This article was originally published in TIA Daily.
Welcome to the post-9/11 era. Ten years later, the terrorist attacks of September 11 are no longer the defining events of American politics and foreign policy.
I do not mean by this what most of the political establishment means by it. They think they have gotten beyond September 11 by proclaiming that we now know, in retrospect, that we “over-reacted” to the attacks and that vigorous and aggressive action in the world—particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—have proved futile, demonstrating once again the wisdom of passive, status quo, “leading from behind” multilateralism.
Since this has become the new consensus of the center-left foreign policy establishment, I could cite a dozen examples. Here is just a sample. At Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf commemorates 9/11 by providing a rundown of all of the foreign policy events that he thinks were bigger and more important than that overblown World Trade Center thingy. Like “the failure to address global warming.” An article in The Atlantic celebrates the “death” of the War on Terror, “abandoned by the very agencies responsible for implementing it after 9/11.”
By the latter years of the Bush administration, the exceptional tactics that defined the War on Terror—preventative detentions, pain-based interrogation, ethnic and religious profiling, and widely expanded domestic surveillance powers—were either abandoned or dramatically scaled back based on overwhelming evidence that they were ineffective. Meanwhile, the actual wars initiated in the name of the War on Terror, in Afghanistan and Iraq, rapidly evolved into counter-insurgency and then counterterrorism campaigns as military leaders recognized that the US was unable to replace theocrats and autocrats with stable, Western-style democracies.
Ignore some of the factual errors about the extent to which these policies have been abandoned. (More on that in a moment.) Note the tendentious approach of asserting that these policies were dropped because of “overwhelming evidence that they were ineffective.” This is an old rhetorical trick: spend years denouncing and undermining a policy from the very beginning, and then later act as if you reluctantly turned against those policies because of evidence that, gosh darn it, they just didn’t work.
Even my favorite old-fashioned liberal, Anne Applebaum, has joined in, asking whether “the planes that hit New York and Washington did less damage to the nation than the cascade of bad decisions that followed.” The idea is that we spent too much time and energy focusing on terrorism and not enough on policy toward China and Russia, and, um, making an immigration deal with Mexico. You know, the really important stuff.
Applebaum admits that “we were, in the terms defined by the war on terror, successful.” Yet it is only from the standpoint of that success that the establishment can grow so complacent that it spends the 10th anniversary of September 11 kvetching about a bunch of non-life-and-death issues.
All of this creates the environment for the opportunistic creeps of the far left to indulge in blame-America-first self-flagellation. Paul Krugman set the pace by blogging on the morning of the anniversary that 9/11 “has become an occasion for shame” about America’s misdeeds. As we used to ask in the days after September 11: why do they hate us?
All of these people have not moved forward into the post-9/11 era, as they imagine. They have simply gone back to the pre-9/11 era, advocating exactly the same ideas and priorities as they did on September 10, 2001.
When I listen to these people, I remember a passage from Dashiell Hammett, the writer of “hard-boiled” 20th-century detective fiction. His hero Sam Spade describes how a woman hired him to search for her husband, who had disappeared years earlier. Spade tracks the man down and finds out what happened. The man was walking home from work one day when a girder from a construction site fell down on the sidewalk, missing him by inches. He was so shocked by the sudden brush with death that he re-evaluated everything in his life, leaving his family and running off to have a series of adventures. But after a while the shock wore off, and by the time Spade finds him, the man has settled back into exactly the same kind of life he had before: the same kind of job, the same kind of wife, the same kind of house.
Spade remarks, in his worldly-wise way, that a girder had almost dropped on the man’s head and he had adjusted to that fact, but then girders stopped falling and he adjusted back again. That pretty much sums up the establishment’s reaction to September 11. Buildings stopped falling, so they adjusted back to the way things used to be, without thinking too deeply about why the buildings aren’t falling any more.
