How quickly some of us forget. How arrogant some of us have become.
Those of you old enough to remember the shock and horror of September 11, answer me this: If I had told you that the George W. Bush’s anti-terror policies would be so effective that after that terrible day jihadist terrorists would kill only three Americans on U.S. soil for the remainder of his term, would you judge his policies a success, or would you call him an “idiot” and hold him and his foreign-policy team in “complete contempt?”
I know my answer. I know the fair answer. In the days and weeks after 9/11, fear gripped America. We knew al-Qaeda possessed an immense safe haven in Afghanistan. We had no idea of what other plots might unfold next. After all, our intelligence agencies had just missed the worst attack on American soil since the British burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. We believed that the 9/11 attacks were the first of a series of assaults to come. That they never came is to the eternal credit of Bush and his team.
Steve Bannon has a different answer, and it’s ridiculous. On 60 Minutes last night, the man credited with shaping Trump’s “America First” brand of politics clearly and unequivocally declared his disdain for George W. Bush and Bush’s entire national-security team, calling them “idiots” and saying that he holds them “in contempt, total and complete contempt.”
After 9/11, these very same “idiots” quickly figured out a core truth of the War on Terror: While we can’t predict or stop every terror attack, we know that when terrorists possess safe havens, risk of attacks increases exponentially. To defend the nation, you have to destroy the safe havens. That means taking the fight straight to the jihadists. That means putting boots on the ground.
They also understood the deep dysfunction of the Middle East and the extent of the actual and potential threat posed by a man like Saddam Hussein. Those who believe that his Ba’athist dictatorship was somehow inherently stable and benign forget not only Hussein’s history but also the recent horrifying example of the costs of inaction in Syria. Barack Obama beta-tested a hands-off approach to regime change in the Syrian Civil War, and the result was a destabilizing genocide and the rise of ISIS.
The wars that followed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were hard and long, and the Bush administration undeniably made serious mistakes in prosecuting them. But they were also successful by the metric that truly matters: They helped keep America safe. The numbers don’t lie. As I noted above, jihadists killed three Americans in the U.S. during the entire remainder of Bush’s first term. Three. A Heritage Foundation timeline of terror plots and attacks in the U.S. after 9/11 shows a total of 27 incidents between 9/12 and Obama’s first term, the vast majority of them foiled by authorities.
This threat has receded as Trump has quite wisely ditched his isolationist campaign rhetoric, expanding American military efforts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Indeed, these same numbers show the consequences of changing strategies. Obama’s policy of disengagement and withdrawal was far more closely aligned with the isolationist argument against foreign intervention pushed by Bannon and his ilk than with Bush’s more aggressive foreign policy — and the result was an unmitigated disaster.
As Obama pulled back in Iraq, limited American military action, and responded passively to the emerging Syrian Civil War, terrorists surged. There were 66 jihadist plots and attacks in the U.S. during Obama’s two terms, and as ISIS rose, so did the death toll at home. The terror attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando alone accounted for far more casualties than those three post-9/11 casualties on Bush’s watch. Our European allies, moreover, were rocked with waves of attacks, and the Syrian refugee crisis has destabilized their politics.
The crisis grew so bad that Obama reversed course. The “peace president” slowly discovered his inner George W. Bush. He put boots back on the ground in Iraq. He put boots on the ground in Syria. He kept boots on the ground in Afghanistan. He launched a renewed air offensive in the Middle East that saved Iraq from collapse and killed ISIS fighters by the tens of thousands.
Lo and behold, the terror threat has started to recede. In 2015, at the height of ISIS’s expansion, there were 17 jihadist attacks or planned attacks on American soil. In 2016, that number dropped to 13. So far in 2017, there have been only three plots or attacks, and no one has died. This threat has receded as Trump has quite wisely ditched his isolationist campaign rhetoric, expanding American military efforts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Even as three successive administrations have demonstrated the absolute necessity of destroying terrorist safe havens and the indispensable role of American troops abroad in defending our citizens at home, our national political dialogue doesn’t lack for know-nothings like Bannon. They sell the American people a series of alluring fictions: We can have security without war; we can withdraw and still be safe; we can delegate the fight against al-Qaeda to unreliable allies.
On this day, of all days, we should remember the high cost of granting terrorists their safe havens. On this day, of all days, we should acknowledge that American sacrifices abroad have not been in vain. The men and women who set the tone for American foreign policy in 9/11’s aftermath were imperfect, but on the whole they got it right.
There’s no substitute for forward-deployed American force, nor for taking and holding ground against our worst enemies. Obama had to learn this lesson, while Trump caught on more quickly. Now Bannon is exactly where he belongs: out of the administration and out of the national-security establishment. Let him marinate in his foolish contempt. America since 9/11 is far safer and more secure than we feared it would be. That is no accident, and I for one am grateful for the “idiots” who made it so.