America at its core is a country of strong and resilient people who are prepared to confront the challenges posed by those who seek to do us harm. But we may not always agree on the best response to any given event, which is why we depend upon our leadership to define our role in the world in times of crisis.
The anniversary of the tragic attacks on September 11, 2001, and September 11, 2012, is a day to remember those who died and suffered. It is also an opportunity to open a new dialogue on the tactics and strategies that have been successful — and unsuccessful — in confronting, containing, and defeating the threat from radical Islam.
Radical jihadists attacked the U.S. repeatedly prior to September 11, 2001. They bombed the World Trade Center in New York. They brought down U.S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia. They leveled U.S. embassies in East Africa. They launched a deadly suicide mission against the USS Cole.
President Bill Clinton did not treat these attacks as what they were, acts of war. His most forceful response was to fire a few cruise missiles into Afghanistan terrorist-training camps and a supposed weapons factory in Sudan. Even an opportunity to take out bin Laden was dismissed as too risky.
That all changed on the morning of September 11, 2001, when radical Islamists murdered nearly 3,000 Americans in attacks aimed at our political, financial, and defense institutions.
President George W. Bush chose to go on offense. Boots were soon on the ground in Afghanistan to topple the oppressive Taliban, who harbored Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. New intelligence programs were launched. International coalitions were formed.
It was an imperfect strategy in an uncertain environment, but we knew the very real and personal threat. We were determined to win, and our enemies knew it.
It stands in stark contrast to the response to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. President Barack Obama chose a different course. His administration initially downplayed the attack by saying it was caused by an anti-Islam YouTube video, and his secretary of state later dismissed the issue during a Senate hearing, saying, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
It makes a major difference.
It was part of Obama’s new approach to terrorism; he sought to minimize the threat from radical Islamists. In his 2009 inaugural address he reached out to the Muslim world, saying that he seeks “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
The “War on Terror” became an “overseas contingency operation.” The term “radical Islam” was no longer used. Enhanced interrogations were banned. The administration attempted to close the terrorist-detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. He declared the operation in Iraq over and pulled out all U.S. troops.
Obama sought a strategy of accommodating our enemies, even if they weren’t so willing to accommodate us.
So where does that leave us today? The fact is that no foreign-policy doctrine is perfect. The situation in Syria has deteriorated into a civil war with no good solution. Libya is becoming a lawless state. Violence in Egypt is looming. Bin Laden might be dead, but al-Qaeda is alive and well across the Middle East and North Africa. America is divided, frustrated, and almost paralyzed.
The malaise that America finds itself in today is totally uncharacteristic of who we are. We have been, and we are, an exceptional people capable of accomplishing great things.
The path forward will not be quick or easy. America is looking for leadership that will bring it together under an all-encompassing plan to defeat radical Islam. Leadership that is willing to act decisively. Leadership that is willing to admit its mistakes. Leadership that is willing to tell the truth.
— Peter Hoekstra is the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.