Yet while the intellectuals have not moved on, the world has moved forward, and we have in actual fact entered an era no longer defined by September 11. And this is a good thing. But before I explain what I mean, I first want to acknowledge what made this possible: the actual, effective measures against terrorism taken after September 11.
Ignore intrusive and ineffectual measures like forcing us to remove our shoes at airports. One of the best pieces of news on the tenth anniversary of September 11 is that this policy may be ending, with Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano telling reporters that “We are moving towards an intelligence and risk-based approach to how we screen.” This seems to refer to the approach used very effectively for decades by the Israelis, who focus their resources by “profiling” passengers who are actually suspicious, rather than taking away grandma’s knitting needles. It’s long past time for such a change in policy.
But all of this is the public “security theater” aspect of the War on Terrorism. It gets a lot of attention but doesn’t really accomplish anything. More quietly, behind the scenes, real security measures have been taken to prevent and disrupt Islamic terror networks, arresting plotters in a number of cases. Only individual, “lone wolf” jihad attacks (like the Fort Hood shooter) have gotten through.
Most notable is New York City’s highly effective campaign to map out the Muslim communities in its area, to infiltrate potential gathering places for Islamic radicals, and to work closely with the CIA on intelligence-gathering. The Associated Press has published a long, must-read article on these programs. While the AP treats its report as an exposé, the New York Post praises these programs as “exactly what they should be doing,” and New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly makes no apology.
Would we put an undercover officer in an Islamic bookstore? Yes, if that’s what was required to defeat a homegrown terrorist like Matin Siraj from plotting to bomb Herald Square station. Would we have an undercover or a confidential informant get close to a fellow New Yorker? Yes, if that New Yorker was someone like Ahmed Ferhani, who pledged to “blow up a synagogue in Manhattan and take out the whole entire building.”… These were all instances in which undercover officers and confidential sources deployed by the NYPD Intelligence Division stopped dangerous individuals in their tracks.
New York City could almost be a country to itself—it has a larger population than Israel—and in effect it has created its own intelligence service, a mini-CIA devoted to keeping the city safe.
Then there is the fact that our two big wars overseas (Afghanistan and Iraq), as well as lower-intensity conflicts carried out with drones or through proxies in other terrorist hotspots (Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, and of course Pakistan) have engaged the enemy in very bloody conflicts. As the saying goes, we have been “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here,” and it has largely worked.
We forget how essential the war in Iraq was to this conflict. In an excellent rebuttal to those who have been prattling about America’s “over-reaction” to September 11, Charles Krauthammer describes how Iraq became a turning point.
Iraq, too, was decisive, though not in the way we intended. We no more chose it to be the central campaign in the crushing of al-Qaeda than Eisenhower chose the Battle of the Bulge as the locus for the final destruction of the German war machine.
Al-Qaeda, uninvited, came out to fight us in Iraq, and it was not just defeated but humiliated. The local population—Arab, Muslim, Sunni, under the supposed heel of the invader—joined the infidel and rose up against the jihadi in its midst. It was a singular defeat from which al-Qaeda never recovered.
You will also hear a lot of claptrap (from both the left and the right) about how Iran emerged from the Iraq War as a stronger and emboldened regional power. Yet what has actually happened is that the Iranian regime faces simmering revolt from within, and it is in the process of losing the Assad regime in Syria, which was its one regional power center, its ally and agent for extending its influence into the Arab world. Never in its history has the Islamic Republic been weaker.
All of this set the context for events that have actually brought us into the post-9/11 era. The 9/11 era was defined by the threat of radical Islamic terrorists, with the support and sponsorship of tyrannical states, who sought to attack US assets overseas and the American homeland itself. This threat was not narrowly limited to al-Qaeda and included Iran, which has a long history of sponsoring terrorist proxies around the world. I have advocated a very broad understanding of this threat and of the appropriate means for countering it. But the big picture is that this was an era defined by a conflict of them against us. Radical Muslims stoked fanatical hatred of the West and recruited zealots to strike against us.
Yet it was never really about us. It was about them.
