Ever since the very beginning of the war into which the United States was violently hurled on September 11, efforts have been made to define its nature. The Bush administration, from the President on down, kept telling us that this would be a war unlike any other, but the very nearly self-evident truth of that proposition did not prevent an energetic search for analogies. On the contrary: when we first went into Afghanistan, and progress seemed slow, the ghost of conflicts past immediately materialized, each one croaking in menacing tones, “Remember me.”
In a piece in the Weekly Standard, for example, I summoned up the Gulf war fought by the President’s father ten years ago. At that time, I said, the broad coalition assembled by the United States, together with the imprimatur we had sought and acquired from the United Nations, resulted not in the consummation of a decisive victory but in an act of military and political coitus interruptus. Having driven Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait—which was all we had a “mandate” to do from our allies and the UN—we did not then push on to drive him out of Baghdad. Nor, in the event, did we even render him incapable of building the weapons of mass destruction he now possesses.
My worry was that the same kind of thing might happen now—and for much the same reason. I never doubted that, just as we had succeeded in the limited aim of rolling back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, we would unseat the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and deprive the al Qaeda terrorists of their main sanctuary. What I feared was that then, succumbing again to the pressures of the coalition and the timorous counsels of Colin Powell (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush I and Secretary of State under Bush II), we would declare victory and go home.
Others were not so confident that we would accomplish even that rather narrow objective. R.W. Apple of the New York Times, among others, was haunted by—what else?—Vietnam. To these observers, it seemed that we were once more falling victim to the illusion that we could rely on an incompetent local force to do the fighting on the ground while we supplied advice and air support, and that the inevitable failure of this strategy would suck us into the same “quagmire” into which we had been dragged in Vietnam. After all, the Soviet Union had suffered its own “Vietnam” in Afghanistan—and it had not been hampered, as we were, by the logistical problems of projecting power over a great distance. How could we expect to do better?
When, however, the B-52’s and the 15,000-pound “Daisy Cutter” bombs1 were unleashed (which many, including me, interpreted as a victory of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the incorrigibly cautious Colin Powell), the ghost of Vietnam was exorcised. Along with it went the skepticism about what air power could do, especially in a country that was supposedly too primitive to offer juicy targets.
But the Daisy Cutters were only the half of it. As we were to discover, our “smart-bomb” technology had advanced way beyond the stage it had reached in 1991, when it was first introduced. In Afghanistan, such bombs, guided by “spotters” on the ground using radios, laptops, and lasers, and unmanned satellite drones and other systems in the air, were both incredibly precise in avoiding civilian casualties and absolutely lethal in destroying military personnel. It was this “new kind of American power,” the New York Times reported, that “enabled a ragtag opposition [i.e., the Northern Alliance] to rout the Taliban army.”
As for the 15,000-pound Daisy Cutters, far from being good for nothing but “pounding the rubble,” as critics of air power had derisively charged, they exerted a “terrifying psychological impact as they explode[d] just above ground, wiping out everything for hundreds of yards.”
All this shook loose the “battle-hardened troops” of the Taliban regime in less than three months, and at the cost of only a handful of American casualties. Like the allegedly crack units of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Guard, which (against similar predictions to the contrary) we had sent fleeing with relative ease a decade earlier, the reputedly fearsome Taliban fighters, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorists alongside them, emerged as the paper tiger that they had imagined us to have become.
But it is important to recognize that bin Laden and his followers had good reason to arrive at this contemptuous assessment of our present condition. For a very long time, both before and after the Gulf war, the United States had been the target of terrorist attacks in the name of Islam or the Palestinian cause. (Sometimes, as with Hizbullah and Hamas, the two overlapped. But the religious card was often played even by the Palestine Liberation Organization—or PLO—and some of its constituent groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—or PFLP—that were more deeply rooted in Marx than in Muhammad.) Yet we had done virtually nothing in response to those attacks—or anyway nothing that might induce second thoughts or hesitations in those who were planning to undertake more such atrocities.
Thus, from 1970 to 1975, during the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, several American diplomats were murdered in Sudan and Lebanon while others were kidnapped. The perpetrators were all agents of one or another faction of the PLO. In Israel, too, many American citizens were killed by the PLO, though except for the rockets fired at our embassy and other American facilities in Beirut by the PFLP, these attacks were not directly aimed at the United States. In any case, there were no American military reprisals.
Our diplomats, then, were for some years already being murdered with impunity by Muslim terrorists when, in 1979, with Jimmy Carter now in the White House, Iranian students—with either the advance or subsequent blessing of the country’s clerical ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini—broke into the American embassy in Tehran and seized 52 Americans as hostages. For a full five months, Carter dithered. At last, steeling himself, he authorized a military rescue operation that had to be aborted after a series of mishaps that would have fit well into a Marx Brothers movie like Duck Soup if they had not been more humiliating than comic. After 444 days, and just hours after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, the hostages were finally released by the Iranians, evidently because they feared that the hawkish new President might actually launch a military strike against them.
