Commentary Magazine


Topic: 9/11

The Constitution Project’s Dangerous Complacency on Terror

It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

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It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters.

Nowhere does the report offer any credit to those same officials for preventing more attacks on the American homeland. Nor does the report seriously entertain the possibility–which I think a probability–that the use of torture was related to the success in defending our homeland from follow-up attacks.

This is a sign, in my view, of the dangerous triumphalism and complacency which has taken control of the public discourse because there were no more 9/11s and because the architects of those attacks have been either captured or killed. Perhaps the Boston Marathon bombing will instill some renewed urgency into the public debate about countering terrorism, but I doubt it–bad as the Boston bombing was, it was not deadly enough to change our mindset in the way that 9/11 did.

We are feeling secure now, and in our security we are seeing a tendency, exemplified by the Constitution Project, to turn on those who were responsible for fighting al-Qaeda at a time when it appeared to be a far more potent threat than it is today.

The project’s report seeks to undo many of the steps taken to fight al-Qaeda, with a majority of its members urging that the U.S. declare formal hostilities with al-Qaeda to be over at the end of 2014 when U.S. combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan–a step that would necessitate closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and releasing or transferring its detainees. If only we could elicit a binding commitment from al-Qaeda to stop fighting us after 2014!

This measure was opposed by a minority of the panel (presumably the Republicans), but the entire group signed on to say “that the United States has violated its international legal obligations in its practice of the enforced disappearances”–otherwise known as the “rendition” of terrorist suspects begun under the Clinton administration. By calling the capture of these suspected terrorists “enforced disappearances” the panel seems to be suggesting that U.S. actions are similar to those of the Argentinean junta during its “Dirty War” which left tens of thousands of Argentineans dead.

This is only a small sampling of the problems with the Constitution Project report, which seems to be written as if the terrorist threat is over and we are now in a postwar period. The Boston bombing shows otherwise. I only hope we do not experience even more convincing refutations of our complacency anytime soon.

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Should Grief Impel Policy? Only Sometimes.

The public reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings appears, at least so far, to be exemplary. The shock over the crime and the sadness about the victims has been great, but it has not prevented the country from going about its business a day later. While we can expect heightened security measures wherever people gather in the coming days the country is, as it should be, carrying on and refusing to succumb to panic. There is great and understandable frustration about the lack of knowledge about the perpetrators and their motives, but at least for the moment that is not entirely a bad thing. The lack of information about the identity of the bombers or their motives is acting as a check on the impulse to jump to conclusions about the event. In the absence of a villain or a root cause, the Boston bombing is just a tragedy and not a political tool.

Yet as much as this gives us some space to think about Boston without the need to employ it in the service of some predictable meme, it should not obscure the difference between drawing reasonable conclusions from events and exploiting them. The contrast between Boston and the most recent national trauma in Newtown is not only in terms of the scale of the crime but in the way much of mainstream opinion makers are asking us to think about it.

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The public reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings appears, at least so far, to be exemplary. The shock over the crime and the sadness about the victims has been great, but it has not prevented the country from going about its business a day later. While we can expect heightened security measures wherever people gather in the coming days the country is, as it should be, carrying on and refusing to succumb to panic. There is great and understandable frustration about the lack of knowledge about the perpetrators and their motives, but at least for the moment that is not entirely a bad thing. The lack of information about the identity of the bombers or their motives is acting as a check on the impulse to jump to conclusions about the event. In the absence of a villain or a root cause, the Boston bombing is just a tragedy and not a political tool.

Yet as much as this gives us some space to think about Boston without the need to employ it in the service of some predictable meme, it should not obscure the difference between drawing reasonable conclusions from events and exploiting them. The contrast between Boston and the most recent national trauma in Newtown is not only in terms of the scale of the crime but in the way much of mainstream opinion makers are asking us to think about it.

It is true that that our current ignorance about the bombers prevents observers from using it to discuss a particular threat, be it radical right-wingers or Islamists. But once we do know the answers to our questions, there should be no reticence about conducting a public discussion about how best to deal with the source of the terror. That’s why those who are speaking about the need to avoid using Boston to rally concern about terrorism the way 9/11 focused the nation’s attention on the threat from al-Qaeda are wrong.

As much as some seem to desire to put us back in a 9/10/01 mentality about terrorism, the sense of urgency that followed 9/11/01 was not the product of George W. Bush’s fear mongering but a reasonable response to an atrocious attack on the United States. While not everything that followed in terms of U.S. policy turned out to be a brilliant success, there was nothing artificial or the product of deception about the need for America to start fighting back against the Islamist war on the West.

While the Boston attack is, thank God, not on the same scale as the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, the people who did this must also be tracked down and rooted out of their holes, be they somewhere in this country or, as in the case of al-Qaeda, on the other side of the earth. It is neither alarmist nor exploitive to say that if some group is behind this atrocity all its members and sympathizers must be considered dangerous enemies against whom the full force of American power must be used. There is, after all, a difference between a rational response to a specific threat and the desire to exploit a crime to promote a political response to an event that is not directly related to the crime in question.

This is instructive since so many of the people who are so insistent that Boston should not lead to a disproportionate government response to terrorism are often the same ones who have been asking to use Newtown as an excuse to enact far-reaching gun legislation.

Ever since the terrible events of December 14 when a madman murdered 20 children and six teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, there has been a constant refrain in the national press for Americans not to let go of their grief. There is widespread disgust about the notion that Americans have started to think dispassionately about the crime rather than be impelled by their horror into agreeing with whatever gun restrictions the president has urged the nation to adopt, even if they would not prevent another such crime. After Newtown, the very idea of the country keeping calm about guns in the way they are now being asked to lower their temperature about terrorists–no matter who they might be–is anathema. In that case, grief and fear are considered appropriate drivers of policy by liberals while terrorism may not be.

Those seeking explanations for why the president’s gun agenda has run into a ditch only months after Newtown should contemplate how fragile a political tool fear and emotion can be. If the post-9/11 concerns about terror persisted for years after that event it was because, in spite of mistakes the government may have made, the fears that event whipped up were not out of proportion to the event that generated them. If other events are not capable of sustaining political agendas, it may be because the connection between these crimes and the suggested policy response is not as strong as some might wish it to be.

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Walter Russell Mead’s Shallow and Misleading Attack on the Bush Legacy

Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

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Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

The University of Texas’s Will Inboden does a fine job responding to Mead on foreign policy, so I’ll focus on what Mead calls the “multiple policy failures of the Bush years,” which include “two long unfinished wars, a botched hurricane, no significant domestic reform, frozen immobility on immigration, deficits out of control, the middle class in deepening trouble, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

There’s much to unravel in this litany, starting with Mead’s claim that the Bush deficits were “out of control.” Wrong. The budget deficit during President Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent.

But Bush inherited a surplus, critics will respond. To which the answer is: Yes, but by January 2001, when Bush was inaugurated, the budget surpluses were evaporating as the economy skidded toward recession (it officially began in March 2001). Combined with the devastating economic effects of 9/11, when we lost around 1 million jobs in a little over 90 days, the surplus went into deficit.

