That Washington was bent on fulfilling bin Laden’s fervent wishes was evident at once. As discussed in my book 9-11, written shortly after those attacks occurred, anyone with knowledge of the region could recognise “that a massive assault on a Muslim population would be the answer to the prayers of bin Laden and his associates, and would lead the US and its allies into a ‘diabolical trap’, as the French foreign minister put it”.
The senior CIA analyst responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996, Michael Scheuer, wrote shortly after that “bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. [He] is out to drastically alter US and Western policies toward the Islamic world”, and largely succeeded: “US forces and policies are completing the radicalisation of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it is fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” And arguably remains so, even after his death.
The first 9/11
Was there an alternative? There is every likelihood that the Jihadi movement, much of it highly critical of bin Laden, could have been split and undermined after 9/11. The “crime against humanity”, as it was rightly called, could have been approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects. That was recognised at the time, but no such idea was even considered.
In 9-11, I quoted Robert Fisk’s conclusion that the “horrendous crime” of 9/11 was committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty”, an accurate judgment. It is useful to bear in mind that the crimes could have been even worse. Suppose, for example, that the attack had gone as far as bombing the White House, killing the president, imposing a brutal military dictatorship that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands while establishing an international terror centre that helped impose similar torture-and-terror states elsewhere and carried out an international assassination campaign; and as an extra fillip, brought in a team of economists - call them “the Kandahar boys” - who quickly drove the economy into one of the worst depressions in its history. That, plainly, would have been a lot worse than 9/11.
Unfortunately, it is not a thought experiment. It happened. The only inaccuracy in this brief account is that the numbers should be multiplied by 25 to yield per capita equivalents, the appropriate measure. I am, of course, referring to what in Latin America is often called “the first 9/11”: September 11, 1973, when the US succeeded in its intensive efforts to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a military coup that placed General Pinochet’s brutal regime in office. The goal, in the words of the Nixon administration, was to kill the “virus” that might encourage all those “foreigners [who] are out to screw us” to take over their own resources and in other ways to pursue an intolerable policy of independent development. In the background was the conclusion of the National Security Council that, if the US could not control Latin America, it could not expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world”.
The first 9/11, unlike the second, did not change the world. It was “nothing of very great consequence”, as Henry Kissinger assured his boss a few days later.
These events of little consequence were not limited to the military coup that destroyed Chilean democracy and set in motion the horror story that followed. The first 9/11 was just one act in a drama which began in 1962, when John F Kennedy shifted the mission of the Latin American military from “hemispheric defense” - an anachronistic holdover from World War II - to “internal security”, a concept with a chilling interpretation in US-dominated Latin American circles.
In the recently published Cambridge University History of the Cold War, Latin American scholar John Coatsworth writes that from that time to “the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of non-violent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites”, including many religious martyrs and mass slaughter as well, always supported or initiated in Washington. The last major violent act was the brutal murder of six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, a few days after the Berlin Wall fell. The perpetrators were an elite Salvadorean battalion, which had already left a shocking trail of blood, fresh from renewed training at the JFK School of Special Warfare, acting on direct orders of the high command of the US client state.
The consequences of this hemispheric plague still, of course, reverberate.
From kidnapping and torture to assassination
All of this, and much more like it, is dismissed as of little consequence, and forgotten. Those whose mission is to rule the world enjoy a more comforting picture, articulated well enough in the current issue of the prestigious (and valuable) journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. The lead article discusses “the visionary international order” of the “second half of the twentieth century” marked by “the universalisation of an American vision of commercial prosperity”. There is something to that account, but it does not quite convey the perception of those at the wrong end of the guns.
The same is true of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which brings to an end at least a phase in the “war on terror” re-declared by President George W Bush on the second 9/11. Let us turn to a few thoughts on that event and its significance.
On May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in his virtually unprotected compound by a raiding mission of 79 Navy SEALs, who entered Pakistan by helicopter. After many lurid stories were provided by the government and withdrawn, official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself.
There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition - except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, whom they shot in self-defense when she “lunged” at them, according to the White House.
A plausible reconstruction of the events is provided by veteran Middle East correspondent Yochi Dreazen and colleagues in the Atlantic. Dreazen, formerly the military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is senior correspondent for the National Journal Group covering military affairs and national security. According to their investigation, White House planning appears not to have considered the option of capturing bin Laden alive: “The administration had made clear to the military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command that it wanted bin Laden dead, according to a senior US official with knowledge of the discussions. A high-ranking military officer briefed on the assault said the SEALs knew their mission was not to take him alive.”
The authors add: “For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance.” Furthermore, “capturing bin Laden alive would have also presented the administration with an array of nettlesome legal and political challenges”. Better, then, to assassinate him, dumping his body into the sea without the autopsy considered essential after a killing - an act that predictably provoked both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.
As the Atlantic inquiry observes, “The decision to kill bin Laden outright was the clearest illustration to date of a little-noticed aspect of the Obama administration's counterterror policy. The Bush administration captured thousands of suspected militants and sent them to detention camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration, by contrast, has focused on eliminating individual terrorists rather than attempting to take them alive.” That is one significant difference between Bush and Obama. The authors quote former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who “told German TV that the US raid was ‘quite clearly a violation of international law’ and that bin Laden should have been detained and put on trial”, contrasting Schmidt with US Attorney General Eric Holder, who “defended the decision to kill bin Laden although he didn't pose an immediate threat to the Navy SEALs, telling a House panel ... that the assault had been ‘lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way’".