Yet if they had foreseen what was coming under Reagan, they would not have been so fearful. In April 1983, Hizbullah—an Islamic terrorist organization nourished by Iran and Syria—sent a suicide bomber to explode his truck in front of the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Sixty-three employees, among them the Middle East CIA director, were killed and another 120 wounded. But Reagan sat still.
Six months later, in October 1983, another Hizbullah suicide bomber blew up an American barracks in the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. marines in their sleep and wounding another 81. This time Reagan signed off on plans for a retaliatory blow, but he then allowed his Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, to cancel it (because it might damage our relations with the Arab world, of which Weinberger was always tenderly solicitous). Shortly thereafter, the President pulled the marines out of Lebanon.
Having cut and run in Lebanon in October, Reagan again remained passive in December, when the American embassy in Kuwait was bombed. Nor did he hit back when, hard upon the withdrawal of the American marines from Beirut, the CIA station chief there, William Buckley, was kidnapped by Hizbullah and then murdered. Buckley was the fourth American to be kidnapped in Beirut, and many more suffered the same fate between 1982 and 1992 (though not all died or were killed in captivity).
These kidnappings were apparently what led Reagan, who had sworn that he would never negotiate with terrorists, to make an unacknowledged deal with Iran, involving the trading of arms for hostages, which triggered the Iran-contra crisis. But whereas the Iranians were paid off handsomely in the coin of nearly 1,500 antitank missiles (some of them sent at our request through Israel), all we got in exchange was three American hostages.
In September 1984, six months after the murder of Buckley, the U.S. embassy annex near Beirut was hit by yet another truck bomb (also traced to Hizbullah). Again Reagan sat still. Or rather, after giving the green light to covert proxy retaliations by Lebanese intelligence agents, he put a stop to them when one such operation, directed against the cleric thought to be the head of Hizbullah, failed to get its main target while unintentionally killing 80 other people.
It took only another two months for Hizbullah to strike once more. In December 1984, a Kuwaiti airliner was hijacked and two American passengers employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development were murdered. The Iranians, who had stormed the plane after it landed in Tehran, promised to try the hijackers themselves, but instead allowed them to leave the country. At this point, all the Reagan administration could come up with was the offer of a $250,000 reward for information that might lead to the arrest of the hijackers. There were no takers.
The following June, Hizbullah operatives hijacked still another airliner, an American one (TWA flight 847), and then forced it to fly to Beirut, where it was held for more than two weeks. During those weeks, an American naval officer aboard the plane was shot, his body ignominiously hurled onto the tarmac, after which the demands of the hijackers for the freeing of hundreds of terrorists held by Israel began to be met in exchange for the release of the other passengers. Both the United States and Israel denied that they were violating their own policy of never bargaining with terrorists, but as with the arms-for-hostages deal, no one believed them, and it was almost universally assumed that Israel had acted under pressure from Washington. Later, four of the hijackers were caught, but only one wound up being tried and jailed (by Germany, not the United States).
The sickening beat went on. In October 1985, the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, was hijacked by a group under the leadership of the PLO’s Abu Abbas, working with the support of Libya. One of the hijackers threw an elderly wheelchair-bound American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, overboard. When the hijackers attempted to escape in a plane, the United States sent Navy fighters to intercept and force it down. Klinghoffer’s murderer was eventually apprehended and sent to prison in Italy, but the Italian authorities let Abu Abbas himself go. Washington—evidently having exhausted its repertoire of military reprisals—now confined itself to protesting the release of Abu Abbas. To no avail.
Libya’s involvement in the Achille Lauro hijacking was, though, the last free pass that country’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, was destined to get from the United States under Reagan. In December 1985, five Americans were among the twenty people killed when the Rome and Vienna airports were bombed, and then in April 1986 another bomb exploded in a discotheque in West Berlin that was a hang-out for American servicemen. U.S. intelligence tied Libya to both of these bombings, and the eventual outcome was an American air attack in which one of the residences of Qaddafi was hit.
In retaliation, the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal executed three U.S. citizens who worked at the American University in Beirut. But Qaddafi himself—no doubt surprised and shaken by the American reprisal—seems to have gone into a brief period of retirement as a sponsor of terrorism. So far as we know, it took nearly three years (until December 1988) before he could pull himself together to the point of undertaking another operation: the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which a total of 270 people lost their lives. Of the two Libyan intelligence agents who were tried for planting the bomb, one was convicted (though not until the year 2001) and the other acquitted. Qaddafi himself suffered no further punishment from American warplanes.
In january 1989, Reagan was succeeded by the first George Bush, who, in handling the fallout from the destruction of Pan Am 103, copied and intensified the law-enforcement approach to terrorism. During Bush’s four-year period in the White House, there were several attacks on Americans in Turkey by Islamic terrorist organizations, and there were others in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. None of these was as bloody as previous incidents, and none provoked any military response from the United States.
In January 1993 Bill Clinton became President. Over the span of his two terms in office, American citizens continued to be injured or killed in Israel and other countries by terrorists who were not aiming specifically at the United States. But several spectacular terrorist operations occurred on Clinton’s watch of which the U.S. was most emphatically the target.
