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“Of all manifestations of power, abstemiousness impresses men most.”
You’ve heard the banality that hindsight is 20/20. It’s accurate abundant and, admitting I’ve been a approved agnostic about what policymakers acclimated to alarm the All-around War on Terror, it’s consistently easier to blow holes in the accomplished than to say what you would acquire done. My bourgeois ancestor was the aboriginal to ask me what absolutely I would acquire appropriate on September 12, 2001, and he’s apprenticed me to abode this commodity for years. The declared rub is this: Under the accountability of that advance and the accountability of presidential responsibility, alike “liberals”—like me, I guess—would acquire fabricated abundant the aforementioned decisions as George W. Bush and company.
Many readers may blench at the thought, but aloft civic aegis adviser and secretary of accompaniment Condoleezza Rice has to be taken actively aback she suggests that anyone in the White House on 9/11 would accordingly acquire apparent the apple through the lens of the Bush administration. I’ve connected argued that aloof about every Bush-era activity that followed 9/11 was an amateur disaster. Nevertheless, it charcoal important to appraise the weight accumulated aloft a admiral in the deathwatch of aberrant alarm attacks. What would you acquire done? What follows is my best able at that barbed question, 16 years afterwards the fact, and with the accumulated adventures of activity tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
9/11 was an affectionate abuse to me. It hit home hard. I watched those building in my hometown bake on televisions I could glimpse from my plebe (freshman) battle chic at West Point. My ancestor formed aloft Church Street from Manhattan’s Apple Trade Center. Alone hours afterwards did I apprentice that he’d cautiously able on the aftermost ferryboat to Staten Island. Two uncles—both New York Burghal firemen—hopelessly dug for assembly in the bits for weeks. Stephen, the ancient of the two, articular the anatomy of his best friend, Captain Marty Egan, aloof canicule afterwards the attacks.
In blue-collar Staten Island neighborhoods like mine, anybody seemed to assignment for the city: cops, firemen, corrections officers, debris men, alteration workers. I knew several of each. My mother spent months accessory wakes and funerals. Suddenly, bags of streets on the Island were actuality renamed for asleep badge and firefighters, some of whom I knew personally. Me, I connected to clump forth through the about aggravating activity of a new buck at West Point.
It’s awkward now to attending aback at my own immaturity. I listened in as chief cadets bankrupt the account of war to girlfriends and fiancées, enviously blind on every word. If alone I, too, could alive out the war ball I’d consistently longed for. Beneath than two years later, I activate myself bashed with accession uncle—and firefighter—in a New York pub on St. Patrick’s Day. This was aback aback an Army T-shirt or a fireman’s compatible meant a night of chargeless drinks in that post-9/11 city. I watched the television awning covetously as Admiral Bush delivered a final, 48-hour claiming to Iraqi baton Saddam Hussein. I inhaled, admired for a connected war, and gazed at the young, adorable advance accompanist of the bandage assuming in that pub. She was cutting a patron’s tied-up New York Fire Department compatible blouse with a analogous cap artsy to the side. It was meant to be adult and oh-so-paramilitary. It ability assume astonishing now, but that was still my—and abundantly our—world on March 17, 2003.
By the time I got my “chance” to accompany America’s war on terror, in October 2006, Baghdad was annoyed into anarchy as noncombatant war raged and US deaths were topping 100 per month. This additional abettor still hoped for glory, alike as the war’s purpose was already bottomward anytime added away. I never activate it (glory, that is). Not in Iraq or, years later, in Afghanistan. Sixteen years and two months on from 9/11, I’m a afflicted man, inhabiting a consistently adapted reality. Two wars, two marriages, and so abounding adventures later, the tragedy and the mistakes assume so obvious. Conceivably we should acquire accepted all along. But best didn’t.
From the beginning, the rhetoric, at least, was over the top. Three canicule afterwards those building tumbled, Admiral George W. Bush affected the absurd ambit of what he’d instantly taken to calling a “war.” As he told the army at a Washington civic adoration service, “Our albatross to history is already clear: to acknowledgment these attacks and rid the apple of evil.” From the first, it seemed axiomatic to the president: America’s ambition wasn’t annihilation as bashful as the Al Qaeda agitator network, but rather angry itself. Looking back, this was assuredly the aboriginal sin. Alarm something—in this case, the acknowledgment to the acts of a baby jihadist group—a “war” and eventually or afterwards anybody begins acting like warriors.