The disposal of the body without autopsy was also criticised by allies. The highly regarded British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who supported the intervention and opposed the execution largely on pragmatic grounds, nevertheless described Obama’s claim that “justice was done” as an “absurdity” that should have been obvious to a former professor of constitutional law. Pakistan law “requires a colonial inquest on violent death, and international human rights law insists that the ‘right to life’ mandates an inquiry whenever violent death occurs from government or police action. The US is therefore under a duty to hold an inquiry that will satisfy the world as to the true circumstances of this killing.”
Robertson usefully reminds us that:
“[I]t was not always thus. When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden - the Nazi leadership - the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture. President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson that summary execution 'would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride ... the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear.’”
Eric Margolis comments that “Washington has never made public the evidence of its claim that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks”, presumably one reason why “polls show that fully a third of American respondents believe that the US government and/or Israel were behind 9/11”, while in the Muslim world skepticism is much higher. “An open trial in the US or at the Hague would have exposed these claims to the light of day,” he continues, a practical reason why Washington should have followed the law.
In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects”. In June 2002, FBI head Robert Mueller, in what the Washington Post described as “among his most detailed public comments on the origins of the attacks”, could say only that “investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan”.
What the FBI believed and thought in June 2002 they didn’t know eight months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know) to permit a trial of bin Laden if they were presented with evidence. Thus, it is not true, as President Obama claimed in his White House statement after bin Laden’s death, that “[w]e quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda”.
There has never been any reason to doubt what the FBI believed in mid-2002, but that leaves us far from the proof of guilt required in civilised societies - and whatever the evidence might be, it does not warrant murdering a suspect who could, it seems, have been easily apprehended and brought to trial. Much the same is true of evidence provided since. Thus, the 9/11 Commission provided extensive circumstantial evidence of bin Laden’s role in 9/11, based primarily on what it had been told about confessions by prisoners in Guantanamo. It is doubtful that much of that would hold up in an independent court, considering the ways confessions were elicited. But in any event, the conclusions of a congressionally authorised investigation, however convincing one finds them, plainly fall short of a sentence by a credible court, which is what shifts the category of the accused from suspect to convicted.
There is much talk of bin Laden's “confession”, but that was a boast, not a confession, with as much credibility as my “confession” that I won the Boston marathon. The boast tells us a lot about his character, but nothing about his responsibility for what he regarded as a great achievement, for which he wanted to take credit.
Again, all of this is, transparently, quite independent of one’s judgments about his responsibility, which seemed clear immediately, even before the FBI inquiry, and still does.
Crimes of aggression
It is worth adding that bin Laden’s responsibility was recognised in much of the Muslim world, and condemned. One significant example is the distinguished Lebanese cleric Sheikh Fadlallah, greatly respected by Hizbollah and Shia groups generally, outside Lebanon as well. He had some experience with assassinations. He had been targeted for assassination: by a truck bomb outside a mosque, in a CIA-organised operation in 1985. He escaped, but 80 others were killed, mostly women and girls as they left the mosque - one of those innumerable crimes that do not enter the annals of terror because of the fallacy of “wrong agency”. Sheikh Fadlallah sharply condemned the 9/11 attacks.
One of the leading specialists on the Jihadi movement, Fawaz Gerges, suggests that the movement might have been split at that time had the US exploited the opportunity instead of mobilising the movement, particularly by the attack on Iraq, a great boon to bin Laden, which led to a sharp increase in terror, as intelligence agencies had anticipated. At the Chilcot hearings investigating the background to the invasion of Iraq, for example, the former head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 testified that both British and US intelligence were aware that Saddam posed no serious threat, that the invasion was likely to increase terror, and that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had radicalised parts of a generation of Muslims who saw the military actions as an “attack on Islam”. As is often the case, security was not a high priority for state action.
It might be instructive to ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos had landed at George W Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic (after proper burial rites, of course). Uncontroversially, he was not a “suspect” but the “decider” who gave the orders to invade Iraq - that is, to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country and its national heritage, and the murderous sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region. Equally uncontroversially, these crimes vastly exceed anything attributed to bin Laden.
To say that all of this is uncontroversial, as it is, is not to imply that it is not denied. The existence of flat earthers does not change the fact that, uncontroversially, the earth is not flat. Similarly, it is uncontroversial that Stalin and Hitler were responsible for horrendous crimes, though loyalists deny it. All of this should, again, be too obvious for comment, and would be, except in an atmosphere of hysteria so extreme that it blocks rational thought.
Similarly, it is uncontroversial that Bush and associates did commit the “supreme international crime” - the crime of aggression. That crime was defined clearly enough by Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States at Nuremberg. An “aggressor,” Jackson proposed to the Tribunal in his opening statement, is a state that is the first to commit such actions as “[i]nvasion of its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another State ...” No one, even the most extreme supporter of the aggression, denies that Bush and associates did just that.
We might also do well to recall Jackson’s eloquent words at Nuremberg on the principle of universality: “If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”
It is also clear that announced intentions are irrelevant, even if they are truly believed. Internal records reveal that Japanese fascists apparently did believe that, by ravaging China, they were labouring to turn it into an “earthly paradise”. And although it may be difficult to imagine, it is conceivable that Bush and company believed they were protecting the world from destruction by Saddam’s nuclear weapons. All irrelevant, though ardent loyalists on all sides may try to convince themselves otherwise.