And here’s what else Mead fails to mention: In the aftermath of the March 2001 recession, America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation that produced more than 8 million new jobs. During the Bush presidency, the unemployment rate averaged 5.3 percent. We saw labor-productivity gains that exceeded the averages of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Real after-tax income per capita increased by more than 11 percent. And from 2000 to 2007, real GDP grew by more than 17 percent, a gain of nearly $2.1 trillion.

Keith Hennessey, in a data-heavy analysis that contrasts well with Mead’s, concludes:

George W. Bush, a wartime President, had a smaller federal government and lower taxes relative to the economy than each of his three predecessors, historically small deficits, no tax increases, and 5.3% average unemployment. He vetoed a farm bill and two health bills for spending too much. He proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.

Mr. Mead mentions none of this, perhaps because they pose inconvenient facts to his thesis. In any event, it’s hardly a record of failure.

Ah, you might say, but what about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which happened during Bush’s watch?

The reasons for the 2008 financial crisis were quite complicated, but surely much of the blame–and probably a majority of the blame–rests with those (Democrats) who blocked reforms that would have mitigated the effects of the housing crisis, which led to the broader financial crisis. As Stuart Taylor, hardly a loyal Bush supporter, put it in 2008:

The pretense of many Democrats that this crisis is altogether a Republican creation is simplistic and dangerous. It is simplistic because Democrats have been a big part of the problem, in part by supporting governmental distortions of the marketplace through mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose reckless lending practices necessitated a $200 billion government rescue [in September 2008]. … Fannie and Freddie appear to have played a major role in causing the current crisis, in part because their quasi-governmental status violated basic principles of a healthy free enterprise system by allowing them to privatize profit while socializing risk.

For the record, the Bush administration warned as early as April 2001 that Fannie and Freddie were too large and overleveraged and that their failure “could cause strong repercussions in financial markets, affecting federally insured entities and economic activity” well beyond housing. Bush’s plan would have subjected Fannie and Freddie to the kinds of federal regulation that banks, credit unions, and savings and loans have to comply with. In addition, Republican Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed for comprehensive GSE (government-sponsored enterprises) reform in 2005. These efforts at reforming Fannie and Freddie were blocked by Democrats such as Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank, along with the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who backed Dodd’s threat of a filibuster. It’s also important to point out that the steps Bush took to stabilize the financial system–which were made under enormous pressure and increasing turmoil–basically worked, sparing us from even worse consequences.

Now let’s turn to Mead’s claim that Bush achieved no significant domestic reform. Nonsense. The No Child Left Behind Act was among the most important reforms to education in decades. Six years after NCLB became law, 4th-grade students achieved their highest reading and math scores on record, and 8th-grade students achieved their highest math scores on record. African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in reading and math, and the achievement gap has narrowed.

Then there’s the Medicare prescription drug plan, which allows private drug plans to compete against each other to provide coverage for beneficiaries. Because competition was injected into the system, the average premiums in 2008 were 40 percent lower than the original estimates. Overall, the projected spend­ing for the program between 2004 and 2013 is 37 percent lower than orig­inally expected–a reduction of about $240 billion. During the Bush years free-market principles were also extended to the Medicare Advantage program and Health Savings Accounts. This approach to health care issues, it’s worth noting, is the animating feature behind the bold Medicare reform plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan.

On “a botched hurricane:” Mead makes no mention of the staggering incompetence of then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco, neither of whom ordered a mandatory evacuation in time while the latter (Blanco) actually blocked federal efforts to aid New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Despite this, others have pointed out that we witnessed one of the largest rescue operations in history in which roughly a quarter of a million residents were moved out of a flooded city within a week, which is actually a fairly impressive achievement. But none of this is supposed to matter.

I’m not sure what “frozen immobility” on immigration reform is supposed to mean. President Bush was a strong, vocal champion of immigration reform, which encountered congressional opposition and never became law. But the reform was wise and necessary, and the power of it endures. For example, the core of Bush’s immigration reform (with some amendments) is being resurrected by, among others, Senator Marco Rubio. I suspect that what we’ll find is that Bush was ahead of his time on the matter of immigration.

I’ll now take up the issue of Iraq, which is supposedly an indelible mark against America’s 43rd president. It’s quite true that serious mistakes were made leading up to the war and in the aftermath of major combat operations, and I’ve written about them. So, in fact, has President Bush. But a more sophisticated summary than Mead’s, about the effects of the surge and the state of things in Iraq after the Bush presidency, can be found in this column by Charles Krauthammer:

when [Obama] became president in January 2009, he was handed a war that was won. The surge had succeeded. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

He blew it.

I wonder if Walter Russell Mead understands the irony of his analysis. He’s encouraging Republicans to seriously grapple with the Bush era, which is entirely reasonable. But he does so in a way that is itself deeply unserious. Recapitulating Chris Matthews’s talking point about the Bush presidency doesn’t add to our understanding of anything; it merely gives wings to silly caricatures.

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Al-Qaeda in the United States

Yesterday, Jonathan remembered the 20th anniversary of the first attack on the World Trade Center by pointing out that, while we’ve come a long way since 9/11, we are at risk of putting the dangers of al-Qaeda and radical Islam “in our collective rear-view mirrors.” It was also 20 years ago that Senator Daniel Moynihan warned of the dangers of “defining deviancy down.” Today, our strategy against al-Qaeda is to win by defining victory down, and focusing only on the damage we do to its so-called core. That wrongly elevates drone strikes from a tool into a strategy, ignores the recruiting appeal of the Islamist ideology that is at the heart of the danger posed by al-Qaeda, and neglects the fact that we are not very good at anticipating how al-Qaeda’s franchises and allies will grow, cooperate, and spread. Last year, very few analysts worried about Islamist militants in the Maghreb; today, they control half a country.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, as Jonathan points out, “here in the U.S., cases of home-grown Islamist terror continue to crop up.” My colleague Jessica Zuckerman has chronicled the 54 terrorist plots against domestic targets that have been thwarted since 9/11. The latest featured a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, Raees Alam Qazi, and his older brother. It “adds to the large number of terrorist attacks that could be considered to be homegrown.” It is hard to believe that a country which has thwarted about a plot every other month for over a decade, watched the Muslim Brotherhood take over Egypt, and seen an anniversary attack on its consulate in Benghazi could become complacent. It is even harder to ignore the political savvy of the Obama administration and the appeal of its fantasy that the war is over.