The first, on February 26, 1993, only 38 days after his inauguration, was the explosion of a truck bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center. As compared with what would happen on September 11, 2001, this was a minor incident in which “only” six people were killed and over a thousand injured. The six Muslim terrorists responsible were caught, tried, convicted, and sent to prison for long terms.
But in treating the attack as a common crime, or the work of a rogue group acting on its own, the Clinton administration willfully turned a deaf ear to outside experts like Steven Emerson and even the director of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, who strongly suspected that behind the individual culprits was a terrorist Islamic network with (at that time) its headquarters in Sudan. This network, then scarcely known to the general public, was called al Qaeda, and its leader was a former Saudi national who had fought on our side against the Soviets in Afghanistan but had since turned against us as fiercely as he had been against the Russians. His name was Osama bin Laden.2
The next major episode was not long in trailing the bombing of the World Trade Center. In April 1993, less than two months after that attack, former President Bush visited Kuwait, where an attempt was made to assassinate him by—as our own investigators were able to determine—Iraqi intelligence agents. The Clinton administration spent two more months seeking approval from the UN and the “international community” to retaliate for this egregious assault on the United States. In the end, a few cruise missiles were fired into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where they fell harmlessly onto empty buildings in the middle of the night.
In the years immediately ahead, many Islamic terrorist operations in which Americans were murdered or kidnapped or injured continued in Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, and Israel, but these were not specifically aimed at the United States. In March 1995, however, a van belonging to the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, was hit by gunfire, killing two American diplomats and injuring a third. In November of the same year, five Americans died when a car bomb was exploded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, near a building in which a U.S. military advisory group lived.
All this was trumped in June 1996, when another building in which American military personnel lived—the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—was blasted by a truck bomb. Nineteen of our airmen were killed, and 240 other Americans on the premises were wounded.
In 1993, Clinton had been so intent on treating the World Trade Center as a matter for law enforcement that he refused even to meet with his own CIA director, James Woolsey. Perhaps he anticipated that he would be told things about terrorist networks and the states sponsoring them that he did not wish to hear because he had no intention of embarking on the military action that such knowledge might force upon him. Now, in the wake of the bombing of the Khobar Towers, Clinton again handed the matter over to law enforcement, but the man in charge, his FBI director, Louis Freeh, who had intimations of an Iranian connection, could no more get through to him than Woolsey had before. There were a few arrests, and the action then moved into the courts.
In June 1998, grenades were unsuccessfully hurled at the U.S. embassy in Beirut. A little later, our embassies in the capitals of Kenya (Nairobi) and Tanzania (Dar es Salaam) were not so lucky. On the very same day—August 7, 1998—car bombs went off in both places, leaving more than 200 people dead, of whom twelve were Americans. Credit for this coordinated operation was claimed by al Qaeda. In what was widely interpreted, especially abroad, as a move to distract attention from his legal troubles over the Monica Lewinsky affair, Clinton fired cruise missiles at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was supposed to be at that moment, and at a building in Sudan, where al Qaeda also had a base. But bin Laden escaped harm, while it remains uncertain to this day whether the building in Sudan was actually manufacturing chemical weapons or was just a harmless pharmaceutical factory.
This fiasco—so we have learned from former members of his administration—discouraged any further such action by Clinton against bin Laden, though a lengthy two-part series by Barton Gellman in the Washington Post discloses that there were covert counterterrorist operations and a number of diplomatic initiatives that led to arrests in foreign countries. Woolsey (who after a brief tenure resigned from the CIA out of sheer frustration) does not dispute this. But as Dick Morris, then Clinton’s political adviser, writes in the New York Post:
The weekly strategy meetings at the White House throughout 1995 and 1996 featured an escalating drumbeat of advice to President Clinton to take decisive steps to crack down on terrorism. The polls gave these ideas a green light. But Clinton hesitated and failed to act, always finding a reason why some other concern was more important.
Gellman’s articles cover a later period when more was going on behind the scenes, but most of it remained in the realm of talk or planning that went nowhere. All in all, in an interview with Byron York in National Review, Woolsey’s retrospective description of Clinton’s overall approach to terrorism is devastating: “Do something to show you’re concerned. Launch a few missiles in the desert, bop them on the head, arrest a few people. But just keep kicking the ball down field.”
Bin Laden, picking up that ball on October 12, 2000, when the USS Cole docked for refueling in Yemen, dispatched a team of suicide bombers. The bombers did not succeed in sinking the ship, but seventeen American sailors died and another 39 were wounded.
Judith Miller in the New York Times cites both “intelligence analysts” and the director of counterterrorism in the White House as having no doubt that the culprit was al Qaeda. But the heads neither of the CIA nor of the FBI thought the case was “conclusive.” Hence the United States did not so much as lift a military finger against bin Laden or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan where he was now holed up and being protected. As for Clinton, so obsessively was he then wrapped up in a futile attempt to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians that all he could see in this attack on an American warship was an effort “to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East.” The terrorists, he resoundingly vowed, would “fail utterly” in this objective.