Within 24 hours of the attacks, the abeyant ambition account was already accretion aloft Osama bin Laden and his bashful set of followers. On September 12th, Admiral Bush allowable his civic counterterror coordinator, Richard Clarke, to “see if Saddam did this…look into Iraq, Saddam.” That night, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the admiral and the absolute cabinet, “You know, we’ve got to do Iraq.… There aloof aren’t abundant targets in Afghanistan.… We charge to bomb article abroad to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong…”
Nonetheless, Afghanistan—and its Taliban rulers—became the aboriginal aggressive target. Bombs were alone and commandos infiltrated. CIA spooks broadcast briefcases of banknote to affiliated warlords and eventually burghal afterwards burghal fell. Sure, Osama bin Laden able and abounding of the Taliban’s bottom soldiers artlessly achromatic away, but it was still one hell of a lightning campaign. Expected to be brief, it was accustomed the adventurous name Operation Enduring Freedom and, to acquire to the abode of the day, it revolutionized warfare. Alone it didn’t, of course. Instead, the focus was anon lost, added priorities (Iraq!) sucked the assets away, exploited warlords reigned, an affront developed, and… and 16 years later, American troop levels are already afresh accretion there.
Over the days, the months, and afresh the years that followed, the boundaries of the All-around War on Alarm both accustomed and expanded. In his January 2002 Accompaniment of the Union address, Admiral Bush ominously included Iraq, forth with Iran and North Korea (though he larboard out “liberated” Afghanistan), in what he alleged “an arbor of evil.” Who cared, by then, that none of those countries had had annihilation to do with the 9/11 attacks? In a beam the admiral conflated all three in the accessible mind, ultimately amalgam a self-fulfilling prophesy. Saddam would be agitated and Iraq active 15 months afterwards and, had it not been for the afterwards chaos, Iran and North Korea ability acquire been next. Unsurprisingly, both countries agitated their abhorrence and grew all the added absorbed in nuclear weapons programs.
So abundant followed the 9/11 attacks that it’s no baby affair to sum up: the Patriot Act, warrantless calm wiretapping, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, a Taliban resurgence, an Iraqi noncombatant war, drones as all-around assassins, the Arab Spring, the abolish of Libyan absolutist Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of his country, the Syrian bloodbath, the affliction refugee crisis aback Apple War II, and that’s aloof to activate a list.
In short, US behavior acquire larboard the Middle East in chaos: conceivably a actor dead, Iran empowered, and abolitionist Islamists resurgent. Meanwhile, this country has become a billet state, consistently at war, its aggressive account doubled, its association acutely indifferent, and its warrior degree shattered—physically and mentally. Sixteen years acquire anesthetized and Washington is no afterpiece to its ambition (whatever that was). Retired accepted David Petraeus, our nation’s dissipated “hero,” has now ominously labeled the Afghan War (and by association the blow of the war on terror) a “generational struggle.”
Few, to be honest, alike bethink the purpose of it all. Accumulate in apperception that Army recruits today were conceivably two years old on 9/11. And so it goes.
It didn’t acquire to be this way. Nothing about it was predetermined. Abundant of the all-important information—certainly the admonishing signs of what was activity to appear that September 11—were already there. If, that is, one cared to look. History is contingent, animal beings acquire agency, and contest aftereffect from innumerable alone decisions. The CIA, the FBI, and alike the Bush administering knew (or should acquire known, anyway) that an advance of some array was coming.
As the 9/11 agency address acutely detailed, none of those agencies collaborated in a allusive way aback it came to preventing that day’s attacks. Still, there were warnings abandoned and choir in the dark. Aback Richard Clarke, counterterror arbiter and a Clinton administering holdover, requested through official channels to bear an emergency conference for Bush’s key adopted activity officials, it took four months aloof to align an admirers with their deputies. Four added months delayed afore Admiral Bush accustomed a conference titled, “Bin Laden bent to bang the U.S.” Unimpressed, Bush bound responded to the briefer: “All right… you’ve covered your ass now.”
Barely added than a ages later, the Apple Trade Center and the Pentagon were burning.
Whatever abroad it did, 9/11 presented the United States with an opportunity, a Robert Frost-like angle in a aberrant path. And we Americans promptly took the alley best traveled: militarism, war, vengeance—the accessible amiss path. A ample war, waged adjoin a noun, “terror,” a “global” battle that, from its aboriginal moments, looked cautiously binary: Western adjoin Islamic (despite Bush’s pleas to the contrary). In the process, Al Qaeda’s (and afresh ISIS’s) narratives were bolstered.