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Yesterday, Jonathan remembered the 20th anniversary of the first attack on the World Trade Center by pointing out that, while we’ve come a long way since 9/11, we are at risk of putting the dangers of al-Qaeda and radical Islam “in our collective rear-view mirrors.” It was also 20 years ago that Senator Daniel Moynihan warned of the dangers of “defining deviancy down.” Today, our strategy against al-Qaeda is to win by defining victory down, and focusing only on the damage we do to its so-called core. That wrongly elevates drone strikes from a tool into a strategy, ignores the recruiting appeal of the Islamist ideology that is at the heart of the danger posed by al-Qaeda, and neglects the fact that we are not very good at anticipating how al-Qaeda’s franchises and allies will grow, cooperate, and spread. Last year, very few analysts worried about Islamist militants in the Maghreb; today, they control half a country.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, as Jonathan points out, “here in the U.S., cases of home-grown Islamist terror continue to crop up.” My colleague Jessica Zuckerman has chronicled the 54 terrorist plots against domestic targets that have been thwarted since 9/11. The latest featured a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, Raees Alam Qazi, and his older brother. It “adds to the large number of terrorist attacks that could be considered to be homegrown.” It is hard to believe that a country which has thwarted about a plot every other month for over a decade, watched the Muslim Brotherhood take over Egypt, and seen an anniversary attack on its consulate in Benghazi could become complacent. It is even harder to ignore the political savvy of the Obama administration and the appeal of its fantasy that the war is over.

Yesterday, Britain’s Henry Jackson Society entered the field with a massive publication that provides hard data on the scope of al-Qaeda’s threat to the U.S. In Al-Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorist Offenses, Robin Simcox and Emily Dyer do for the U.S. what Simcox and colleagues did in 2010 for Britain: provide a comprehensive overview of those who have carried out, or sought to carry out, terrorist attacks on the U.S. As General Michael Hayden says in his forward, it is “a remarkable work … not just for its diligence but also for its sense of a shared future between the people of the United States and Great Britain.” The analysis Simcox and Dyer provide confirms Jonathan’s fears: U.S. terrorists are young and male (which is no surprise), geographically diverse, well-educated, employed, and overwhelmingly U.S. residents. A quarter were converts to Islam, a share that rose to half of the U.S. born offenders.

It is hard, looking at this remarkable report, to find much evidence for the thesis that economic deprivation produces terrorists: 60 percent of the individuals that Simcox and Dyer profile had received a college education. Ideology matters more, though explaining why an individual gravitates to an ideology is the toughest question a biographer can ask of a subject. But what Simcox and Dyer make overwhelmingly clear is that the al-Qaeda threat–and their report is only the criminal tip of the ideological iceberg–is persistent, widespread, and highly-motivated. We have done an excellent job of playing the role of the hockey goaltender, and have blocked shot after shot. But there are many more shots to come, and sooner or later the Obama administration’s ostrich strategy is going to be exposed as a dangerous mistake.

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Technology No Substitute for Troops

I never thought I’d live to see a former New York Times editor praise Donald Rumsfeld. That day has now arrived–and it is hardly a cause for rejoicing.

Today Bill Keller writes in favor of defense cuts, as if the $487 billion that was lopped out of the Pentagon budget last summer were not enough. He thinks greater savings can be achieved by seeking “a significant cut in active-duty ground forces and the heavy vehicles and artillery that go with them,” as if the army and Marine Corps were not already set to lose roughly 100,000 troopers. He argues that we don’t need all those ground forces anyway–”Keeping America and its allies safe these days depends more on our formidable array of ships, aircraft and precision-guided munitions, plus small units of highly trained special ops and drones to combat terrorist cells.” He then goes on to advocate various other ideas, including reforming the procurement process and pushing for greater inter-service consolidation. The really priceless part comes when Keller concedes:

None of this is new thinking. The last secretary of defense who called for a postwar transformation of the military was Donald Rumsfeld. He arrived at the Pentagon in 2001 for his second tour with an insider’s understanding of the system, a C.E.O.’s impatience with inefficiency, and an awareness that the end of the cold war presented a different world of threats. He was not a budget-cutter, but he wanted the money spent well. Before his good intentions got lost in the slogs of Afghanistan and Iraq, he railed at the interservice rivalries, the waste, the reluctance to give up anything or think afresh.

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I never thought I’d live to see a former New York Times editor praise Donald Rumsfeld. That day has now arrived–and it is hardly a cause for rejoicing.

Today Bill Keller writes in favor of defense cuts, as if the $487 billion that was lopped out of the Pentagon budget last summer were not enough. He thinks greater savings can be achieved by seeking “a significant cut in active-duty ground forces and the heavy vehicles and artillery that go with them,” as if the army and Marine Corps were not already set to lose roughly 100,000 troopers. He argues that we don’t need all those ground forces anyway–”Keeping America and its allies safe these days depends more on our formidable array of ships, aircraft and precision-guided munitions, plus small units of highly trained special ops and drones to combat terrorist cells.” He then goes on to advocate various other ideas, including reforming the procurement process and pushing for greater inter-service consolidation. The really priceless part comes when Keller concedes:

None of this is new thinking. The last secretary of defense who called for a postwar transformation of the military was Donald Rumsfeld. He arrived at the Pentagon in 2001 for his second tour with an insider’s understanding of the system, a C.E.O.’s impatience with inefficiency, and an awareness that the end of the cold war presented a different world of threats. He was not a budget-cutter, but he wanted the money spent well. Before his good intentions got lost in the slogs of Afghanistan and Iraq, he railed at the interservice rivalries, the waste, the reluctance to give up anything or think afresh.

What Keller seems to have missed is that Rumsfeld was wrong–profoundly and dangerously wrong. Not about cutting bureaucracy and improving contracting–that needs to be done, although the fact that Rumsfeld failed to make any progress on either front should lead one to question whether it’s in fact possible to cut the budget top-line while only excising unnecessary spending without sacrificing real military capabilities.

Where Rumsfeld was wrong was to think that advances in technology would make it possible to cut ground forces without any resulting loss of security. Before 9/11, Rumsfeld was actually planning to cut two divisions from an army which had already been cut by one-third since the end of the Cold War, leading then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki to issue a prophetic warning: “Beware a 12-division strategy for a 10-division army.” Rumsfeld did not heed that warning and therefore we went into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with an army too small for the tasks it was assigned.

Now, proving that we have learned nothing from history, politicians and pundits appear eager to repeat Rumsfeld’s mistake. Slash ground forces to the bone, they argue–we’ll never need to fight another major ground war again. Haven’t we heard that before?

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Conservatives and Foreign Policy After the Election

Although exit polling showed just how few voters cared much about foreign policy in yesterday’s presidential election, the right should put it on the list of subjects that pose a new challenge for the Republican Party and conservative movement going forward. It is not only because of the president’s successful ordering of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. It is also because of something Micah Zenko, in a thoughtful piece for Foreign Policy, talks about: the idea that we will never again have a peacetime president.

Zenko seems to suggest that this is because of lack of understanding in Washington about the threats this country faces around the globe, thus leading to an overreaction in many cases. I think it’s because there has been a recognition, after 9/11, that prevention, and thus vigilance, is key to protecting the homeland. Either way, there is a consensus in American policymaking. Here’s Zenko:

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Although exit polling showed just how few voters cared much about foreign policy in yesterday’s presidential election, the right should put it on the list of subjects that pose a new challenge for the Republican Party and conservative movement going forward. It is not only because of the president’s successful ordering of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. It is also because of something Micah Zenko, in a thoughtful piece for Foreign Policy, talks about: the idea that we will never again have a peacetime president.