Never mind that not the slightest indication existed that bin Laden was in the least concerned over Clinton’s negotiations with the Israelis and the Palestinians at Camp David, or even that the Palestinian issue was of great importance to him. In any event, it was Clinton who failed, not bin Laden. The Palestinians under Yasir Arafat, spurning an unprecedentedly generous offer that had been made by the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak with Clinton’s enthusiastic endorsement, unleashed a new round of terrorism. But bin Laden succeeded all too well in his actual intention of striking another brazen blow at the United States.3
The sheer audacity of what bin Laden went on to do on September 11 was unquestionably a product of his contempt for American power. Our persistent refusal for so long to use that power against him and his terrorist brethren—or to do so effectively whenever we tried—reinforced his conviction that we were a nation on the way down, destined to be defeated by the resurgence of the same Islamic militancy that had once conquered and converted large parts of the world by the sword.
As bin Laden saw it, thousands or even millions of his followers and sympathizers all over the Muslim world were willing, and even eager, to die a martyr’s death in the jihad, the holy war, against the “Great Satan,” as the Ayatollah Khomeini had called us. But we in the West, and especially in America, were all so afraid to die that we lacked the will even to stand up for ourselves and defend our degenerate way of life.
Bin Laden was never reticent or coy in laying out this assessment of the United States. In an interview on CNN in 1997, he declared that “the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims” when the Soviet Union had been defeated in Afghanistan. That American-supplied arms had made this outcome possible did not seem to enter into his calculations. Indeed, in an interview a year earlier, he had belittled the United States as compared with the Soviet Union. “The Russian soldier is more courageous and patient than the U.S. soldier,” he said. Hence, “Our battle with the United States is easy compared with the battles in which we engaged in Afghanistan.”
Becoming still more explicit, he wrote off the Americans as cowards. Had Reagan not taken to his heels in Lebanon after the bombing of the marine barracks in 1983? And had not Clinton done the same a decade later when only a few American Rangers were killed in Somalia, where they had been sent to participate in a “peace-keeping” mission? Bin Laden did not boast of this as one of his victories, but a State Department dossier charged that al Qaeda had trained the terrorists who ambushed the American servicemen.
Bin Laden summed it all up in a third interview, this one with John J. Miller, that was published in Esquire in 1998:
After leaving Afghanistan the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized, more than before, that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.
In short: just as Khomeini had been emboldened by the decline of American power in the 1970’s, so perfectly personified by Jimmy Carter, to seize and hold American hostages; and just as all the hysterical talk here in 1990 about the tens of thousands of “body bags” that would be flown home if we went to war with Iraq had encouraged Saddam Hussein to believe that we would acquiesce in his bid to seize control of the oil fields of the Middle East—so the ineffectual policy toward terrorism adopted by a long string of American Presidents (including, for his first eight months in office, George W. Bush) persuaded bin Laden that he could strike us massively on our own soil and get away with it.
Conversely, however, just as Saddam Hussein underestimated American military might and overestimated the dedication of his own troops (even the much vaunted Revolutionary Guard went scampering toward home rather than dig in and fight when the heat was on), Osama bin Laden misread how the Americans would react to being hit where, literally, they lived. He probably expected a collapse into despair and demoralization; what he elicited instead was an outpouring of rage and an upsurge of patriotic sentiment such as younger Americans had never witnessed except in the movies, let alone experienced in their own souls and on their own flesh. The sleeping American giant was awakened and, stretching his mighty arms to a distance of seven thousand miles, swatted the putatively indomitable terrorists like so many bothersome flies.
In that sense, bin Laden did for this country what the Ayatollah Khomeini had done before him. By this I mean that the humiliation Khomeini inflicted on us by the seizure of the hostages in 1979 bred a resistance to Carter’s view that American decline was inevitable and that we should acknowledge, accept, and adjust to this inexorable historical development. The entire episode thereby became one of the forces behind the already burgeoning determination to rebuild American power that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on the promise to do just that. For all the shortcomings of his own handling of terrorism, Reagan did in fact keep this promise to rebuild American power, which was what set the stage for victory in our long struggle with the Soviet Union.
The horrors of September 11 followed rather than preceded a presidential election. Yet with all due respect to Karl Rove’s claim that his boss George W. Bush is no different from what he always was, what happened on that most fateful day obviously effected a transformation in the new President. One hears that Bush, who entered the White House without a clear sense of what he wanted to do there, now feels that there was a purpose behind his election all along: as a born-again Christian, it is said, he believes he was chosen by God to eradicate the evil of terrorism from the world. I think it is a plausible rumor, and I would even guess that in his heart of hearts, Bush identifies more in this respect with Ronald Reagan—the President who rid the world of the “evil empire”—than with his own father, who never finished the job he started in taking on Saddam Hussein.