We are left with two choices: either Bush and associates are guilty of the “supreme international crime” including all the evils that follow, or else we declare that the Nuremberg proceedings were a farce and the allies were guilty of judicial murder.
The imperial mentality and 9/11
A few days before the bin Laden assassination, Orlando Bosch died peacefully in Florida, where he resided along with his accomplice Luis Posada Carriles and many other associates in international terrorism. After he was accused of dozens of terrorist crimes by the FBI, Bosch was granted a presidential pardon by Bush I over the objections of the Justice Department, which found the conclusion “inescapable that it would be prejudicial to the public interest for the United States to provide a safe haven for Bosch”. The coincidence of these deaths at once calls to mind the Bush II doctrine - “already … a de facto rule of international relations”, according to the noted Harvard international relations specialist Graham Allison - which revokes “the sovereignty of states that provide sanctuary to terrorists”.
Allison refers to the pronouncement of Bush II, directed at the Taliban, that “those who harbour terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves”. Such states, therefore, have lost their sovereignty and are fit targets for bombing and terror - for example, the state that harbored Bosch and his associate. When Bush issued this new “de facto rule of international relations”, no one seemed to notice that he was calling for invasion and destruction of the US and the murder of its criminal presidents.
None of this is problematic, of course, if we reject Justice Jackson’s principle of universality, and adopt instead the principle that the US is self-immunised against international law and conventions - as, in fact, the government has frequently made very clear.
It is also worth thinking about the name given to the bin Laden operation: Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound that few seem able to perceive that the White House is glorifying bin Laden by calling him “Geronimo” - the Apache Indian chief who led the courageous resistance to the invaders of Apache lands.
The casual choice of the name is reminiscent of the ease with which we name our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Blackhawk … We might react differently if the Luftwaffe had called its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy”.
The examples mentioned would fall under the category of “American exceptionalism”, were it not for the fact that easy suppression of one’s own crimes is virtually ubiquitous among powerful states, at least those that are not defeated and forced to acknowledge reality.
Perhaps the assassination was perceived by the administration as an “act of vengeance,” as Robertson concludes. And perhaps the rejection of the legal option of a trial reflects a difference between the moral culture of 1945 and today, as he suggests. Whatever the motive was, it could hardly have been security. As in the case of the “supreme international crime” in Iraq, the bin Laden assassination is another illustration of the important fact that security is often not a high priority for state action, contrary to received doctrine.
(Source: Aljazeera, September 7, 2011)
The price of 9/11
Joseph E. Stiglitz
Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate
Ten years after 9/11, al-Qaeda has been greatly weakened; but the price paid by the US was enormous, and unnecessary.
The September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda were meant to harm the United States, and they did, but in ways that Osama bin Laden probably never imagined. President George W Bush’s response to the attacks compromised the United States’ basic principles, undermined its economy, and weakened its security.
The attack on Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 attacks was understandable, but the subsequent invasion of Iraq was entirely unconnected to al-Qaeda - as much as Bush tried to establish a link. That war of choice quickly became very expensive - orders of magnitude beyond the $60bn claimed at the beginning - as colossal incompetence met dishonest misrepresentation.
Indeed, when Linda Bilmes and I calculated the United States' war costs three years ago, the conservative tally was $3-5tn. Since then, the costs have mounted further. With almost 50 per cent of returning troops eligible to receive some level of disability payment, and more than 600,000 treated so far in veterans’ medical facilities, we now estimate that future disability payments and health-care costs will total $600-900bn. But the social costs, reflected in veteran suicides (which have topped 18 per day in recent years) and family breakups, are incalculable.
Even if Bush could be forgiven for taking the United States, and much of the rest of the world, to war on false pretenses, and for misrepresenting the cost of the venture, there is no excuse for how he chose to finance it. His was the first war in history paid for entirely on credit. As the US went into battle, with deficits already soaring from his 2001 tax cut, Bush decided to plunge ahead with yet another round of tax “relief” for the wealthy.
Today, the US is focused on unemployment and the deficit. Both threats to America’s future can, in no small measure, be traced to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Increased defense spending, together with the Bush tax cuts, is a key reason why the US went from a fiscal surplus of 2 per cent of GDP when Bush was elected to its parlous deficit and debt position today. Direct government spending on those wars so far amounts to roughly $2tn - $17,000 for every US household - with bills yet to be received increasing this amount by more than 50 per cent.
Moreover, as Bilmes and I argued in our book The Three Trillion Dollar War, the wars contributed to the United States’ macroeconomic weaknesses, which exacerbated its deficits and debt burden. Then, as now, disruption in the Middle East led to higher oil prices, forcing Americans to spend money on oil imports that they otherwise could have spent buying goods produced in the US.
But then the US Federal Reserve hid these weaknesses by engineering a housing bubble that led to a consumption boom. It will take years to overcome the excessive indebtedness and real-estate overhang that resulted.
Ironically, the wars have undermined the United States’ (and the world’s) security, again in ways that Bin Laden could not have imagined. An unpopular war would have made military recruitment difficult in any circumstances. But, as Bush tried to deceive the US about the wars’ costs, he underfunded the troops, refusing even basic expenditures - say, for armoured and mine-resistant vehicles needed to protect American lives, or for adequate health care for returning veterans. A US court recently ruled that veterans’ rights have been violated. (Remarkably, the Obama administration claims that veterans’ right to appeal to the courts should be restricted!)
