incentivizing military or Peace Corps enlistment, infrastructure improvement, inner-city teaching, and various other kinds of public service. Imagine a new “Greatest Generation,” pulling together in a time of crisis. This, in retrospect, was a real opportunity. What a pity that it never came to pass.
It’s hard to know, of course, how such an alternate path might have played out, but honestly it would have been difficult to do worse. The U.S. remains stuck, spinning its wheels in regional conflicts and feeling no safer. The number of worldwide terrorist incidents has exploded since 2001. New Islamist groups were formed in response to U.S. actions and counteractions and they continue to spread without an end in sight.
I don’t know if there will be a next time, a chance to do it right. But should new threats emerge, more devastating attacks be endured, there simply has to be a better way, though the odds that President Donald Trump and his generals will find it are, honestly, next to nil.
Complex ideological threats sometimes demand counterintuitive responses. In such moments, hard as it may be to imagine, rational calculations should rise above the kneejerk emotional responses. True leaders step up and weather criticism in times of crisis. So next time, Americans would do well to set aside comforting illusions and take the world as it is, not as we imagine or wish it to be. The future may depend on it.
That future may well include new “terror” attacks on (or at least in) America’s cities. Expect this president to use those inevitable tragedies to stifle domestic dissent, escalate the ongoing wars, and – just maybe – fan the flames of nativism and white nationalism for petty political gain. The question is which institutions, which groups, will be prepared to fight back? I fear there’ll be few left willing to defy the tide of war. A generation born after 9/11 will vote in the next presidential election. They’ve never known peace. Will they even bother to demand it?