But what would finishing the job in the war against terrorism mean? The President himself defined it from the start in very broad terms. Our aim was not merely to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and wipe out the al Qaeda terrorists under his direct leadership in Afghanistan. Bush vowed that we would also uproot and destroy the entire network of interconnected terrorist organizations and cells “with global reach” that existed in as many as 50 or 60 countries. No longer would we treat the members of these groups as criminals to be arrested by the police, read their Miranda rights, and brought to trial. From now on, they were to be regarded as the irregular troops of a military alliance at war with the United States, and indeed the civilized world as a whole.
Furthermore, the governments that gave terrorists help of any kind—sanctuary, money, arms, diplomatic and logistical support, training facilities—would either join us in getting rid of them or would also be regarded as in a state of war with the United States. Bush was unequivocal. These governments, he repeated over and over again, were either with us in the war against terrorism, or they were against us: there was to be no middle or neutral ground.
In defining the war and the enemy in such terms, the President, seconded by both major parties and a vast majority of the American people, was acknowledging the rightness of those who had been stubbornly insisting against the skeptical and the craven alike that terrorism posed a serious threat and that it could not be fought by the police and the courts. Perhaps most important of all was the corollary of such an analysis: that, with rare exceptions, terrorists were not individual psychotics acting on their own but agents of organizations that depended on the sponsorship of various governments.
Not that this analysis of terrorism had exactly been a secret. The State Department itself had a list of seven state sponsors of terrorism (all but two of which, Cuba and North Korea, were predominantly Muslim4) and it regularly issued reports on terrorist incidents throughout the world. But aside from the previously mentioned token lobbing of a cruise missile or two, the application of diplomatic and/or economic sanctions that were themselves inconsistently and even perfunctorily enforced, and a number of covert operations, the law-enforcement approach still prevailed.
September 11 changed much—if not yet all—of that. While atavistic phrases like “bringing the terrorists to justice” kept being used, no one could any longer dream that the American answer to what had been done to us in New York and Washington would begin with an FBI investigation and end with a series of ordinary criminal trials. War had been declared on the United States, and to war we were going to go.
But against whom? Almost immediately it became certain that Osama bin Laden had masterminded September 11, and since he and the top leadership of al Qaeda were in Afghanistan, the first target, so to speak, chose itself. Here, however, a complication arose.
I have speculated that, with respect to the war against terrorism, Bush probably came to identify more with Reagan than with his father. And yet in the days just after September 11, his administration went through what looked like a kneejerk imitation of the method by which the elder Bush had maneuvered his way into a military engagement with Iraq.
Like his father, George W. Bush set about forming a coalition, even though he was in an entirely different position. The elder Bush had enjoyed the support of only half the country during the run-up to Desert Storm, and thus needed a coalition, and the permission of the United Nations, for political cover and even legitimation in the eyes of the Democrats. But the younger Bush, with about 90 percent of the people and a nearly unanimous Congress behind him for a war against terrorism, had more than enough political support to act on his own, without permission from anyone.
Nevertheless, before going into Afghanistan, the President (acting for the most part through Colin Powell) went around courting and wooing countries throughout the Middle East, some of which were on the State Department’s own list of state sponsors of terrorism, or had given houseroom to terrorists without for some reason making it onto this roll of dishonor. Under the doctrine the President himself had promulgated in describing his war aims, these countries should have been seen not as potential allies but as enemies. The absurdity of, in effect, asking them to join with us in a war against themselves was well captured by Richard Lowry, the editor of National Review, who remarked that it was silly to expect the leaders of the states sponsoring terrorism to bone up on the United Nations Charter and then change their ways.
To add to the absurdity, none of these countries could or would provide us with assistance of any great value. (Such had not been the case in the Gulf war, when some of them not only allowed us to use their territory as bases but even sent troops into combat.) Nor, for that matter, were our great friends, the “moderate” Middle Eastern governments like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, willing to give us much, if any, help. The claim was that they were providing us with valuable intelligence, but if so, it was not valuable enough to result in the capture of Osama bin Laden. In fact, the New York Times reported: “Even in the post-September 11 meetings, one senior Bush administration official said, the Saudis ‘dribble out a morsel of insignificant information one day at a time.’ ”
Worse yet—and even leaving aside the awkward detail that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 carried Saudi passports—we had the greatest difficulty getting the Saudi rulers to freeze the assets being sent by private “charities” in their own country to al Qaeda, or to make available the passenger lists of flights coming from there to the United States so that they might be screened in advance by our customs officials. Even Kuwait, the country we had liberated from Saddam Hussein a decade earlier, refused our request for such lists, thus setting a new world record for chutzpah.
Then there was Egypt, whose official government newspapers continued spewing out viciously anti-American diatribes, while its president, Hosni Mubarak, not lacking in chutzpah himself, pretended that there was nothing he could do about this. As he shamelessly and with a straight face told several American interviewers, the press enjoyed the same freedom in his country as it did in ours.
Like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, too, had a population sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, and (while it was not on our State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism) its security services maintained close connections with al Qaeda and with the Taliban regime. Yet there was a huge difference between Pakistan and the other Islamic countries in the region.