Military overreach has predictably led to nervousness about using military power, and others’ knowledge of this threatens to weaken US security as well. But the United States’ real strength, more than its military and economic power, is its “soft power,” its moral authority. And this, too, was weakened: as the US violated basic human rights like habeas corpus and the right not to be tortured, its longstanding commitment to international law was called into question.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and its allies knew that long-term victory required winning hearts and minds. But mistakes in the early years of those wars complicated that already-difficult battle. The wars’ collateral damage has been massive: by some accounts, more than a million Iraqis have died, directly or indirectly, because of the war. According to some studies, at least 137,000 civilians have died violently in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last ten years; among Iraqis alone, there are 1.8m refugees and 1.7m internally displaced people.
Not all of the consequences were disastrous. The deficits to which the US' debt-funded wars contributed so mightily are now forcing the US to face the reality of budget constraints. US military spending still nearly equals that of the rest of the world combined, two decades after the end of the Cold War. Some of the increased expenditures went to the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader Global War on Terrorism, but much of it was wasted on weapons that don’t work against enemies that don’t exist. Now, at last, those resources are likely to be redeployed, and the US will likely get more security by paying less.
Al-Qaeda, while not conquered, no longer appears to be the threat that loomed so large in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But the price paid in getting to this point, in the US and elsewhere, has been enormous - and mostly avoidable. The legacy will be with us for a long time. It pays to think before acting.
(Source: Al Jazeera, September 5, 2011)
An America Adrift
Ten years ago, a well-coordinated terrorist plot led to the assault upon the United States with disastrous loss of human life. The worst of all this was the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan, where nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed.
The loss to America was immediate: The stock market closed down and then lost great value, and for a while the infrastructure system closed down.
The world watched in awe, and many foreigners thought it served the arrogant American empire right; across the Arab world, including in supposedly pro-U.S. nations, there was rejoicing on the streets. Surely, then, America had been weakened?
But the response of the U.S. government was fast, decisive and, in a calculated way, quite brutal. The attackers were known to be of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, it was known that they were housed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. And it was known how to project American military power into the mountains of Southwest Asia and crush the greater part of Al Qaeda; hunting down Osama bin Laden was a matter of time.
Two years later, in 2003, U.S. forces (with a few allies) poured into Iraq for a second time in recent memory and eradicated Saddam Hussein and his unpleasant regime.
This time, the world stood aghast for a different reason: The blunt display of America’s military might, and thus the possibility that the United States had gone as far ahead in “hard power” capabilities compared to other powers (Russia, India, China, Europe) as the Romans had vis-à-vis the barbarian tribes 2,000 years earlier.
Russian nationalists, French intellectuals and Chinese planners were all upset, which probably made American hawks like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld doubly happy. The United States was back on top.
But was it? And, even if it had displayed an impressive amount of military muscle, how long would that last? And of what deeper value was it to the preservation of America’s long-term power position? Over the years that followed, the epic events of 2001 and 2003, the ground wars in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan became more protracted, more bloody and ever less clear for the American public to understand.
I cannot do the sophisticated polling that the Pew Foundation expert pollsters do, and the Pew polls show Americans nowadays much more uncertain about their post-9/11 position than they apparently were 10 years ago. But when I talk with the folks at my local hardware store or Italian deli, I hear no Cheney-like pride or aggressiveness.
There is a feeling that these wars have lasted too long and aren’t going anywhere, and an even stronger feeling that the White House and Congress should cease bickering and focus all their attention upon America’s undoubted domestic ills.
Is isolationism in evidence at my hardware store and deli? You bet it is. Nobody talks much here about the rise of China. Nobody cares about Putin’s Russia. Latin America and Africa, apart from helping starving babies, are off the mental map. India is marginally on the map. The Middle East is just full of stupidities — why can’t we just get out? And the situation in Israel is to most Americans just an embarrassment. Europe is, except for college students planning an exchange program, not a place of interest; nobody knew of Dominique Strauss-Kahn until he was hauled off the Air France plane.
If asked “which foreign country would you fight for,” the largest number of those Americans polled would say Britain, but that is because those polled feel that Brits are the only people who have fought alongside America in a world in which the superpower feels increasingly lonely and sick of overextending itself. To the average American, few other countries are worth fighting for.
When the actual day of the 10th anniversary occurs, the ceremonials arranged by the White House will be sensitive, intelligent, suitable. How could they not be? And it will be proper to respect what President Obama is trying to do, and to respect American emotions. These events will undoubtedly attract all the chatter of the absurdly short-term media in this country, eager for instant coverage and unintelligent commentary. Obama will strive to be above that.
But what of those of us who are attempting to step back from these memorials and ask questions about where America is in the world now compared to a decade ago? Has the United States been weakened, or strengthened? How has its foreign policy been affected, in the largest sense?
And perhaps the real answer to that critical last question might be this: That the largest effect of 9/11 upon America is that it became distracted. Distracted in two very important ways. In the first place, it was distracted from many other things that are going on in the world. Secondly, it’s been distracted from the erosion of its financial strength and international competitiveness.
Let us look briefly at the first matter. In its own hemisphere — surely among the most important areas in the world to U.S. interests — a new Latin America is emerging, unsteadily but observably. There is human catastrophe in Haiti, an uncertain future for Cuba, the continued idiocies of a sick Chávez regime in Venezuela, and drug-gangster wars from Bolivia to Mexico.
