Can anyone be surprised that, once again, the
attacks of 9/11/01 were reflexively ground zero for embattled Republicans?
George W. Bush led the way at the Republican National Convention, saying
of John McCain, "We need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11,
2001." In his convention keynote address, Rudy Giuliani followed suit, zapping
Obama and his supporters this way: "The Democrats rarely mentioned the attacks
of Sept. 11. They are in a state of denial about the threat that faces us now
and in the future." Post-convention, it's evidently time to assure
the nation that Sarah Palin is just the pit bull to handle the next 9/11. Now
comes the news that this Thursday, the endless presidential election campaign
will finally make it – quite literally – to Ground Zero. Barack Obama and John
McCain will "put
aside politics" and appear together for the yearly ceremonies. By now,
however, it's far too late to "put aside" 9/11, much less remove it from American
politics. Our world has been profoundly reshaped, after all, by the decisions
Bush and his top officials made in the wake of those attacks.
Still, taking up the president's implied question, what "lessons" exactly
should be drawn, seven years later, other than that you stand a reasonable
chance of winning elections by invoking 9/11 ad nauseam? As Andrew Bacevich,
author of the New York Times best-selling
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, indicates below,
there are indeed lessons to be drawn. They are, in fact, devastating to the
Bush administration, and unless they are grasped, further disaster is undoubtedly
in the offing. (To watch a video of Bacevich discussing those post-9/11 lessons,
9/11 Plus Seven
by Andrew J. Bacevich
The events of the past seven years have yielded
a definitive judgment on the strategy that the Bush administration conceived
in the wake of 9/11 to wage its so-called Global War on Terror. That strategy
has failed, massively and irrevocably. To acknowledge that failure is to confront
an urgent national priority: to scrap the Bush approach in favor of a new national
security strategy that is realistic and sustainable – a task that, alas, neither
of the presidential candidates seems able to recognize or willing to take up.
On Sept. 30, 2001, President Bush received from Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld a memorandum outlining U.S. objectives in the War on Terror. Drafted
by Rumsfeld's chief strategist Douglas Feith, the memo declared expansively:
"If the war does not significantly change the world's political map, the U.S.
will not achieve its aim." That aim, as Feith explained in a subsequent missive
to his boss, was to "transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam
Rumsfeld and Feith were co-religionists: Along with other senior Bush administration
officials, they worshipped in the Church of the Indispensable Nation, a small
but intensely devout Washington-based sect formed in the immediate wake of
the Cold War. Members of this church shared an exalted appreciation for the
efficacy of American power, especially hard power. The strategy of transformation
emerged as a direct expression of their faith.
The members of this church were also united by an equally exalted estimation
of their own abilities. Lucky the nation to be blessed with such savvy and
sophisticated public servants in its hour of need!
The goal of transforming the Islamic world was nothing if not bold. It implied
far-reaching political, economic, social, and even cultural adjustments. At
a press conference on Sept. 18, 2001, Rumsfeld spoke bluntly of the need to
"change the way that they live." Rumsfeld didn't specify who "they" were. He
didn't have to. His listeners understood without being told: "They" were Muslims
inhabiting a vast arc of territory that stretched from Morocco in the west
all the way to the Moro territories of the Southern Philippines in the east.
boldly conceived action, if successfully executed, offered the prospect of
solving a host of problems. Once pacified (or "liberated"), the Middle East
would cease to breed or harbor anti-American terrorists. Post-9/11 fears about
weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of evildoers could abate.
Local regimes, notorious for being venal, oppressive, and inept, might finally
get serious about cleaning up their acts. Liberal values, including rights
for women, would flourish. A part of the world perpetually dogged by violence
would enjoy a measure of stability, with stability promising not so incidentally
to facilitate exploitation of the region's oil reserves. There was even the
possibility of enhancing the security of Israel. Like a powerful antibiotic,
the Bush administration's strategy of transformation promised to clean out
not simply a single infection but several; or to switch metaphors, a strategy
of transformation meant running the table.