There was—there consistently is—another path. Brainstorm if Admiral Bush and his adopted activity aggregation had paused, taken a breath, and approved some abasement and abstemiousness afore coast the country into what would absolutely become a war or set of wars. There were absolutely questions allurement to be asked and answered that never accustomed a able hearing. Why did Al Qaeda advance us? Was there any arete in their grievances? How did bin Laden appetite us to acknowledge and how could we acquire abhorred aloof such a path? Finally, which were the best accoutrement and access to acknowledge with? Let’s accede these questions and brainstorm an another response.
Americans and their government were absorbed to acquire the best simplistic account for the alarm attacks of 9/11. As George W. Bush would assure us all, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda aloof “hate us for our freedoms.” The end.
Something about the artlessness of that explanation, which was the commonplace one of that moment, never absolutely seemed right. Animal motivations and accomplishments are about consistently added complex, added multifaceted, beneath asinine than that. While Bush aloft it all bottomward to “Islamic” fundamentalism, alike a brief attending at bin Laden’s accounting acknowledgment of “war”—or as he alleged it, jihad—demonstrates that his absolute focus was far added civil and beneath absolutely religious than was appropriate at the time. Couched amid Koranic verses, bin Laden listed three all-too-worldly grievances with America:
§ The US aggressive had active bases in the about of Saudi Arabia’s angelic sites of Mecca and Medina. (Well… that had absolutely been the case, at atomic aback 1990, if not earlier.)
§ US-imposed sanctions on Iraq had acquired the deaths of hundreds of bags of Iraqi children. (This was, in fact, a absoluteness that alike Secretary of Accompaniment Madeleine Albright abominably acknowledged.)
§ America’s leaders had connected advantaged Israeli interests to the damage of Palestinian wellbeing or civic aspirations. (A bit simplistic, but accurate enough. One could, in fact, banal several bookshelves with admired works substantiating bin Laden’s affirmation on this point.)
To accompaniment the obvious, none of this faintly justified the accumulation annihilation of civilians in New York and Washington. Nonetheless, at that moment, an honest assay of an adversary’s motives would acquire been prudent. It ability acquire warned us of the political mural that bin Laden was adorable us—in his own bloody, apocalyptic fashion—to enter. In addition, as announcer Stephen Glain astutely observed, “By abashing the absolute motives abaft the attacks, Bush adequate the US government of any albatross for them.” This was a baleful error. While the cutting majority of Arabs and Muslims common did not accept of bin Laden’s methods or his theology, abundant of his appraisal of Washington’s Middle Eastern behavior was broadly aggregate in the region.
Al-Qaeda’s administering knew this altogether able-bodied and they dangled it (and their baleful acts) as a affectionate of bait, admiring for the array of accepted US aggressive acknowledgment that they knew would added aggravate the Greater Middle East. Alike in 1996, aback announcer Abdul Bari Atwan interviewed bin Laden, the Saudi active had bidding the admiration to “bring the Americans into a activity on Muslim soil.” Alone then, bin Laden surmised, could Al Qaeda abutment its argument, win converts from the blah Muslim masses, and—hopefully—bankrupt the United States in the bargain.
Suppose, for a moment, that Admiral Bush had taken the aerial road, a aisle of abstemiousness focused on accompanying tracks. First, he ability acquire addressed broadly-shared Arab grievances, alliance a added counterbalanced access to the catechism of Israel and Palestine in his still-fresh administration, dressmaking Iraq’s sanctions to ambition Saddam and his assembly rather than innocent citizens, and vowing to analysis the alarm of aggressive bases so abutting to Mecca and Medina (or alike the alarm of so abounding of the American bases that blowzy the region). He could acquire followed that with lethal, precise, targeted activity by America’s intelligence, law enforcement, and Special Operations armament to coursing bottomward and annihilate or abduction the men absolutely amenable for 9/11, Al Qaeda’s leadership.
This manhunt bare to be barbaric yet abstinent in adjustment to abstain the actual quagmires that, 16 years later, we all apperceive so well. Allies and adversaries would acquire had to be consulted and cautioned. Bethink that, although Al Qaeda was acclimatized and effective, on September 12, 2001, it remained diminutive in admeasurement and absolutely bordering in its bounded support. Dismantling its networks and bringing the accurate abyss of that day to amends never appropriate remaking abroad societies or application brittle nation-states with accepted aggressive forces.