Yet there is also the extraordinary transformation of Brazil, the success of Chile, and the quiet recovery of Argentina. But does the United States have a positive, carefully crafted strategy for Latin America? Of course not.
Africa, apart from a few lights of promise, trembles over the pit of environmental and demographic disaster, but Washington leaves that problem to the World Bank. Europe fades further away. Russia is neglected. An India-Pakistan policy is, well, hard to describe. And American views on China range from blind enthusiasm to calls to build up the U.S. Navy immediately. And all this neglect for adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq that are now being wound down. This will be hard to explain to history students in 50 years’ time.
Even more worrying has been a decade of distraction from attending the “common wealth” — that is, the common good of America itself and of its citizenry.
The Bush administration’s combination of expensive foreign wars and inexcusable tax cuts that favored the rich has had dreadful effects upon U.S. federal deficits, upon America’s growing dependency upon foreigners, and upon the long-term future of the dollar.
The social fabric is fraying, the underclass is growing — it is observable year upon year in the soup kitchen where I work — and the public-school system crumbling. Under-investment in our roads and railways and power systems is visible every day. And, as if any more bad news was needed, along comes a Tea Party with policies that would make America’s double-distraction even worse.
This, then, may be the real legacy of 9/11, long after U.S. troops are withdrawn from those high Hindu Kush ranges.
For here was the decade when America turned its attention away from its own domestic condition and from its need to have a wider view of global change.
(Source: The New York Times, September 6, 2011)
The Day America's Decline Began
The US enjoyed an outpouring of global sympathy after 9/11. Within a couple of years that sympathy had been utterly squandered.
Ten years. An eyeblink in the eternal march of history – yet sufficient distance to gauge the impact of America's most dreadful day, one that no one old enough to remember will ever forget. After 10 years, winners and losers can be declared. And in the case of 9/11, it becomes more evident by the day, both sides are losers.
The most obvious one of course is Osama bin Laden. The organisation that he founded has been not only decapitated, but decimated. Hardly a week passes now without the death or capture of top al-Qa'ida commanders, their security presumably compromised by the documents seized during the raid in Pakistan in which Bin Laden was killed. Touch wood, there seems scant chance of the spectacular 10th anniversary attack for which, those documents show, he was desperately trying to organise.
As for his notion that violent Islamic jihad might create a new caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Spain – that seems even more far-fetched than it did 10 years ago. Even the "Arab Spring" of uprisings against the secular Middle Eastern dictators that Bin Laden hated is no vindication of his warped ideology.
The protest reflects far more a popular yearning to enjoy the simple rights of political freedom and economic opportunity that we take for granted, than any answer of 9/11's call to strike down a decadent yet overbearing West. And yet my guess is that Bin Laden would be fairly pleased right now, even though by any standard measure, he's lost the fight he started.
But what about the ledger on the other side. Yes, America's leaders can claim that, contrary to every prediction at the time, there has been no terrorist attack on the US mainland since. And yes, the particular group that carried out the attacks on New York and Washington DC has been largely destroyed. But it took the mightiest military on earth almost 10 years to track down and eliminate its most wanted single target, while the terrorist movement for which he was the inspiration has become a Hydra. Chop off one head in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen and others start to grow elsewhere. And in almost every other sense, these past 10 years have been a tale of mistakes made, opportunities missed and lessons not learned.
Consider first the opportunities missed. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US enjoyed an outpouring of global support and sympathy unmatched since the Second World War: "We Are All Americans Now," proclaimed that headline in Le Monde, speaking on behalf of the European country that has more hang-ups about America than most.
Within a couple of years, however, that sympathy had been utterly squandered. George W Bush and Dick Cheney were Ugly Americans reborn, loathed across the Arab world and beyond. Barack Obama has repaired much of the damage among traditional US allies. But in Islamic countries America's reputation remains in tatters, despite its deliberately low profile in the campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. ("Leading from behind," one White House aide injudiciously described the approach, provoking scorn and anger from the president's Republican foes, insulted that the US was not visibly heading this latest Western military foray against an Arab land.) But at least Obama had tried to take the mistakes to heart.
And even setting aside Libya, America remains bogged down in two wars in Islamic countries, as a result of 9/11. The October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government that not only sheltered al-Qa'ida but was literally of a piece with it, was absolutely justifiable – though Bin Laden and his cohorts should have been eliminated within months at Tora Bora. But why did everything take so much longer than it should have? The answer of course lies in that other mistake of the Bush administration, arguably the biggest single foreign policy blunder in all US history: the war of choice against Iraq that has succeeded only in strengthening the position of America's arch enemy Iran across the entire region.
According to one estimate, Iraq and Afghanistan may end up costing $4 trillion between them, an outlay covered thus far not by raising taxes as most wars are covered, but by borrowing. To that extent, 9/11 has contributed to the current economic crisis, helping create the mountain of debt that now ties Obama's hands.
And that borrowing continues. America is still in Iraq and may retain a presence there for decades. The same goes for Afghanistan, even though the killing of Bin Laden and the dispersal of al-Qa'ida to other countries mean there is no sane reason why tens of thousands of US troops should remain there, on a nation-building mission impossible. Afghanistan has already provided its own grim 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks: August 2011 was the deadliest month ever for US forces deployed there.
Contributing to the two longest wars in the country's history were two more pervasive errors. The first was the "Global War on Terror" itself. At the time, the Bush administration's decision to treat 9/11 as an act of war seemed to make sense; the country after all had suffered something that neither Hitler nor the Soviet Union could manage, a devastating foreign attack on its own soil.