It is true, of course, that the terrorist threat is a reaction to the freedom and secularism of the West, and to our military, political, and cultural influence on the Muslim world. But behind that, the terrorist campaign against the West is also the extension of a civil war within the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden sought to attack the “far enemy,” America, in order to panic us into a retreat from the Middle East, leaving al-Qaeda free to topple the “near enemy,” the various Arab regimes. Particularly, his targets were Saudi Arabia and Egypt, his homeland and the homeland of his deputy (and now successor), Ayman al-Zawahiri.
You can see how al-Qaeda’s strategy comprehensively failed. The actual result of September 11 is that the US became even more deeply involved in the Middle East, and al-Qaeda did not lead a vanguard of revolt in the Arab world.
Yet there has been a wave of revolts in the Arab world, and that is the new trend that defines the post-9/11 era.
This year’s “Arab Spring” has not been led or defined by the jihadists. Iran and al-Qaeda have been observing from the sidelines and are still scrambling to figure out how to react. Instead, young educated liberals were in the vanguard of these revolutions, joined by less-enlightened “moderate” Islamists.
The point is not that the Arab Spring is all rainbows and unicorns. Some of these newly free nations may create progressive and enlightened societies, and some may turn out very badly. (I’ll have more updates on that soon.) But the point is that this is now the big conflict in the Middle East, and it is one that cannot be understood by viewing it from the perspective of 9/11. It is not about them versus us, but about them versus them.
A recent CNN blog post by a Syrian writer describes the three stages of reaction to 9/11 among Arab intellectuals, from sympathy with America, to resentment of America’s wars, to the current stage, “forgetting about America”: “today, America is on nobody’s mind in the Arab world—except for when it comes to how they [the Americans] react to the Arab Spring. Arab affairs and domestic affairs are a high priority, which in itself, I believe, is very healthy and a grand improvement indeed.” I agree. For decades, the Arabs have used America as a scapegoat for all of their problems, allowing them to avoid confronting the backwardness of their own societies. Now, they clearly have their fate in their own hands and will have to become responsible for themselves. (Now if only they can get to the next step: forgetting about Israel.)
Although the Arabs may be forgetting about America, much of the Arab Spring was made possible by what we did (and what they resented) over the past decade. This is not always easy to notice, because the effect of America’s War on Terrorism is largely experienced in terms of what is not there.
If we hadn’t dislodged al-Qaeda from its Afghan safe haven and dismantled much of its network and the people in it, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda would still be front and center, rallying the Arab and Muslim world with an example of successful defiance of the West and with spectacular new attacks on America. As it is, al-Qaeda clearly failed and has become largely irrelevant. Just as nothing succeeds like success, nothing fails like failure.
I also think that we couldn’t imagine the Arab Spring with Saddam Hussein still in power. I pointed out recently that the pattern of the Arab Spring is that it has taken down Arab Nationalist dictators who ruled on the model set by Egypt’s Nasser. Saddam Hussein was the last of those figures to command a real constituency in the Arab World, the last archetype of the Arab Nationalist strongman whose defiance of the West rallies the Arab world behind him. His fall discredited Nasserism once and for all, pulling out the foundations from under the other decrepit remnants of that system. Once again, nothing fails like failure.
It is hard to say exactly how big an influence the elections in Iraq have had on Iran, because the Iranian people have been in revolt against their oppressive regime for twelve years. But contrary to those who claim that the Iraq War strengthened Iran, I think the evidence clearly indicates that seeing a greater degree of freedom next door helped embolden the Iranians to a more open and complete break with their rulers. Moreover, our war against Iran’s agents and proxies in Iraq chewed up a lot of Iranian resources, particularly among the intelligence services who are the sinews of dictatorship.
But the most important thing the Iraq War contributed was a vision of political freedom for the Middle East. In acting against the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, George W. Bush had to answer the question: and then what? He had to decide what kind of societies America should seek to encourage and support in place of the regimes we were knocking down. He had to project what a post 9-11 world should look like, and events are finally beginning to catch up with his vision.