Most of these other countries clucked their tongues sympathetically over what had been done to us on September 11, and declared themselves members of our coalition. But then—after we had begun bombing Afghanistan in earnest—their contribution to our war effort consisted of urging us to prevent the Israelis from retaliating against terrorist attacks by Palestinians, and to suspend our own military operations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (something none of them had ever done while at war either with one another or with Israel). By contrast, Pakistan, by permitting us to launch air operations from its territory, actually made our eventual victory over the Taliban regime in land-locked Afghanistan far easier than it would have been if we had depended on distant bases and aircraft carriers alone.
These military considerations supplied a justification for the alliance with Pakistan that was lacking where other Islamic members of the coalition were concerned. But even here there was a downside, since some indeterminate number of al Qaeda fighters escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan when defeat became inevitable, and were able to blend in with a still sympathetic population. Whether they would pose a threat to us again in the future remained to be seen, as did the extent to which President Musharaff of Pakistan would remain willing and/or able to cooperate with us against them.
But if the coalition was unnecessary both from a political and from a military point of view, and if the inclusion within it of states harboring terrorists undermined and obfuscated the moral clarity of the war we were determined to wage, why did the administration devote so much energy to assembling it?
The explanation is that getting a minimal endorsement from as many predominantly Muslim states as possible helped create the impression that our war was not against Islam but against terrorism. Bin Laden might claim to be fighting in the name of Islam against the Christian “Crusaders” of today, but with the backing of several Islamic countries, Bush could charge the terrorists with having “hijacked” a religion that—as he persisted in saying and perhaps even believed—in reality stood for peace and love. (Actually, the word “Islam” means not “peace” but “submission.”)
As I write in late December, the campaign in Afghanistan is winding down. The Taliban regime has been routed, many or most of the al Qaeda forces it had been harboring have either been killed or captured, and a new government is being installed that, whatever else it may do, will not offer hospitality to terrorists. No one yet knows where Osama bin Laden is, or whether he is even still alive, and the hunt is on for him or for clues to his whereabouts, and also for intelligence concerning any future plans, in the caves of Tora Bora.
But with Afghanistan gradually fading from attention, the focus is now on phase two of the war, and the main issue is whether or not Iraq should be next. Some commentators are convinced that Saddam Hussein had a hand in September 11, as well as in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, and that Iraq was the original source of the anthrax sent through the mails to several congressional leaders. Others are equally persuaded that Saddam had nothing to do with any of these. But no one seems ready to absolve Saddam Hussein of the responsibility for attempting to assassinate the elder Bush after he left office.
Anyway, it is by now no longer necessary to prove that Saddam is a sponsor of terrorism in order to consider Iraq a target of the war against it, since the President has already established a rationale in stating that, “If you develop weapons of mass destruction [with which] you want to terrorize the world, you’ll be held accountable.” There is no doubt that Saddam already possesses large stores of chemical and biological weapons, and may (according to Khidhir Hamza, a defector who was once his chief nuclear adviser) be “on the precipice of nuclear power.”
Both within the administration and in the country at large, a sharp debate is now raging over this issue (though all the members of the coalition, including even the British under Tony Blair, who were our staunchest supporters in phase one, not to mention the lukewarm Muslim states, are—or say in public that they are—against going after Saddam Hussein). Some urge that we defer confronting Iraq, and instead concentrate on easier targets first. Others contend that the longer we wait, the more dangerous Saddam will grow.
Yet whether or not Iraq becomes the second front in the war against terrorism, one thing is certain: there can be no victory in this war if it ends with Saddam Hussein still in power. As Eliot A. Cohen, one of our leading students of military strategy, has written in the Wall Street Journal:
War with Iraq will have its perils. Some are likely to be illusory: the Arab “street,” for example, which never quite rises as promised. Others may be quite real, to include the use of chemical and biological weapons. Should the U.S. fail to take the challenge, sooner or later it is sure to find Iraqi terror on its doorstep. It may have already. Should the U.S. rise to the occasion, however, it may begin a transformation of the Middle East that could provide many benefits to the populations of an unfree region. That will, in the end, make us infinitely more secure at home.
In my opinion, by raising the possibility of a transformation of the Middle East, Cohen cuts to the heart of the matter. All wars have consequences that those who enter into them cannot always foresee or may not desire. But big wars do much more than that: they invariably end by reshaping the world. The war of September 11 will be just such a big one—if, as I hope, President Bush is serious about pursuing it to the end, and can hold onto the necessary political support at home for doing so.
In a different piece in the Wall Street Journal, Eliot Cohen has also proposed that we look upon this as World War IV, the immediate successor to the cold war, which he rightly characterizes as World War III and to which he sees many similarities in the struggle we are now conducting:
The cold war was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multi-million-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map. The analogy with the cold war does, however, suggest some key features of that conflict: that it is, in fact, global; that it will involve a mixture of violent and nonviolent efforts; that it will require mobilization of skill, expertise and resources, if not of vast numbers of soldiers; that it may go on for a long time; and that it has ideological roots.
