4. Arab unrest. Conventional wisdom about our various responses to 9/11, and especially during the depression that followed from the Iraqi insurgency, dictated that the entire Arab Middle East would be set afire by U.S. intervention and retaliation. It certainly seemed foreordained, if one listened to the nightly incitement of Al-Jazeera, some of the lunatic rantings from Western radicals (who were often praised and quoted in Dr. Zawahiri’s pseudo-lectures), and the constant boasts of the radical Islamists themselves. If not our presence in Afghanistan or Iraq, if not Korans flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo (“a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda”), if not neo-con-driven favoritism toward Israel, then there would be some other supposed provocation to incite Arab Muslims. But in fact, while there were a few terrorist incidents, there were no oil embargoes, no mass uprisings, no concentrated attacks on U.S. bases. Only after nearly a decade following the U.S. retaliation in the Middle East did the entire Arab world blow up, often literally, with revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, unrest in the Gulf States, and ongoing efforts to unseat the Syrian tyranny.
Yet even critics of the Bush administration are wary about suggesting that the present violence has anything to do with U.S. policy toward Israel, our War on Terror, or the occupation of Iraq. Likewise, even supporters of the Bush administration’s Middle East policies are reluctant to suggest that the survival of Iraq’s post-Baathist democracy gave some hope to other Arabs that dictatorship was not the foreordained future of Arab society. Instead, the revolts sort of just happened, but why and how few quite know — and apparently fewer still wish to go out on a limb and speculate.
5. The Cheney monster. By 2011 a gaunt and ill former vice president Cheney was the constant butt of late-night comedians and derided almost weekly by smug columnists. But how and why that metamorphosis had come about was never explored. It was as if Cheney was now and always had been Darth Vader, a man who liked to shoot his hunting pals and who sat in retirement with ill-gotten Halliburton riches. Few reminded us that for nearly 30 years Dick Cheney was a centrist fixer, praised by liberals as fair-minded, bipartisan, and sober and judicious in his rhetoric. He supported Ford over Reagan, tried to cut lavish weapons systems at the Pentagon, and brought a Wyoming humbleness to his Washington power-brokering. Then suddenly this all vanished with cries of “war criminal,” as the puerile Ronald Reagan Jr. recently exclaimed on MSNBC.
Yet if one were to carefully collate Cheney’s positions after 9/11, both domestic and foreign, the caricature seems almost inexplicable. He opposed the nomination of Harriet Miers; he thought appeasement of North Korea would not work; he thought the automobile-company bailouts would ultimately be too costly or counterproductive; he was one of the earliest proponents of the surge; and he pushed hard for almost all the protocols that Barack Obama now embraces.
The charges against Cheney seem to rest on the waterboarding of three confessed terrorists who had had a hand in the planning of 9/11 — and on Cheney’s unabashed defense that such harsh interrogation saved lives and that he would most certainly do it again if we were in similar dire circumstances. The decision remains controversial, as does the opinion of many high-ranking intelligence officials (including many now serving in the Obama administration) and apparently of Khalid Sheik Mohammed himself that valuable information — some of it life-saving — was gleaned from such harsh interrogations.
Somehow bloggers and op-ed writers have established by their selective outrage a narrative that it was immoral of Cheney to approve the waterboarding of three confessed terrorists like KSM, but quite moral of Obama to expand fivefold the Predator targeted-assassination program that served as judge, jury, and executioner of suspected terrorists — and of any living thing in their vicinity when the Hellfire missiles obliterated their compounds. It is apparently the nature of a therapeutic culture to demonize one of the architects of the present anti-terrorism policy of renditions, tribunals, Guantanamo, etc. only to apotheosize one of its chief critics — while quietly assuming that Cheney so convinced Obama of the utility of these protocols that the latter adopted nearly all of what he inherited.
The horror of 9/11 resulted in a number of subsequent enigmas, but to this day most are seldom discussed and apparently better forgotten.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.