At the time, Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom was widely dismissed as naïve and unrealistic; I was initially quite skeptical of it. But in light of the last year’s events, it seems prescient. In a recent op-ed, Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson defines the Bush policy a little too broadly (more broadly than it was ever implemented), but he does name the way in which Bush has been vindicated.
After an extended Arab Spring, the realist practice of supporting favorable autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa seems hopelessly naïve. The combined dictatorial rule of 95 years in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya collapsed in the course of eight months, and there is no reason to believe the revolution has ended. Citizen participation always carries the risk of poor choices by citizens. But it is now clear that autocratic and economically backward nations are inherently unstable, and that democratic transitions are the best hope of constructively channeling discontent.
The progress here is that our policy toward the Middle East is no longer defined in terms of 9/11, its perpetrators, and our response. Thank goodness for that, because for 9/11 to still be the central issue, al-Qaeda would still have to be powerful and the US would still have to be living under the threat of successful, large-scale attacks.
To be sure, the threat of radical Islam and of terrorist plots still exists and will require continued vigilance and vigorous action. But these threats are no longer central to our foreign policy. What is central is the fate of the Arab revolutions and the success of the societies that are built in their aftermath.
My own view is that we only need one real success, one society that ends up with a free political system and a vibrant society to set an example for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. It’s not that the Arabs and Persians don’t already have plenty of good examples to draw from—such as America itself and much of Southeast Asia—but societies respond much more strongly to political models that share close bonds of language, culture, and religion. There were many examples of successful revolutions before 2011, but it took the uprising in Tunisia to set the Arab world alight. So the Middle East will need a home-grown example or two to tip the balance in favor of liberty, progress, and secular government. That is what we are looking for in this new era.
What we need is at least one success out of three to five good opportunities. (The three are Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The fourth and fifth, potentially, are Syria and Iran.) It’s a rough area of the world, but a one-out-of-five success rate actually gives us pretty good odds.
Remember that this is really about them and not about us. It’s really about the modernization of the Arab and Muslim World and its need to escape from political tyranny, economic stagnation, and religious obscurantism. In one of the few really perceptive statements coming from the foreign policy establishment, Fareed Zakaria writes that the most important publication of the 9/11 era was the 2002 Arab Development Report, a UN study on the intellectual and political backwardness of the Arab world. But this is actually the most important publication of the post-9/11 era, because now the Arabs finally have a good opportunity for broad reform of their societies.
This, in turn, requires a re-orientation of our foreign policy. Our most urgent priority right now is not the suppression of a terrorist threat, because it has already been suppressed. Our most urgent priority is a full political, diplomatic, and intellectual effort to influence the reform of the Arab world in a positive direction, giving aid, encourage, and ideas to the best people in these societies. In short, our goal should be to actually implement President Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom.
The Obama administration will, of course, be caught flat-footed, though there is one sign I’ve seen that someone is taking the current task seriously. The State Department has opened a Middle East “transitions” office, modeled on a similar office created to help reform Eastern Europe after the Fall of the Communism in 1991. That’s a start.
There is a reason Bush’s Forward Strategy is called a forward strategy. As with the idea of fighting Islamic radicals over there so we don’t have to fight them here, America has an interest in encouraging political ferment over there, so that the Arabs and Muslim won’t think they can settle their internal political grudges by waging war against the “far enemy” over here.
We are just at the beginning of this process. The Arab Spring will be immeasurably magnified by a Persian Spring when the Iranian regime finally collapses. And there will be a great many difficulties along the way; the first will be discouraging the Arabs from diverting their attention to a war against Israel. (More on that soon.) But a battle between the West and the Muslim world is being superseded by an internal conflict within the Muslim world between liberals and Islamists. A battle to destroy a negative has been superseded by a campaign to support a positive. This is progress.
It is with this full context in mind that I can now repeat: welcome to the post-9/11 era.