But declaration of the war on terror was the slippery slope that led to so much that proved disastrous to America's reputation: torture, Abu Ghraib, rendition, Guantanamo Bay, the denial of basic defendants' rights to captured "enemy combatants" (many of whom, it belatedly transpired, were innocent.) How much better to have treated the attacks as a criminal matter, monstrous to be sure, but which could have been handled by civilian courts.
But the US strategy post-9/11 contained an even greater mistake: a refusal to face up to the basic dilemma at the core of its policy – that some of its main allies in the "War on Terror" were in fact accomplices or even instigators of that terrorism. One of them, Pakistan, sheltered Bin Laden. Another, Saudi Arabia, provided 15 of the 19 hijackers.
September 11, 2001 was a chance for Bush to take a real hack at the Gordian knot of oil and security that distorts US policy in the Middle East, by increasing the gasoline tax, reducing its addiction to imported oil, and boosting alternative sources of energy. But next to nothing was done. The world was told, you are either with us or against. For the 99 per cent of the population not involved with the armed forces, Bush's rallying cry was: "Keep on driving, keep on spending."
The real world, however, moved on. Amid Washington's obsession with terror, China has stepped up its economic challenge. The present moment has odd echoes of the past – a whiff of the frivolity of those carefree days before the real September 11, when the fuss was about shark attacks in Florida, and whether a California Congressman was having an affair with a missing Washington intern.
And here we are 10 years on, amid a gathering economic crisis far more obvious than the clues back then to an impending terrorist attack, wondering if the magnificently absurd Sarah Palin will run for the White House, watching in disbelief as the two parties squabble over the timing of a presidential speech. 9/11 is not the cause of American decline. But it's as good a marker as any of when that decline began.
(Source: The Independent, September 7, 2011)
Historians will label the events of that September morning 10 years ago as the most destructive act of terrorism ever committed up to that time. But I suspect they will also judge America’s last decade as one of history’s worst overreactions.
Of course overreaction is what terrorists hope to provoke. If judged by that standard, 9/11 was also one of history’s most successful terrorist acts, dragging the United States into two as yet unresolved wars, draining the treasury of $1 trillion and climbing, as well as damaging America’s power and prestige. These wars have empowered our enemies and hurt our friendships, and have almost certainly generated more terrorists than they have killed.
Like other victims of terrorism, the United States believed that somehow the answer could be found in brute force. But ideas seldom yield to force, and militant Islam is an idea. The result has been the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.
The brief war to topple the Taliban and rid Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden was admirably executed, using air power, Northern Alliance allies, and a few C.I.A. agents on horseback to achieve a specific goal. The failure to nab Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, to let them escape from Tora Bora where they were cornered, was a spectacular failure.
Our 10-year occupation, and our off-and-on-again attempts at nation building, have been a disaster. At first Afghanistan was starved for resources, taking a back seat to the ill-planned, and ill-advised attack on Iraq. When, at last, Afghanistan became a priority, the moment for success had already passed.
Today the Afghan war has morphed into a war against the Pashtuns — perhaps the most war-like people on earth, whom two great empires before us, the Russian and the British, failed to subdue. One could not possibly find a worse place to fight, or a less likely people on whom to impose our will. The Pashtun tribes have risen to the call of Jihad for centuries, and their prowess at battling foreigners is unmatched.
Despite a heavy propaganda campaign to suggest otherwise, the subjugation of the Taliban has been a failure. Counterinsurgency — protecting the people and winning their support — never really got off the ground. Our strategy seems to be that if we can only kill enough Pashtuns somehow they will agree to surrender.
It is true that the Pashtun tribes and clans have traditionally been willing to switch allegiances when the incentives were sufficiently attractive, so the idea of winning over some groups who are now fighting against us was not totally out of the question.
But so far it has simply not worked, and General David Petraeus fell into the trap into which so many generals before him have fallen: He believed that what he learned in one war, the Iraq war, could be replicated in the next: Afghanistan.
Our British allies made the same mistake, believing that what had succeeded in bringing peace to Northern Ireland could apply to Afghanistan.
As for Iraq, if ever there was an intellectuals’ war, it was Iraq. Neoconservative theorists, who knew nothing about Iraq , believed that the transformational power of democracy could change the Middle East — make Arabs more like Americans.
But what happened was that Iraq became more like the Middle East, and, although violence has slowed, it has by no means been brought to any semblance of normalcy. None of the underlying questions, the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites, what should be the relations of Kurdistan to the rest of the country, have been settled.
In the meantime, the Iraq war has greatly empowered Iran, and the reaction of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in backing Syria’s Bashir al-Assad at Iran’s bidding speaks for itself.
The Bush-Cheney years saw a remarkable abrogation of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, and the descent into torture showed how easily fear can bring even a modern democracy over to the dark side.
Although Al Qaeda was remarkably successful at linking together so many of the Muslim world’s pockets of grievances, mastering the techniques of the Internet, the fact of the matter is that most Muslims would rather not live under the extreme Wahhabism that Al Qaeda preachs. Bin Laden’s ideas about his faith were to Islam what Pol Pot’s were to socialism.
But the sad and counterproductive rise of anti-Muslim attitudes in both Europe and the United States since 9/11 testify that Bin Laden was not entirely unsuccessful in driving a wedge between the Islamic world and the West.
