Politics & Policy

Post-9/11 Mysteries

The aftershocks of 9/11 have generated a bizarre collective amnesia.

Strangely, both the media and the public rarely mention some of the most important aftershocks in the decade since 9/11. Here are some representative examples of landmark events that to this day remain mostly undiscussed.

1. No more falling skyscrapers? Few imagined that the United States could go an entire decade without another major terrorist attack — other than freelancing jihadists’ killing members of the American armed forces. Almost monthly, U.S. authorities have thwarted serial attempts to cause mayhem on airliners, bridges, city squares, shopping malls, and high-rises. It was almost as if the more we caricatured the often silly security measures at the airport, blasted Guantanamo Bay, and ridiculed renditions, the more we assumed that our security, initially thought permanently imperiled (“not if, but when”), was once again our birthright. Someone somewhere did something that kept us safe, but we were strangely afraid to acknowledge that there was any utility in the very protocols and foreign operations that had weakened our enemies to the point of an inability to replicate 9/11. If immediately after the attacks in New York and Washington we accepted that the old security was no longer possible, soon thereafter we started assuming not only that it was natural, but that, in organic fashion, it had reappeared through spontaneous regeneration.

2. The greatest political turnabout of the age. If one had collated everything candidate Obama declaimed about the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies from autumn of 2007 to November 2008, then one would have expected a President Obama to dismantle the entire Bush-Cheney national-security apparatus upon entering office, to pull out of Iraq (he originally said this should be done by March 2008, no less), and to keep our military out of the Middle East. Instead, Obama retained Secretary of Defense Gates, stuck to the Bush-Petraeus withdrawal plan in Iraq, expanded Predator-drone attacks in Waziristan, surged into Afghanistan, bombed Libya, and embraced everything from Guantanamo to renditions. That about-face, I think, was the most radical political development of the last quarter-century, and was treated with near silence by the media. It was as if Moveon.org, Code Pink, and Michael Moore had simply vanished from the face of the earth sometime around January 2009. The notion today that a canonized Michael Moore would be invited to a lookout perch at the 2012 Democratic Convention or that Moveon.org would run another “General Betray Us” ad is surreal. A cynic would say that the anti–War on Terror movement did its job in helping to elect Barack Obama, and then moved on, so to speak, when Barack Obama likewise did his job in continuing his predecessor’s anti-terrorism policies.

3. The taboo enemy dead. After Vietnam, who would wish to count enemy dead? To a 21st-century public, such terrible arithmetic might seem macabre, intrinsically politicized, or simply irrelevant in war. The age-old idea that killing die-hard enemies wins wars and ensures the peace is for some antithetical to the spirit of counterinsurgency doctrine, at least superficially so. Few would ever channel William Tecumseh Sherman’s frightening remarks that to win the Civil War the Union army would have to kill or humiliate several thousands of the Southern “cavalier” class, whose livelihoods depended on slavery, whose zeal had started the war, and whose boasts of martial superiority had galvanized the Confederate belief that its fighters were far better than the Northerners and could trump inferior resources.

Tens of thousands of hard-core jihadists from as far away as Algeria, Chechnya, Egypt, the Gulf monarchies, Libya, Syria, and Yemen obeyed the calls for jihad issued by the likes of Osama bin Laden, Dr. Zawahiri, and Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi. They flocked to al-Qaeda’s “main theater” of jihad in Iraq — and in Baghdad and throughout Anbar Province were killed in droves by the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies. Only off the record will military officers confess that the eventual American success in Iraq was due in some part to doing away with murderous jihadists and impressing the local population with our martial superiority. And even off the record, few will suggest that the absence of such killers from the world’s pool of hard-core terrorists may well have made life safer at home. We are in a new age when we “beat” or “subdue” the enemy but do not admit that we do that often through killing him. The Iraq War has become a story about troop levels, hearts and minds, and training the Iraqis, but not much about a shooting war in which thousands of jihadists lost.

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.


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