When it came to implementation, the imperative of the moment was to think
big. Just days after 9/11, Rumsfeld was charging his subordinates to devise
a plan of action that had "three, four, five moves behind it." By December
2001, the Pentagon had persuaded itself that the first move – into Afghanistan
– had met success. The Bush administration wasted little time in pocketing
its ostensible victory. Attention quickly shifted to the second move, seen
by insiders as holding the key to ultimate success: Iraq.
Fix Iraq and moves three, four, and five promised to come easily. Writing
in the Weekly Standard, William Kristol and Robert Kagan got it exactly
right: "The president's vision will, in the coming months, either be launched
successfully in Iraq, or it will die in Iraq."
The point cannot be emphasized too strongly: Saddam Hussein's (nonexistent)
weapons of mass destruction and his (imaginary) ties to al-Qaeda never constituted
the real reason for invading Iraq – any more than the imperative of defending
Russian "peacekeepers" in South Ossetia explains the Kremlin's decision to
Iraq merely offered a convenient place from which to launch a much larger
and infinitely more ambitious project. "After Hussein is removed," enthused
Hudson Institute analyst Max Singer, "there will be an earthquake through the
region." Success in Iraq promised to endow the United States with hitherto
unprecedented leverage. Once the United States had made an example of Saddam
Hussein, as the influential neoconservative Richard Perle put it, dealing with
other ne'er-do-wells would become simple: "We could deliver a short message,
a two-word message: 'You're next.'" Faced with the prospect of sharing Saddam's
fate, Syrians, Iranians, Sudanese, and other recalcitrant regimes would see
submission as the wiser course – so Perle and others believed.
Members of the administration tried to imbue this strategic vision with a
softer ideological gloss. "For 60 years," Condoleezza Rice explained to a group
of students in Cairo, "my country, the United States, pursued stability at
the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East – and we achieved
neither." No more. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting
the democratic aspirations of all people." The world's Muslims needed to know
that the motives behind the U.S. incursion into Iraq and its actions elsewhere
in the region were (or had, at least, suddenly become) entirely benign. Who
knows? Rice may even have believed the words she spoke.
In either case – whether the strategy of transformation aimed at dominion
or democratization – today, seven years after it was conceived, we can assess
exactly what it has produced. The answer is clear: next to nothing, apart from
squandering vast resources and exacerbating the slide toward debt and dependency
that poses a greater strategic threat to the United States than Osama bin Laden
In point of fact, hardly had the Pentagon commenced its second move, its invasion
of Iraq, when the entire strategy began to unravel. In Iraq, President Bush's
vision of regional transformation did die, much as Kagan and Kristol had feared.
No amount of CPR credited to the so-called surge will revive it. Even if tomorrow
Iraq were to achieve stability and become a responsible member of the international
community, no sensible person could suggest that Operation Iraqi Freedom provides
a model to apply elsewhere. Sen. John McCain says that he'll keep U.S. combat
troops in Iraq for as long as it takes. Yet even he does not propose "solving"
any problems posed by Syria or Iran (much less Pakistan) by employing the methods
that the Bush administration used to "solve" the problem posed by Iraq. The
Bush Doctrine of preventive war may remain nominally on the books. But, as
a practical matter, it is defunct.
The United States will not change the world's political map in the ways top
administration officials once dreamed of. There will be no earthquake that
shakes up the Middle East – unless the growing clout of Iran, Hezbollah, and
Hamas in recent years qualifies as that earthquake. Given the Pentagon's existing
commitments, there will be no threats of "you're next" either – at least none
that will worry our adversaries, as the Russians have neatly demonstrated.
Nor will there be a wave of democratic reform – even Rice has ceased her prattling
on that score. Islam will remain stubbornly resistant to change, except on
terms of its own choosing. We will not change the way "they" live.
In a book that he co-authored during the run-up to the invasion, Kristol confidently
declared, "The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there." In fact,
the Bush administration's strategy of transformation has ended. It has failed
miserably. The sooner we face up to that failure, the sooner we can get about
repairing the damage.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations
at Boston University. His best-selling
new book is The
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. You can read excerpts
from it by clicking here,
or watch a video of him discussing the lessons of 9/11, seven years later,
by clicking here.
Copyright 2008 Andrew J. Bacevich