(Source: International Herald Tribune, September 2, 2011)
My Unfinished 9/11 Business
Ten years after the attacks, we memorialize the loss and we mark the heroism, but there is no organized remembrance of the other feelings that day aroused: the bewilderment, the vulnerability, the impotence. It may be difficult to recall with our attention now turned inward upon a faltering economy, but the suddenly apparent menace of the world awakened a bellicose surge of mission and made hawks of many — including me — who had a lifelong wariness of the warrior reflex.
When the planes hit, I was beginning a new life in the opinion department, an elevator ride up from the newsroom that I had served as a Times reporter and editor for 17 years. My debut was not for a couple of weeks, and I was laboring on a nice, safe essay about Western water rights. As the ash cloud spread, I set off on foot through the dazed city, feeling more than a little pointless, until I was summoned by my new boss to write. Something. Now.
My first Op-Ed column, published Sept. 12, counted the ways our sense of the world would now be changed; we would be like Israelis, rearranging our lives around threat. The column was the opposite of warlike.
“Perhaps,” I counseled, “after the obligatory and symbolic reprisals, which will be as ineffectual as Israel’s, our president will spend more time talking about the real-world vigilance of intelligence and law enforcement — which depend on a world of carefully tended alliances — and less about the computer-game threat of a nuclear missile from a suicidal rogue state, which we can handle in the solitude of the Situation Room.”
But my prudent punditry soon felt inadequate. I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something — to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism. By the time of Alice’s birth I had already turned my attention to Iraq, a place that had, in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11, but which would be its most contentious consequence. And I was no longer preaching “the real-world vigilance of intelligence and law enforcement.”
During the months of public argument about how to deal with Saddam Hussein, I christened an imaginary association of pundits the I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club, made up of liberals for whom 9/11 had stirred a fresh willingness to employ American might. It was a large and estimable group of writers and affiliations, including, among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst whose book, “The Threatening Storm,” became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat. (Yes, it is surely relevant that this is exclusively a boys’ club.)
In several columns I laid out justifications for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. There were caveats — most significantly, that there was no reason to rush, that we should hold off to see whether Iraq’s behavior could be sufficiently contained by sanctions and inspections. Like many liberal hawks, I was ambivalent; Pollack said he was 55 to 45 for war, which feels about right.
But when the troops went in, they went with my blessing. Of course I don’t think President Bush was awaiting permission from The New York Times’s Op-Ed page — or, for that matter, from my friends in the Times newsroom, who during the prewar debate published some notoriously credulous stories about Iraqi weapons. The administration, however, was clearly pleased to cite the liberal hawks as evidence that invading Iraq was not just the impetuous act of cowboy neocons. Thus did Tony Judt in 2006 coin another, unkinder name for our club: “Bush’s Useful Idiots.”
In 2004, a year after the invasion, and again in 2008, Jacob Weisberg, editor of the online magazine Slate and a charter member of my I-Can’t-Believe club, invited liberal hawks to second-guess their support for the war. The responses ranged from remorse to self-vindication, with lots of tortured doubt and defensiveness in between. But I held my tongue. By that time I had moved from the Op-Ed page into a job — executive editor — in which I was obliged to keep my opinions to myself lest they be mistaken for the newspaper’s agenda or influence our coverage. I’m pretty sure the reporters who have covered Iraq with such distinction in the ensuing years could not tell you whether I still believed the war was just or necessary. I’m not sure I knew myself at that point. It is the job of news to recount, clear-eyed, what is, and questions of what should be are an occupational distraction. In any case, I declined to participate in Slate’s collective examination of conscience.
But I have now returned to the opinion business, at a time when America’s role in the world — and in Iraq — is still unsettled. So, let me be the last of the club to retrace my steps, and see if there is any wisdom to be salvaged there.
The question is really two questions: Knowing what we know now, with the glorious advantage of hindsight, was it a mistake to invade and occupy Iraq? And knowing what we knew then, were we wrong to support the war?
Broadly speaking, there were three arguments for invading Iraq: the humanitarian case that Saddam Hussein was a monster whose cruelties were intolerable to civilized nations; the opportunity case — that we might plant the seeds of democracy and freedom in a region desperately in need of them; and the strategic case that Hussein posed an important threat, not only because of his unaccounted-for weapons stockpiles but also because of his habit of smashing through borders and the hospitality he offered to terrorists of various kinds.
For many of us, the monster argument was potent, even if it was not sufficient. Hussein’s genocidal persecution of the Kurds, the Grand Guignol of his prisons and the memory of his savage assault on Kuwait all confirmed him as the beastliest of despots. Those like Christopher Hitchens who had made friends among Iraq’s Kurdish minority felt an acute sympathy and a sense of obligation, because the United States had abandoned the Kurds to Hussein’s butchery after the first gulf war. Others brought to this moment the lessons of Bosnia, where an American-led alliance had stopped the murderous Serbs and somewhat erased the residue of American impotence left by Ho Chi Minh and “Black Hawk Down.” We were, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “enamored of [our] own morality.”
But there are plenty of monstrous regimes that we do not go to the trouble of overthrowing. It should perhaps have caught our attention that Samantha Power, who literally wrote the book on humanitarian intervention (the Pulitzer-winning “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”) and who had endorsed armed intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda, and at an earlier time in Iraq, did not support the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“My criterion for military intervention — with a strong preference for multilateral intervention — is an immediate threat of large-scale loss of life,” explained Power, who now advises President Obama on multilateral affairs and human rights. “That’s a standard that would have been met in Iraq in 1988 but wasn’t in 2003.”