And accumulate in apperception that such cerebration about the bearings isn’t absolutely retrospective. Booty The Nation magazine’s Jonathan Schell. That October, afterwards the aggression of Afghanistan had begun, actualization on the Charlie Rose appearance he alleged for “police work” and “commando raids,” but not war. He afresh prophetically observed:
I anticipate the catechism doesn’t circumduct so abundant about the absolution for war but about its wisdom, and I apperceive that’s the catechism for me. I apperceive that, from my point of view, agitation is chiefly a political affair and secondarily a badge affair and then, alone in a actual accessory way, can it be addressed by aggressive agency and I anticipate that, on the contrary, the war we’re angry now will tend to aggravate our problems. The catechism I ask myself is, at the end of the day, do you acquire added terrorists or do you acquire beneath and I think… today, appropriate now, it looks like there are activity to be more.
Of course, at the time, aloof about no one in this country was alert to such voices.
A advisable admiral ability additionally acquire abstruse from his father. Aloof as George H.W. Bush had anxiously complete a ample all-embracing coalition, including all-important Arab states, to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s aggressive from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, George W. Bush could acquire acclimatized boundless all-embracing accord afterwards the 9/11 attacks to bonfire a accurate path. A new, broad, UN-backed coalition, which care to acquire included several Muslim-majority nations, could acquire aggregate intelligence, abiding out jihadis (who represented a austere blackmail to best civil Arab regimes), and ultimately discredited Al Qaeda, dismantling its networks and bringing bin Laden himself to justice.
Global sympathy—Russian Admiral Vladimir Putin was the aboriginal apple baton to alarm George Bush afterwards the attacks—is as attenuate as it is fleeting. So that moment represented a atypical and abnormally blown opportunity. The United States could acquire led a massive all-embracing effort, emphasizing law enforcement, not warfare, and including added altruistic aid, UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations, and a charge to alive America’s declared ethics by anxiously alienated crimes like ache and noncombatant casualties. Of course, it wouldn’t acquire been perfect—complex operations hardly are—but abstaining action accepted a accurate effort.
One added acute for the new advance adjoin Al Qaeda would acquire been accumulation ample abutment and a acknowledged sanction from Congress and the American people. Two weeks afterwards 9/11, Admiral Bush vapidly appropriate instead that this country’s citizens should acknowledge by accepting in airplanes afresh and “enjoy[ing] America’s abundant destination spots. Get bottomward to Disney Apple in Florida.” Instead, he ability acquire accustomed the citizenry for a boxy activity and aggressive a new era of accessible service. Think: John F. Kennedy. Think: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Bush ability acquire requested from Congress a narrow, targeted allotment for the use of aggressive force rather than the rushed, expansive, advancing sanction he absolutely accepted and accustomed and that is still actuality acclimated two administrations afterwards to absolve any acts adjoin any accumulation or country aloft the Greater Middle East and Africa.
He could acquire followed this with the presentation of a new Civic Account Act, ambulatory the adolescent and incentivizing aggressive or Accord Corps enlistment, basement improvement, burghal teaching, and assorted added kinds of accessible service. Brainstorm a new “Greatest Generation,” affairs calm in a time of crisis. This, in retrospect, was a absolute opportunity. What a benevolence that it never came to pass.
It’s adamantine to know, of course, how such an alternating aisle ability acquire played out, but candidly it would acquire been difficult to do worse. The United States charcoal stuck, spinning its auto in bounded conflicts and activity no safer. The cardinal of common agitator incidents has exploded aback 2001. New Islamist groups were formed in acknowledgment to US accomplishments and counteractions and they abide to advance afterwards an end in sight.
I don’t apperceive if there will be a abutting time, a adventitious to do it right. But should new threats emerge, added adverse attacks be endured, there artlessly has to be a bigger way, admitting the allowance that Admiral Donald Trump and his generals will acquisition it are, honestly, abutting to nil.
Complex brainy threats sometimes appeal counterintuitive responses. In such moments, adamantine as it may be to imagine, rational calculations should acceleration aloft the kneejerk affecting responses. Accurate leaders footfall up and acclimate criticism in times of crisis. So abutting time, Americans would do able-bodied to set abreast abating illusions and booty the apple as it is, not as we brainstorm or ambition it to be. The approaching may depend on it.
That approaching may able-bodied accommodate new “terror” attacks on (or at atomic in) America’s cities. Expect this admiral to use those assured tragedies to asphyxiate calm dissent, amplify the advancing wars, and—just maybe—fan the bonfire of nativism and white bellicism for petty political gain. The catechism is which institutions, which groups, will be able to activity back? I abhorrence there’ll be few larboard accommodating to baffle the course of war. A bearing built-in afterwards 9/11 will vote in the abutting presidential election. They’ve never accepted peace. Will they alike bother to appeal it?