After the radical Islamist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the foiled effort to ram a fourth jet into the Capitol in Washington, no one envisioned that there would follow eleven years without another major attack. Since September 11, 2001, over 45 terrorist plots have been uncovered and foiled in the United States; al-Qaeda, as a terrorist threat, seems regionalized and without the ability to inflict mayhem on a similarly large scale on the Western world; bin Laden is no more; and the Arab Islamic world itself is divided and torn by the conflicting currents of theocracy, democracy, and dictatorship.
What brought all this about?
First, in the months after 9/11, Congress, at the urging of George W. Bush, passed the Patriot Act and other major anti-terrorism legislation, which, enhanced by a number of executive orders, led to Guantanamo Bay, intercepts and wiretaps, military tribunals, renditions, preventive detentions, and targeted drone strikes. These efforts led to the capture or death of thousands of terrorists, and so far have made it nearly impossible to replicate 9/11.
If another al-Qaeda cadre were to plan a second 9/11 from the Hindu Kush, that plot would now be almost certain to fail, given that terrorist communications would be unlikely to escape U.S. detection. Planners would be vulnerable to Predator-drone strikes or U.S. Special Forces incursions. Terrorists could not so easily use international jet travel. Sympathetic governments in the Middle East would be far more wary of aiding their cause. European nations would not be so likely to shrug at their efforts. They could not so easily enter and operate within the United States. And American public opinion would far more readily support tough measures to crush them.
That the Bush protocols were effective in stopping another 9/11 is evident not just from the record of the last eleven years, but also from the embrace or expansion of these anti-terrorism measures by those who at one time were most critical of their adoption. If someone in 2007 had suggested that then-senator Barack Obama one day as president would kill, in targeted assassinations, seven times as many suspected terrorists in three and a half years as George Bush had in seven years, he would have been considered unhinged. Guantanamo was as damned by Obama 1.0 as it was left open by Obama 2.0. Ditto renditions, tribunals, and nearly all the elements of the Patriot Act. Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School, would go from suing the federal government on behalf of Guantanamo detainees to issuing legal briefs assuring President Obama that using a Predator drone to blow up an American citizen suspected of terrorism was both legal and perfectly warranted.
Stranger still was the reaction of the once-loud Left that had caricatured George Bush and Dick Cheney as near-criminals who shredded the Constitution in their short-sighted efforts to fight imaginary terrorists. One of the unappreciated results of Barack Obama’s presidency has been the complete repudiation of the entire liberal assault on the anti-terrorism policies of the Bush presidency. That the venomous opposition to those policies ceased abruptly after Obama embraced them is not just proof of partisan cynicism, but seems to indicate that the measures were necessary and effective. So historians will be puzzled over how such protocols were widely praised in the aftermath of 9/11, then demagogued as useless, amoral, and illegal during the elections of 2004 and 2008, then embraced by the very critics who had demonized them — and all without an ounce of credit given to their originator, George Bush.
Note that alternatives to the Bush-era anti-terrorism protocols more recently proposed by the Obama administration — trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court not far from Ground Zero in Manhattan, giving Miranda rights to detained terrorists, putting former CIA agents on trial for the interrogation techniques they used to gain information from detainees, and attempting to institutionalize politically correct euphemisms (e.g., “overseas contingency operations,” “man-caused disasters,” “workplace violence”) — have all gone nowhere.