“Never forget,” the melancholy say with all sincerity and sobriety. They say it every September 11th, and they’ve said it for the last 13 years. We do somber well. We erect handsome memorials to those civilians and first responders who had their lives cut short amid the worst attack on these shores since December 7, 1941. What we are not doing well, however, is remembering the men and women in uniform who spent the ensuing months guaranteeing that a similar attack on the United States or its allies couldn’t again be executed by those who adhere to the totalitarian ideology of Islamic fundamentalism. We have forgotten them and their sacrifice. The headlines out of the Middle East reflect it. Every day, we are confronted by enduring reminders of the work we left unfinished; of the resolve we shed. Bubbling up from our subconscious is the fear that we dare not acknowledge – the fear that it could all happen again. The fear that we left the mission half-done, and that the opportunity to secure a brighter and safer future for our children has been squandered.
In our haste to declare victory and retreat from the foreign wars that necessarily resulted from the 9/11 attacks, America spent 2011 indulging in undue revelry. The mastermind of that horrible assault on American symbols of prosperity and liberty had been killed in a daring raid that May. The following December, the last convoy of U.S. troops boarded the final plane out of Iraq. They left behind them a delicate power-sharing arrangement designed to prevent the country’s hostile ethnic groups, which had only narrowly avoided an all-out ethnoreligious civil war, from lunging at one another. America’s focus shifted toward Afghanistan – “the good war” – where it would devote its energy to imposing on the natives a similarly unsatisfactory and dubious resolution to the country’s ancient hostilities.
America wanted nothing more than to forget; that morally ambiguous war, the trauma that propelled U.S. soldiers into foreign battlefields and subway stations, the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. Barack Obama’s administration was elected with no stronger mandate than to guide Americans again into blissful slumber, and it was dogged in its pursuit of peace at any price.
Today, both Iraq and Syria, where the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the remaining elements of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime fled, are in shambles. The cities of Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah are occupied territory. Places where Americans fought and died for Iraqi freedom are under the control of a terroristic organization that seems infinitely more horrible than even al-Qaeda.
Today, the decision to recklessly pull out of Iraq is recognized by all serious observers to have been shortsighted, but Barack Obama’s waning cadre of supporters meekly defend their idol by contending his administration was forced into it by deft and proud Iraqi negotiators. That’s some defense. George W. Bush negotiated an untimely and total pullout of U.S. forces from that restive region, they say. For Obama, this stands as the only legacy achievement of the last administration that he was dutifully obliged to preserve. What’s more, there was no way to provide American troops with legal immunity even if a new status of forces agreement might have been negotiated. The Iraqi parliament simply would not have it. Obama’s hands were tied. This is all so much nonsense.
“[Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity,” The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins reported. “The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea.” Of course they did. The immunity issue was always a pretext for total withdrawal. There was no appetite to remain in Iraq and to stabilize that nation. Today, 3,000 American troops are again operating in Iraq, and no one in the Pentagon or Baghdad seems all that concerned with their legal status. “[A]fter 2011, the administration basically ignored the country,” New York Times Baghdad Bureau Chief Tim Arango later observed. “Even after Fallujah fell to ISIS at the end of last year, the administration would push back on stories about Mr. Maliki’s sectarian tendencies, saying they didn’t see it that way.”
“So there was a concerted effort by the administration to not acknowledge the obvious until it became so apparent — with the fall of Mosul — that Iraq was collapsing,” he added.
America’s project in Iraq was more ambitious than to rid the world of a dictator with access to weapons of mass destruction. If America were to depose every authoritarian with a chemical weapons stockpile, the American military would be busy, indeed. The mission, albeit undeclared, was to create a stable and pro-Western Iraq that could present a compelling alternative to the murderous ideology of radical Islamic authoritarianism and that might absorb and police those remaining fanatics that threatened the West. Contrary to the fevered fantasies of the Bush administration’s critics, the idea was not permanent war but to create the conditions for an enduring peace. It was hubristic of the last administration to believe that the West would have the stomach for this decades-long project.
Today, America’s military officials mirror their commander-in-chief’s unsteady approach to fighting the war against radical Islamic extremism. The White House steeled itself for intervention against Assad’s hothouse terrorist incubator but readied only a response to genocide and chemical warfare that would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” When ISIS erupted out of Syria, the administration only reluctantly committed to intervention and conducted as little as 15 sorties per day against the Islamist proto-state. The Pentagon inspector general and the Congress are currently investigating whether the president was intentionally misled by his CENTCOM commanders about the dire state of affairs in the region. The allegation contends that Obama reviewed intelligence that presented an inaccurately rosy picture of the war against ISIS. Where is the president? Is he not “madder than hell” over this scandal, as he was of past episodes of negligence and misconduct by his subordinates?
Today, a sense of resignation among American officials is palpable. “I’m having a tough time seeing it come back together,” said the Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart of Iraq and Syria. “I can see a time in the future where Syria is fractured into two or three parts.” “I think the Middle East is going to be seeing change over the coming decade or two that is going to make it look unlike it did,” CIA Director John Brennan agreed. Forget for the moment the toxic fatalism in this conceit and ask what, exactly, will a fractured Syria and Iraq look like? At present, substantial portions of a shattered Middle East will be dominated not merely by the Islamic State but by an al-Qaeda offshoot, the al-Nusra Front. Is America to now accept the existence of an al-Qaeda state in the Middle East? Are we to pretend as though this terrorist haven will not export violence to the West, or that its ongoing wars with its neighbors will not threaten Western interests and draw American forces back into the region? Something suggests that the fundamentalists who have resurrected slavery, turned children into executioners, burn heretics alive and on camera, and destroy ancient and shared human heritage won’t become responsible actors on the global stage anytime soon.
No, we have forgotten so much after 9/11. We weep for those who lost their lives on that terrible Tuesday morning while we sow the wind that will yield the whirlwind of the next attacks and the next wars. Our leaders are a reflection of our politics, and Barack Obama’s urgency to move on from the post-9/11 era was merely a manifestation of our own navel-gazing. America wanted to forget, but the massing battalions of radical Islam have not forgotten. Deep down, we know the business begun in the wake of those attacks is unfinished. We know that a reckoning is not far off. But we want to forget, and so we shall. For now.