Zenko seems to suggest that this is because of lack of understanding in Washington about the threats this country faces around the globe, thus leading to an overreaction in many cases. I think it’s because there has been a recognition, after 9/11, that prevention, and thus vigilance, is key to protecting the homeland. Either way, there is a consensus in American policymaking. Here’s Zenko:

Though both of the presidential candidates claim to want a peaceful world (Mitt Romney used some version of “peace” 12 times in the final presidential debate), it is unlikely that the United States will ever have a peacetime president again.

The primary reason for this stems from how policymakers in Washington perceive the world — a perception that bridges partisan divisions. According to most officials, the international security environment is best characterized by limitless, complex, and imminent threats facing the United States. Those threats require the military to be perpetually on a wartime footing and the president to frequently authorize the use of lethal force. As a Pentagon strategy document first noted in 2010, the United States has entered “a period of persistent conflict.”

I don’t think there is quite as much “news” here as would seem. The public knowledge of the American military’s efforts to fight threats worldwide is now much greater than it ever was. But the system of persistent conflict still hews to what formed in the administration of Harry Truman on the ruins of FDR’s great power politics. After the end of World War II–or, rather, after the defeat of Germany in WWII–the United States for the first time faced a very different world. This was one in which the U.S. could not simply disengage when a specific threat was defeated.

Suddenly, the U.S. found itself, through its armed forces and later through international organizations such as NATO, formally responsible for the co-defense of the European continent, while at the same time fighting an enemy–Communist radicalism–both at home and abroad. A national security infrastructure bloomed. Washington, D.C. looked very different than it once had and because of the nature of the ideological conflict, the disagreement between leftists and conservatives grew into a broad distrust between the two groups, soon reflected by their representatives in the Congress.

Democrats seen as insufficiently opposed to Communism were construed as weak–a label that was, over the course of the next few decades, successfully applied to the party as a whole.

Eventually, the Democrats basically became the “peace” party, while Republican foreign policy successes, such as those during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, won the right a reputation as the party you could trust when push came to shove. Bill Clinton ran on the theme not that the Democrats were tougher than Republicans but essentially that the “peace dividend” made such toughness quite unnecessary. That peace proved illusory, and the Democrats were later unable to unseat George W. Bush, who was seen as a resolute commander-in-chief, even when he was commanding unpopular wars.

But if there is truly a recognition in Washington that there is no such thing as a peacetime president, then there is also going to be recognition that there is no such thing as a “peace party.” The Democrats–and it seems President Obama realizes this–cannot run indefinitely on “getting our troops out of” wherever they happen to be at the time, because of the perceived necessity of military engagement, even if limited in scope. Obama may have opposed the way Republicans conducted the war in Iraq, but it was not because he refuses to ever contemplate military intervention in the Middle East. Indeed, he spent the one foreign policy debate last month hammering Mitt Romney for being insufficiently bloodthirsty in Libya–a military engagement for which the president did not seek congressional authorization.

Obama has not wholly rescued his party’s national security credentials. There is, after all, quite loud chatter that his second-term secretary of state will be the dour, unprincipled antiwar agitator John Kerry, a man with such comically obtuse strategic sense that he considered Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator currently murdering a large segment of his country, a reformer we could do business with. And his current vice president is a man who cannot seem to get a single foreign policy related issue right, despite spending decades in Washington.

Nonetheless, conservatives are set to spend two consecutive presidential terms out of the White House, and will have something of a clean slate now as they regroup. If Zenko is right, and there will never be another peacetime president, they cannot afford take foreign policy for granted, no matter what the exit polls say.

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The Self-Refuting Arguments for Cutting Defense

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”

Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.

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Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”

Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.

In the first place, the claim that only 238 U.S. citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks in the last decade is ludicrous. That may be true if counting only civilians. But what about the 6,632 (and counting) service personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq? I suppose you could argue they were the victims of guerrillas rather than terrorists, but the distinction is pretty artificial. You could further argue that their deaths somehow don’t count, because they were serving abroad in a war zone. But that ignores the fact that our intervention in Afghanistan was a direct response to an act of terrorism on American soil. (The intervention in Iraq, I would argue, was an indirect response to the same attack.)

The notion that is somehow going away also doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, coming as it does at a time when 35,000 (and counting) people have been killed in Syria’s civil war alone. It’s true, as Steven Pinker and others argue, that wars are considerably less common and deadly today than they once were, but that is due in part to the fact that the U.S. and our allies have spent so much to keep the peace in Europe and East Asia over the past half-century and more. If we let our guard down, we can pay a heavy price–as we did on 9/11. Remember that there were plenty of voices before 9/11 claiming that the terrorist threat was overblown; they were wrong then and they are wrong now. Numerous dangers lurk out there–from Chinese, Russian and Iranian cyberattacks to the Iranian nuclear program to the rise of Chinese naval power and the spreading tentacles of al-Qaeda’s organization throughout the Middle East.

That is why we need to keep spending as much as we do on defense–it is a relatively cheap insurance policy against various threats known and unknown. It’s not as if defense spending is crippling our economy–as Aaron O’Connell notes in the New York Times today, we spend less than 5 percent of GDP on defense compared to 14 percent in 1953.

A final point. The argument that we can simply slash defense because so few people are getting killed, especially by terrorists, is particularly odd, because many of those who make this case are no doubt sympathetic to the argument that we should be undertaking costly efforts to stop global warming even though there are no verifiable deaths due to this phenomenon. (Michael Bloomberg’s fanciful claim that superstorm Sandy was a result of global warming does not qualify as proof, needless to say.) We are being asked to spend large amounts of money to head off climate dangers that may or may not materialize in a few decades. The danger of terrorism–especially nuclear terrorism–is considerably more pressing and deserves a more serious response. Which is something that political leaders on both sides of the aisle seem to get.

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Storm Exposes the Magnitude of Bloomberg’s Failure to Govern

Questions surrounding any public crisis hew closely to the schedule of the crisis itself. So when Hurricane Sandy was approaching the East Coast last week, everyone wanted to know whether the affected areas were adequately prepared. During the storm itself, people wondered what the damage was going to be. And in the wake of the storm, all attention is paid to reaction and recovery efforts. Since those efforts now appear to have hit some unexpected problems, it’s natural that the earlier questions have receded to the background.

But they shouldn’t be forgotten. Because for all the comparisons of Michael Bloomberg to Rudy Giuliani, who led New York—and the nation—through the early hours after 9/11, it’s worth recalling that a big part of the reason Giuliani responded so well was because he was intent on getting the city and its employees ready for anything. When that “anything” struck, as it did a couple of times in Giuliani’s tenure, America’s Mayor struck back. It is here, too, where Bloomberg fails spectacularly to fill the shoes of Rudy Giuliani.