The last point—around which “Americans still tiptoe”—again cuts to the heart of the matter. The real enemy in this war, Cohen argues—as Daniel Pipes has also so persistently and authoritatively done at greater length—is not the generalized abstraction “terrorism,” but rather “militant Islam.”5
Militant Islam today represents a revival of the expansionism by the sword that carried the new religion from its birthplace in Arabia in the 7th century C.E. through North Africa, the Balkans, Spain, and as far West as the gates of Vienna in the 1680’s. In the East, it swept through, among other countries, India, Iran, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, and also penetrated southward into the African lands that became Nigeria and Sudan.
Never in any of those places did Islam undergo anything resembling the various forms of modernization and reform that took place within Christianity and Judaism. The lone exception was Turkey after World War I, under the secularist Kemal Ataturk. But the expectation that Turkey would set a model for the future was not fulfilled. It is true that there are rival traditions—Sunni, Shi’a, Wahabbi—in the many other predominantly Muslim states, but all these sects are equally orthodox.
Certainly not all Muslims are terrorists. Like any other collection of human beings, they can as individuals be good or evil, kind or cruel, intelligent or stupid, sweet or sour. But it would be dishonest to ignore the plain truth that Islam has become an especially fertile breeding-ground of terrorism in our time. This can only mean that there is something in the religion itself that legitimizes the likes of Osama bin Laden, and indeed there is: the obligation imposed by the Koran to wage holy war, or jihad, against the “infidels.”
Two months before September 11, a talk show on the Arabic TV network al-Jazeera broadcast a debate on the topic “Bin Laden—The Arab Despair and American Fear.” At the conclusion of the program, the host said to the guest who had been attacking bin Laden as a terrorist: “I am looking at the viewers’ reactions for one that would support your positions—but . . . I can’t find any.” He then cited “an opinion poll in a Kuwaiti paper which showed that 69 percent of Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians think bin Laden is an Arab hero and an Islamic jihad warrior.” He also cited a poll on the station’s Internet site in which
82.7 percent saw bin Laden as a jihad fighter, 8.8 percent as a terrorist, and 8.4 percent didn’t know. . . . There is an Arab consensus from the Gulf to the [Atlantic] Ocean. . . . The people who use the Internet are the educated class—and if this is the situation with them, you can only imagine what it is among the poor, the persecuted, and those who have been stripped [of their rights]. Maybe even 99.99 percent.6
If these numbers are even remotely accurate, what hope is there for winning the war we are fighting against militant Islam and the terrorism it uses as its main weapon against us?
One answer is that the defeat of bin Laden will diminish his support dramatically. As he himself once stated, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” But I would suggest that a better answer to this enormously difficult question lies in the outburst of relief and happiness that became so vivid among the people of Kabul after we had driven out their Taliban oppressors. Surely what we saw in Kabul provides evidence that Muslims no more like being pushed around and repressed and beaten and killed by thugs—even thugs in clerical garb or quoting from the Qur’an—than does anyone else. Surely they do not enjoy being poor and hungry and ill-housed. Surely they would welcome the comforts and conveniences that are taken for granted in the developed world (remember the poignant run on videocassettes in liberated Kabul?).
In this connection, Bernard Lewis, the greatest contemporary scholar of the Islamic world, makes a very striking observation:
Generally speaking, popular good will toward the United States is in inverse proportion to the policies of [Islamic] governments. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with governments seen as American allies, the popular mood is violently anti-American, and it is surely significant that the majority of known hijackers and terrorists come from these countries. In Iran and Iraq, with governments seen as anti-American, public opinion is pro-American. The joy displayed by the Afghan people at the ending of Taliban rule could be repeated, on a larger scale, in both these countries.
It does not follow that capitalist democracies can be established overnight throughout the “house of Islam” simply by the force of American arms or the American example. No such inverse instant conversion by the sword is at all likely. But it is not so outlandish to expect huge changes in that realm—or at least large parts of it—that will bring about the long-delayed reform and modernization of Islam. This, in turn, would finally give adherents of Islam a chance to set their feet on the path to greater freedom and greater prosperity—and, not so incidentally, to make their peace with the existence of Israel.
Big wars, to say it again, usually end with the world being reshaped in forms unanticipated when they begin. The Middle East is itself a case in point. For the Middle East we know today was not created by a mandate from heaven, and the miserable despotisms there did not evolve through some unstoppable natural or historical process. As it happens, most of the states in question were conjured into existence less than a hundred years ago out of the ruins of the defeated Ottoman empire in World War I. Their boundaries were drawn by the victorious British and French with the stroke of an often arbitrary pen, and their hapless peoples were handed over in due course to one tyrant after another. There is thus no warrant to assume that these states will last forever in their present forms, or that the only alternatives to them are necessarily worse.
In a long article in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria has contended that the way “to save the Arab world” is for the United States to get over this “fear of the worse alternative” that has prevented us from pressuring for political and economic reforms:
We do not seek democracy in the Middle East—at least not yet. We seek first what might be called the preconditions for democracy . . . the rule of law, individual rights, private property, independent courts, the separation of church and state. . . . We should not assume that what took hundreds of years in the West can happen overnight in the Middle East.