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Questions surrounding any public crisis hew closely to the schedule of the crisis itself. So when Hurricane Sandy was approaching the East Coast last week, everyone wanted to know whether the affected areas were adequately prepared. During the storm itself, people wondered what the damage was going to be. And in the wake of the storm, all attention is paid to reaction and recovery efforts. Since those efforts now appear to have hit some unexpected problems, it’s natural that the earlier questions have receded to the background.

But they shouldn’t be forgotten. Because for all the comparisons of Michael Bloomberg to Rudy Giuliani, who led New York—and the nation—through the early hours after 9/11, it’s worth recalling that a big part of the reason Giuliani responded so well was because he was intent on getting the city and its employees ready for anything. When that “anything” struck, as it did a couple of times in Giuliani’s tenure, America’s Mayor struck back. It is here, too, where Bloomberg fails spectacularly to fill the shoes of Rudy Giuliani.

As Fred Siegel writes in his book on the Giuliani years, the mayor “had been talking and thinking about the problem of terrorism—something to which most New Yorkers were oblivious—from literally his first day in office. The city’s largely successful response to 9/11 was the product of years of preparation.”

And it wasn’t just preparation for terrorism. Siegel writes of the behind-the-scenes work that readied the city for just about any anything conceivable. In 1999, a heat wave led to power outages in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan that totaled about 300,000. Giuliani took action to prevent the power outages from taking out Brooklyn as well, and then rallied the city to the Heights. Rather than the looting that had taken place in New York in the past, the city remained under control with Giuliani working around the clock and winning the cooperation of the residents of the Heights.

The city’s Department of Health developed a “syndromic surveillance system” to prepare for chemical or biological attacks. When West Nile virus hit the city (also in 1999), the response was immediate and helped contain the virus. New York’s response, as in other cases, was praised as a model as other cities battled West Nile that year.

Leading up to the Y2K scare, the city, led by Giuliani, Jerry Hauer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, and Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota (who now heads the city’s MTA), prepared for several possible terrorist attacks and other emergencies on New Year’s, including a gas attack at the World Trade Center that assumed 1,000 injured. Lhota said they practiced and prepared like a football team. “If any city was ready for trouble,” Siegel writes, “it was New York.”

On New Year’s Eve, while Giuliani was overseeing events in Times Square, Siegel writes:

Hauer and Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota were in the World Trade Center command post accompanied by three hundred crisis managers from city departments, Con Edison, Verizon, the Red Cross, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, and the National Guard. And although the public didn’t know it, the National Guard had been quietly pre-positioning in Brooklyn as part of an emergency plan for evacuating Manhattan.

Nothing happened that night. But Giuliani’s team and the city “had passed the test,” Siegel writes. “Gotham was ready for a future emergency.”

So while it’s true that Bloomberg’s response pales in comparison to that of Giuliani, it’s not just the ability to inspire and the natural instincts of a leader that separate the two men. Stories like this one in the New York Times, which discuss the warnings that the city was vulnerable to a storm like Sandy long before this year’s hurricane hit radar screens, will likely follow Bloomberg as well. And the lack of preparation will be especially inexcusable for Bloomberg, who has stomped around claiming that the storm was a result of the very climate change he has been warning about for years. If he was so sure about coming climate change storms, why wasn’t he ready for this one?

This is the most damning paragraph from that story:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is known worldwide for his broad environmental vision. But one former official said it had been difficult to move from theoretical planning to concrete actions, and it was hoped that the storm this week would change that.

Bloomberg knew the dangers, according to this official, and spent years talking about it in the abstract. But he didn’t take any concrete action, instead satisfied to wag his finger at others.

So yes, Bloomberg is an underwhelming leader in the city’s time of need. But if these reports are true, he has failed this city on a much deeper, and much more consequential, level. Though Bloomberg obviously didn’t learn from his predecessor’s successes, New Yorkers can only hope that the next mayor learns from Bloomberg’s failures.

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The Resilient City-Dwellers of New York

I would like to expand on the point that John Steele Gordon, my fellow resident of Westchester County, made in this post about the toughness of New Yorkers. It is a point I could not agree with more–and it is demonstrated not only by the response to superstorm Sandy but, even more magnificently, by the response to 9/11 which was far more devastating in terms of lives lost. Yet New Yorkers did not panic, at least not for long, and they did not flee the city in droves, as some had predicted would happen after the worst attack ever on American soil. Instead, more than a decade after 9/11 the city is more vibrant than ever–and there is no doubt that we will come back, and come back quickly, from the damage caused by this week’s storm.

All of this is, on some level, to state the obvious. But it actually runs counter to a long and important strain of American thought. From Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century to country and Western musicians in the present day, there has been a long line of people extolling the virtues of rural life and damning big cities, especially big Northeastern cities, as the cesspool of humanity. Many conservatives, especially in the South, Midwest, and mountain West, are especially prone to adopt the argument that small towns are the repositories of American strength, virtue, and piety while cities are dens of quasi-communism, free love, drugs, atheism, and everything else that’s wrong with humanity.

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I would like to expand on the point that John Steele Gordon, my fellow resident of Westchester County, made in this post about the toughness of New Yorkers. It is a point I could not agree with more–and it is demonstrated not only by the response to superstorm Sandy but, even more magnificently, by the response to 9/11 which was far more devastating in terms of lives lost. Yet New Yorkers did not panic, at least not for long, and they did not flee the city in droves, as some had predicted would happen after the worst attack ever on American soil. Instead, more than a decade after 9/11 the city is more vibrant than ever–and there is no doubt that we will come back, and come back quickly, from the damage caused by this week’s storm.

All of this is, on some level, to state the obvious. But it actually runs counter to a long and important strain of American thought. From Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century to country and Western musicians in the present day, there has been a long line of people extolling the virtues of rural life and damning big cities, especially big Northeastern cities, as the cesspool of humanity. Many conservatives, especially in the South, Midwest, and mountain West, are especially prone to adopt the argument that small towns are the repositories of American strength, virtue, and piety while cities are dens of quasi-communism, free love, drugs, atheism, and everything else that’s wrong with humanity.

This argument has a shred of truth to it, because there is no doubt that cities have generally been more tolerant of a variety of what would today be called alternative lifestyles, facilitating not only great artistic development but also brothels, drug dens, saloons, and other not-so-virtuous establishments. Those exist in small towns, too, but not in such great abundance. There is no doubt that there is a lot more sinning, if I may use that anachronistic term, in cities–but then there is a lot more of everything else too, including working out in gyms and working long hours in offices. 

Yet there is no evidence–at least none that I have found–that big city dwellers are any less virtuous on the whole, less patriotic, or less resilient than those who live on farms or in smaller communities. Indeed, just to get through their day, residents of New York have to weather all sorts of annoyances that would be unthinkable to those who live in rural areas–from having to shlep groceries home by cart or taxi to having to deal with aggressive panhandlers in the subways to having to deal with vast throngs on Fifth Avenue. Admittedly in the case of New York all those annoyances have decreased over the years, ever since Rudolph Giuliani sent crime plummeting to historic lows, and now new services like Freshdirect (for groceries) and Seamless (for restaurant delivery) have made apartment living exceedingly convenient.

Nevertheless, every day tourists are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of New York, by the number of people moving in all directions, by the endless day-and-night buzz of activity–and though most of them no doubt enjoy their New York vacations, many are also happy to go back to the less hectic pace of their lives elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with preferring to liver in a smaller community–but let’s banish the mistaken idea that those who reside in a mega-city like New York are wimps or degenerates. The kind of toughness that New Yorkers need simply to get through daily life comes shining through in a crisis, whether 9/11 or Sandy.

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A Better 9/11 Comparison

On this, the latest anniversary of 9/11, there is an understandable tendency to compare the Al Qaeda attack on American soil with the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. While the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was actually deadlier than the attack on Pearl Harbor, there is a significant difference between the two events: the latter was the work of a nation state, the former the work of a non-governmental organization. Al Qaeda is not, of course, entirely independent of nation states—it needs shelter somewhere, meaning in some nation state, especially for training and higher-level command and control structures, and it benefits from alliances with certain states, such as Taliban-era Afghanistan or Iran or, possibly, Pakistan. But it is not state-directed and even overthrowing the state that gave its leadership shelter—the Taliban-run Afghanistan—has not put an end to the organization. It has simply migrated to Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and other spots where there is not a strong government willing and able to keep the terrorists out.

This may be to belabor the obvious, but the difference between Imperial Japan and Al Qaeda is worth contemplating on this anniversary because it helps to explain why there has not been a neat and final resolution to the conflict once known as the Global War on Terror. Quite simply, it is difficult to imagine the leaders of Al Qaeda ever signing instruments of surrender as the leaders of Japan did on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. And even if, by some remote chance, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, did sign a peace treaty, it would be disregarded by many fanatics who claim to fight in Al Qaeda’s name. Al Qaeda is not a rigidly organized, tightly hierarchical structure that can impose discipline on its followers. It is, rather, a loose-knit network over which its leaders exercise only limited control.

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On this, the latest anniversary of 9/11, there is an understandable tendency to compare the Al Qaeda attack on American soil with the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. While the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was actually deadlier than the attack on Pearl Harbor, there is a significant difference between the two events: the latter was the work of a nation state, the former the work of a non-governmental organization. Al Qaeda is not, of course, entirely independent of nation states—it needs shelter somewhere, meaning in some nation state, especially for training and higher-level command and control structures, and it benefits from alliances with certain states, such as Taliban-era Afghanistan or Iran or, possibly, Pakistan. But it is not state-directed and even overthrowing the state that gave its leadership shelter—the Taliban-run Afghanistan—has not put an end to the organization. It has simply migrated to Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and other spots where there is not a strong government willing and able to keep the terrorists out.

This may be to belabor the obvious, but the difference between Imperial Japan and Al Qaeda is worth contemplating on this anniversary because it helps to explain why there has not been a neat and final resolution to the conflict once known as the Global War on Terror. Quite simply, it is difficult to imagine the leaders of Al Qaeda ever signing instruments of surrender as the leaders of Japan did on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. And even if, by some remote chance, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, did sign a peace treaty, it would be disregarded by many fanatics who claim to fight in Al Qaeda’s name. Al Qaeda is not a rigidly organized, tightly hierarchical structure that can impose discipline on its followers. It is, rather, a loose-knit network over which its leaders exercise only limited control.

It seems to me, then, that we need a better historical analogy to understand what happened in 2001. The analogy I propose, with some important caveats, is to the events of March 22, 1622. That was the day when Powhatan Indians staged a devastating raid on the English settlement at Jamestown, killing 347 out of 1,240 colonists—a far higher percentage of the population than died on 9/11 even if the absolute number killed was considerable smaller. The settlers subsequently carried out a bloody revenge on the Powhatans but no matter how savagely the settlers fought, peace would prove elusive. The location of the Indian Wars changed over the years: By the early nineteenth century the eastern United States had been effectively secured against Indian attack; in subsequent years battles with the Indians would be fought primarily in the trans-Mississippi West. But what did not change was the persistence of the conflict: America’s European settlers spent roughly three centuries fighting Native Americans. Only in 1890 was the frontier declared closed and the era of Indian Wars ended.

I do not mean to suggest that Native Americans were motivated by the same sort of extremist religious ideology as Al Qaeda; although some Native Americans did fall prey to religious cults such as the Ghost Dance, they were, on the whole, simply fighting admirably and understandably to defend their homes and hunting grounds from the encroachments of avaricious newcomers. Nor do I mean to suggest we are doomed to spend three centuries fighting Islamist fanatics. But the model of the Indian Wars is one that is more apt for this kind of conflict than a short, conventional war like World War II.

The Indians, after all, generally lacked strong central government; they were split into numerous tribes and these were further subdivided into clans and families, some of them in favor of peace with the white man, others in favor of war. Even moderate chiefs such as the Cheyenne leader Black Kettle (whose people were the victims of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre in 1864) had trouble controlling their headstrong warriors, and so the Indian Wars persisted for decade after decade, century after century.

Most of the armed conflicts against the Indians were hardly worthy of the name “war” in the European sense—they were more skirmishes and raids than conventional battles. So too with Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups which we are more likely to fight with drone strikes than with massive tank battles. But simply because they could not muster conventional ground forces in the European sense did not mean that the Indians were not a threat. Settler families (both Mexican and American) living on the frontier were far more terrified of an Indian raid than Americans today are of an Al Qaeda attack. Yet Al Qaeda, thanks to advances in technology, is able to inflict far worse damage on its enemies than Geronimo or Cochise could possibly have imagined.

The key to success in the War on Terror, just like in the Indian Wars, is patience and persistence. Although we can hope that the current conflict lasts a lot less than 300 years, it has already lasted longer than World War II and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Indeed, despite the losses suffered by Al Qaeda’s central organization in the 11 years since 9/11, it remains in business, while various other jihadist groups including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Dine in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban, and on and on, remain a growing danger. I don’t think the West is losing this conflict; indeed, by many indicators, it is the jihadists who are losing. But NGOs like Al Qaeda and its ilk can endure decades, even centuries, of losing and still remain a potent threat. For all of our tactical successes, such as the raid that killed bin Laden, the Long War is not going away anytime soon.

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The “Crazed Veteran”

On this 11th anniversary of 9/11, I am struck by how little of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wormed their way into American fiction. The main character in Michael Chabon’s brand new Telegraph Avenue is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but by the time the novel opens in 2004, his Army hitch is already 12 years behind him, and his problems are no longer a veteran’s problems. The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004) spends his time denouncing the Iraq war when he is not daydreaming about murdering President George W. Bush. Stephen King makes an Iraq war veteran the hero of Under the Dome (2009), but only, perhaps, because he regrets the atrocity he committed during the war. The voice of reason in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is a former Navy SEAL who “has murdered many men — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia — some of whom didn’t even know they were in the same room with him.”