Well, yes—and fulfilling Zakaria’s agenda would be a tremendous leap forward. But I have to take issue with the idea that democracy and capitalism can grow only in a soil that has been cultivated for centuries. After all, in the aftermath of World War II, the United States managed in a few short years to transform both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan into capitalist democracies. And thanks to our victory in World War III, something similar seems to be happening on its own steam in Central and Eastern Europe, and even in the old heartland of the evil empire itself. Why should the Islamic world eternally remain an exception?
Consider: the campaign against al Qaeda required us to topple the Taliban regime, and we may willy-nilly find ourselves forced by the same political and military logic to topple five or six or seven more tyrannies in the Islamic world (including that other sponsor of terrorism, Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority). I can even go along with David Pryce-Jones in imagining the turmoil of this war leading to some new species of an imperial mission for America, whose purpose would be to oversee the emergence of successor governments in the region more amenable to reform and modernization than the despotisms now in place. Like Pryce-Jones, I can also envisage the establishment of some kind of American protectorate over the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, as we more and more come to wonder why 7,000 princes should go on being permitted to exert so much leverage over us and everyone else.
I fully realize that we are judged both by others, and by ourselves, as lacking the stomach and the skills to play even so limited an imperial role as we did in occupying Germany and Japan after World War II. I confess that I myself am sometimes prey to such doubts about our capabilities, or to other doubts stemming from our nature as a nation. Moreover, thinking about our long record of inattention and passivity toward terrorism, I fear a relapse into appeasement, diplomatic evasion, and ineffectual damage control.7
Yet, given the transfiguring impact of major wars on the victors no less than on the vanquished, who can tell what we may wind up doing and becoming as we fight our way through World War IV? Whatever the exact contours may turn out to be, the Islamic countries in particular, and the world in general, will look very different by the time this war is over. Very different, and very much better for the vast majority of people everywhere. Unless, that is, the United States is held back by its coalition from moving all the way forward, or the President breaks the promise he made, in his magnificent speech to Congress on September 20, not to waver or falter or tire or lose patience until victory is achieved—a victory that would leave us not with “an age of terror” but with “an age of liberty here and across the world.”
1 We are instructed by Aviation Week & Space Technology that the proper name for these bombs is BLU-82, nicknamed “Big Blue,” and that a daisy cutter is not a bomb at all but a type of fuse. Even so, the latter term, inaccurately applied to the bomb itself, has stuck, whereas the nickname never managed to enter popular discourse.
2 By now, according to the New York Times, the suspicions of Emerson and Woolsey have been accepted by the intelligence officials who had originally rejected them in favor of the rogue-group theory. Not so, however, with Laurie Mylroie’s (to me) plausible case implicating Saddam Hussein as well.
3 For a much fuller and more detailed account of terrorist attacks originating in the Middle East since 1970, see the chronology compiled by Caroline Taillandier for the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), December 2001 (meria.idc.ac.il). I have relied on this document in my own sketchier summary, as well as on “Terrorist Attacks on Americans, a “timeline” put together by the PBS Frontline series in conjunction with one of its post-September 11 broadcasts (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/target/etc/cron.html).
Another listing, going back further than either of these, was recently compiled by the U.S. State Department (www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/pubs/fs/index.cfm). Entitled “Significant Terrorist Incidents, 1961-2001,” this compilation is not restricted to attacks emanating from the Middle East or directed at the United States; but neither does it contain any information about responses by the targets of such attacks. And it inexplicably omits some major terrorist incidents, such as “Black September” in Jordan in 1970 and a series of PFLP attacks in the late 1960’s.
4 The other five were Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria.
5 See, most recently, Pipes’s “Who Is the Enemy?” in the January COMMENTARY. Cohen and Pipes do not go into the question of the relation between Saddam Hussein and militant Islam. But David Pryce-Jones, whose The Closed Circle (1989, recently reissued in paperback by Ivan Dee with a new post-September 11 introduction) is one of our best books on the Arabs, has put it this way: “To Saddam, bin Laden is a religious fanatic of the kind he usually hangs on the gallows. To bin Laden, Saddam is secular, an apostate. [But] what they share is hatred for the United States . . . and they seek its destruction.” To this I would add that, like the PLO, Saddam plays the Islamic card whenever it suits him.
6 Many more excerpts from this debate, from which I have quoted only a tiny portion, are accessible on the website of the Middle East Media and Research Institute, or MEMRI (www.memri.org/sd/SP31901.html).
7 This record is richly documented by Gabriel Schoenfeld in “Could September 11 Have Been Averted?” (COMMENTARY, December 2001). Then there is the statement of Michael A. Sheehan, Clinton’s last assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, that is quoted by Gellman in his two-part series in the Washington Post: “[I]t was the collective judgment of the American people, not just the Clinton administration, that the impact of terrorism was at a level that was acceptable.”