The tone of admiration is even rarer than a character who is also a veteran. Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran who began his career with The Alleys of Eden (1981), a novel about an Army deserter who stays behind to live with a bar girl in Vietnam because he can “never feel innocent again in the United States,” tried to explain why to the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in. . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

But I wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation, one that is rooted in Butler’s own generation (and revealed in Butler’s own attitude). From his first appearance in American fiction, the Vietnam veteran was already well on his way to becoming a stock figure: the unhinged killer, the suicidal maniac, the post-traumatic ghost of himself. In Joseph Hayes’s Like Any Other Fugitive (1971), the vet is suffering from battle fatigue and instead of surrendering to the police when falsely accused of a crime, he leads them on a cross-country chase. In Edward Connelly’s Deer Run (1971), the vet wants to escape his painful memories of Vietnam by starting a commune, which goes badly. In Harry Mark Petrarkis’s In the Land of Morning (1973), the vet’s alienation from post-war America is symbolized by his fear of sleep, which feels to him like a “black, bottomless pit too close to death.” In Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die (1973), the vet is a violent and suicidal goon who is first seen beating up a sailor, muttering that nobody makes trouble “if you get a good one in first.”

Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Christopher Walken gives an unforgettable performance as the ex-U.S. infantryman who stays behind in Saigon to become a vacant-eyed and empty-souled legend at Russian roulette, and then Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) with Marlon Brando as the war-crazed former Green Beret, sealed the Vietnam vet’s fate in American culture. By the turn of the decade, TV critics were complaining that the “deranged veteran” had become a predictable stereotype, but what they didn’t understand was that that was its whole purpose. To identify a character as dangerously berserk, all a writer needed was to describe him as a Vietnam veteran. Even novelists who should have known better — or at least worked harder — fell for the narrative shortcut. As Philip Roth reminded his readers late last week in his “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” the “executioner” of the main characters in The Human Stain (2000) is “the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley.” He could have saved on words by merely saying “Vietnam vet.”

Where did the image of the “crazed vet” come from? The figment is not to be found in novels about veterans of the Second World War. Even when the veterans are emotionally scarred by battle, as in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), their biggest problem in these novels is readjusting to a civilian culture — as represented by the corporation or the Indian reservation — which gives them neither the opportunity nor the resources for sniffing out the meaning of their experience. The fault of the Vietnam vets, though, is in themselves.

Or perhaps in the attitude displayed by Robert Olen Butler — the attitude of “ontological discomfort” with war, and the suspicion that anyone who chooses voluntarily to join the military has a “natural impulse” for killing and violence. A writer who feels superior to men and women in uniform is unlikely to be interested in their experience, in combat or out. Small surprise the literature of 9/11 is almost entirely a bystander’s literature. And since American writers seem incapable of imagining veterans as anything other than ontologically unhinged, their absence from post-9/11 fiction is probably a very good thing.

Update: Last Friday, Jacob Silverman had a long satisfying review of four recent Iraq war novels at Slate: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’s Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (A fifth title, which Silverman does not get to, is Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.) Silverman’s conclusion is instructive:

It’s clear . . . that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. . . . Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk . . . is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don’t have to think about what we’ve done over there.

The only one of these I’ve read is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I found dreary and far-fetched. But if Silverman is right about them as a set, these four novels belong less to the Global War on Terror than to post-Vietnam American writing. They echo Tim O’Brien’s observation in Going after Cacciato (1978), the first truly good novel about the Vietnam war, in which the American soliders, who had little knowledge of the country in which they were fighting and less contact with its people, “did not know good from evil.” Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars even after four decades.

On this 11th anniversary of 9/11, I am struck by how little of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wormed their way into American fiction. The main character in Michael Chabon’s brand new Telegraph Avenue is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but by the time the novel opens in 2004, his Army hitch is already 12 years behind him, and his problems are no longer a veteran’s problems. The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004) spends his time denouncing the Iraq war when he is not daydreaming about murdering President George W. Bush. Stephen King makes an Iraq war veteran the hero of Under the Dome (2009), but only, perhaps, because he regrets the atrocity he committed during the war. The voice of reason in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is a former Navy SEAL who “has murdered many men — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia — some of whom didn’t even know they were in the same room with him.”

The tone of admiration is even rarer than a character who is also a veteran. Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran who began his career with The Alleys of Eden (1981), a novel about an Army deserter who stays behind to live with a bar girl in Vietnam because he can “never feel innocent again in the United States,” tried to explain why to the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in. . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

But I wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation, one that is rooted in Butler’s own generation (and revealed in Butler’s own attitude). From his first appearance in American fiction, the Vietnam veteran was already well on his way to becoming a stock figure: the unhinged killer, the suicidal maniac, the post-traumatic ghost of himself. In Joseph Hayes’s Like Any Other Fugitive (1971), the vet is suffering from battle fatigue and instead of surrendering to the police when falsely accused of a crime, he leads them on a cross-country chase. In Edward Connelly’s Deer Run (1971), the vet wants to escape his painful memories of Vietnam by starting a commune, which goes badly. In Harry Mark Petrarkis’s In the Land of Morning (1973), the vet’s alienation from post-war America is symbolized by his fear of sleep, which feels to him like a “black, bottomless pit too close to death.” In Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die (1973), the vet is a violent and suicidal goon who is first seen beating up a sailor, muttering that nobody makes trouble “if you get a good one in first.”

Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Christopher Walken gives an unforgettable performance as the ex-U.S. infantryman who stays behind in Saigon to become a vacant-eyed and empty-souled legend at Russian roulette, and then Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) with Marlon Brando as the war-crazed former Green Beret, sealed the Vietnam vet’s fate in American culture. By the turn of the decade, TV critics were complaining that the “deranged veteran” had become a predictable stereotype, but what they didn’t understand was that that was its whole purpose. To identify a character as dangerously berserk, all a writer needed was to describe him as a Vietnam veteran. Even novelists who should have known better — or at least worked harder — fell for the narrative shortcut. As Philip Roth reminded his readers late last week in his “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” the “executioner” of the main characters in The Human Stain (2000) is “the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley.” He could have saved on words by merely saying “Vietnam vet.”

Where did the image of the “crazed vet” come from? The figment is not to be found in novels about veterans of the Second World War. Even when the veterans are emotionally scarred by battle, as in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), their biggest problem in these novels is readjusting to a civilian culture — as represented by the corporation or the Indian reservation — which gives them neither the opportunity nor the resources for sniffing out the meaning of their experience. The fault of the Vietnam vets, though, is in themselves.

Or perhaps in the attitude displayed by Robert Olen Butler — the attitude of “ontological discomfort” with war, and the suspicion that anyone who chooses voluntarily to join the military has a “natural impulse” for killing and violence. A writer who feels superior to men and women in uniform is unlikely to be interested in their experience, in combat or out. Small surprise the literature of 9/11 is almost entirely a bystander’s literature. And since American writers seem incapable of imagining veterans as anything other than ontologically unhinged, their absence from post-9/11 fiction is probably a very good thing.

Update: Last Friday, Jacob Silverman had a long satisfying review of four recent Iraq war novels at Slate: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’s Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (A fifth title, which Silverman does not get to, is Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.) Silverman’s conclusion is instructive:

It’s clear . . . that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. . . . Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk . . . is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don’t have to think about what we’ve done over there.

The only one of these I’ve read is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I found dreary and far-fetched. But if Silverman is right about them as a set, these four novels belong less to the Global War on Terror than to post-Vietnam American writing. They echo Tim O’Brien’s observation in Going after Cacciato (1978), the first truly good novel about the Vietnam war, in which the American soliders, who had little knowledge of the country in which they were fighting and less contact with its people, “did not know good from evil.” Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars even after four decades.

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Will Enemy Drones Cause the Next 9/11?

American counterterrorism strategy is too often geared to preventing the last terrorist attack. Terrorists and their sponsors are creative, however. They will not pursue a strategy against which they know the United States is well prepared to defend itself but will instead look to maintain surprise. Eleven years ago, it was using airplanes for suicide attacks. In intervening years, it has been using liquid to construct explosives in flight, or concealing bombs in underwear. Counterterror specialists already worry about the possibility that Al Qaeda doctors could surgically implant bombs in terrorists. Other specialists worry that ship-borne cargo could harbor nuclear or chemical weapons.

The United States is not preparing, however, for a new threat which is, literally, over-the-horizon. Drones have become the counterterror tool of choice for the Obama administration, with devastating effect. But the days when the United States monopolizes drones have already come to an end. China and Russia have built drones, and Pakistan is exploring the technology. Using technology provided by the Obama administration, Turkey is building its own drones and preparing to sell them without regard to U.S. national security interests. After all, Turkey’s prime minister even considers Hamas a viable partner. Iran already has constructed and put into operation a robust drone fleet, perhaps enhanced with technology derived from the U.S. drone lost over its territory. Iran is helping Venezuela build its own drones. While the nightmare scenario for the counterterror community is Iran or other states providing terror groups with unconventional weapons, the likelihood that they might provide drones is greater.

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American counterterrorism strategy is too often geared to preventing the last terrorist attack. Terrorists and their sponsors are creative, however. They will not pursue a strategy against which they know the United States is well prepared to defend itself but will instead look to maintain surprise. Eleven years ago, it was using airplanes for suicide attacks. In intervening years, it has been using liquid to construct explosives in flight, or concealing bombs in underwear. Counterterror specialists already worry about the possibility that Al Qaeda doctors could surgically implant bombs in terrorists. Other specialists worry that ship-borne cargo could harbor nuclear or chemical weapons.

The United States is not preparing, however, for a new threat which is, literally, over-the-horizon. Drones have become the counterterror tool of choice for the Obama administration, with devastating effect. But the days when the United States monopolizes drones have already come to an end. China and Russia have built drones, and Pakistan is exploring the technology. Using technology provided by the Obama administration, Turkey is building its own drones and preparing to sell them without regard to U.S. national security interests. After all, Turkey’s prime minister even considers Hamas a viable partner. Iran already has constructed and put into operation a robust drone fleet, perhaps enhanced with technology derived from the U.S. drone lost over its territory. Iran is helping Venezuela build its own drones. While the nightmare scenario for the counterterror community is Iran or other states providing terror groups with unconventional weapons, the likelihood that they might provide drones is greater.

Enemies can launch drones from across America’s borders, or from cargo ships sailing just outside American territorial waters. The drones can carry payloads of increasing lethality, or can simply be deployed into the paths of civilian air traffic.

The next 9/11 could be around the corner. Let’s hope that the Obama administration or its successor will not approach the problem with eyes wide shut. Not every threat can be mitigated by removing shoes or testing colas bought in airports.

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The George W. Bush Alibi Doesn’t Cut It

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

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Rand Paul Praises Ron’s “Blowback” Theory

Sen. Rand Paul often shies away from deep foreign policy discussions. It’s a smart move, since his father’s toxic positions stunted his own rise in the GOP. But in an interview with Politico, Rand praised the elder Paul’s radical speech on Sunday, which promoted the “blowback” theory, blasted “neocons,” and suggested that the U.S. invited the 9/11 attacks:

The younger Paul shares his father’s foreign policy broadly, and he praised him especially Sunday for talking about the convent “blowback” – the concept that U.S. meddling overseas can lead to terrorist attacks.

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Sen. Rand Paul often shies away from deep foreign policy discussions. It’s a smart move, since his father’s toxic positions stunted his own rise in the GOP. But in an interview with Politico, Rand praised the elder Paul’s radical speech on Sunday, which promoted the “blowback” theory, blasted “neocons,” and suggested that the U.S. invited the 9/11 attacks:

The younger Paul shares his father’s foreign policy broadly, and he praised him especially Sunday for talking about the convent “blowback” – the concept that U.S. meddling overseas can lead to terrorist attacks.

“Had he not talked about blowback I don’t know anyone ever would have,” he said. The younger Paul boasted in the interview that he received standing ovations from the packed crowd, some of whom were chanting “Paul 2016.”

Rand’s cautiousness when it comes to discussing his foreign policy positions has helped his political ascent, but nobody should doubt that he shares many of his father’s views. His praise of Ron Paul’s “blowback” comments above is enough to raise alarms with Republicans.

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Good Riddance, Ron Paul

Ron Paul has given us plenty of entertainment throughout the years, and his farewell rally speech was no exception. BuzzFeed reports that Paul continued to spout his “chickens coming home to roost” theory about the Sept. 11 attacks at his alternative convention event yesterday:

That blowback theory is so convenient. If Israel created Hamas and the U.S. invited the 9/11 attacks, then world peace is within grasp, if only we could get over our own “hubris.”

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Ron Paul has given us plenty of entertainment throughout the years, and his farewell rally speech was no exception. BuzzFeed reports that Paul continued to spout his “chickens coming home to roost” theory about the Sept. 11 attacks at his alternative convention event yesterday:

That blowback theory is so convenient. If Israel created Hamas and the U.S. invited the 9/11 attacks, then world peace is within grasp, if only we could get over our own “hubris.”

In other words: cutting off our allies when the going gets tough, and ignoring threats as they metastasize globally — all the while, hoping that our enemies return our courtesy and leave us alone.

As a side note, did you ever notice that Paul fans only seem to use blowback to explain acts of Islamic terrorism? The U.S. has bases in 38 countries, yet you never hear about terror attacks from the Bulgarians, the Singaporeans or the Portuguese. If our bases are supposed to be so threatening, why aren’t others rising up against them?

Maybe it has to do with the fact that our enemies are radical Islamists who don’t really need much of an excuse to kill capitalist infidels. Rudy Giuliani said it best when he shot down Ron Paul’s nutty theories during the 2008 GOP primaries:

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