The idea that America could install democracy in Iraq always seemed to me the most wishful of the rationales for war, although some people who knew the region far better than I made that case. It is true that we had played midwife to new democracies in Germany and Japan after World War II. But those were war-weary societies, with stabilizing institutions, industrialized economies and coherent national cultures, and even so the rebuilding was colossally expensive. The exiled Iraqi academic Kanan Makiya — a proponent of invasion who later repented — observed that Iraq’s population was so traumatized by decades of abuse that they were unwilling to take initiative or responsibility: “A regime was removed and a people liberated overnight, but it was a people that did not understand what had happened to it or why.”
And if we were paying closer attention, as we should have been, we would have been more alarmed by the fact that the authors of the invasion had shown open contempt for the kind of “nation building” that went into the Marshall Plan. They seemed to have in mind a hit-and-run democracy project for Iraq, which was folly.
Beyond Iraq, the idea that a country democratized under American occupation would become a beacon to the region, an antidote to the poisonous doctrine of extremism, was highly questionable given the region’s bitter history of occupation and the popular resentment of America for, among other things, its generous support of so many Arab autocrats.
It turns out, though nobody imagined it eight years ago, that the model for aspiring democrats in the Arab world would be Tunisia, followed in short order by Egypt and Yemen. Do these examples suggest that if we had waited long enough, the Iraqis would have rid themselves of Hussein without American intervention? I doubt it; surely Hussein would have followed the Iranian and Syrian examples of sheer brutality rather than surrender to the streets. Or is it fair to argue that the ouster of Saddam Hussein cleared the way for, even inspired, the recent uprisings around the Mediterranean? Probably not. Friends who have covered the Arab awakening on the ground say there is a powerful pride in its indigenous quality, and specifically a pride that they are not sponsored by Washington. Moreover, America’s occupation of Iraq, and the resulting sectarian upheavals, have been propaganda points for other dictators trying to hold onto power.
The main selling point for war in Iraq, at least for the American public, was that Hussein represented a threat to American security. But what kind of threat, exactly?
Iraq was not, as Afghanistan had been, the host country and operational base of the new strain of Islamic fascism represented by Al Qaeda. It is true that Hussein hosted some nasty characters, but so did many other dictators hostile to America. At the time, Iraq was one of seven countries designated as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department, and in the other six cases we settled for sanctions as recourse enough. And his conventional military — what was left of it after it was laid waste in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 — was under close supervision.
That leaves the elusive weapons of mass destruction. We forget how broad the consensus was that Hussein was hiding the kind of weapons that could rain holocaust on a neighbor or be delivered to America by proxy. He had recently possessed chemical weapons (he used them against the Kurds), and it was only a few years since we had discovered he had an active ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Inspectors who combed the country after the first gulf war discovered a nuclear program far more advanced than our intelligence agencies had believed; so it is understandable that the next time around the analysts erred on the side of believing the worst.
We now know that the consensus was wrong, and that it was built in part on intelligence that our analysts had good reason to believe was cooked. Should we — those of us without security clearances — have known it in 2003? Certainly we should have been more suspicious of the administration’s assurances. Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution, concedes that he should have drilled deeper into the claims of the intelligence crunchers; he was misled, he says, by the fact that they had seriously underestimated Hussein in the past. A few journalists — notably Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder newspapers — emphasized conflicting intelligence that questioned Hussein’s capabilities. But assuming we couldn’t know for sure, what would have been acceptable odds? If there was only a 50-50 chance that Hussein was close to possessing a nuclear weapon, could we live with that? One in five? One in 10?
Colin Powell, who oversaw the campaign that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 and who was the most cautious member of President Bush’s war cabinet, was reluctantly convinced (duped, he would later say) that the W.M.D. risk merited military action. His word carried great weight. The journalist and author Fred Kaplan was one of many, I suspect, who joined the hawk club on the strength of Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council six weeks before the invasion.
“I was particularly struck by the tape-recording of an intelligence intercept that Powell played — a phone conversation in which one Iraqi Republican Guard officer tells another to clean out a site before the inspectors get there,” Kaplan recalled. We learned much later that the Iraqi officers wanted to erase traces of chemical weapons that had been stored before the first gulf war. Kaplan dropped out of the hawk club within a month when he concluded that, whether or not an invasion was morally justified, he doubted the Bush administration was up to the task. The rest of us were still a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.
In 1992, after driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney mused on the calculus of war. Why, he asked an audience in Seattle, had the United States not pursued Hussein’s forces all the way to Baghdad and removed him from power? Because, Cheney said, that would have committed the U.S. to an unacceptable long-term occupation, and it would have meant more American casualties. “The question in my mind is, how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?” Cheney asked at the time. “And the answer is, not that damned many.”
Of course, Cheney wasn’t so cautious the second time around. Along with the arguments that he and many others made after 9/11 came some insufficiently considered assumptions: that we were competent to invade and occupy Iraq without making an awful mess of it and that we could do it at a cost — in lives and money — that we could live with. In the end, the costs were greater than anyone anticipated because of calamitous mistakes in execution. Some critics would put at the top of their list of blunders the abrupt dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the purge of Hussein’s Baath Party from government ministries, moves that simultaneously deprived the unsettled country of stabilizing institutions and created an angry and battle-ready cadre of insurgents. Others will say the stupidest mistake was failing to have a credible plan for what came after the conquest. Others will point to the folly of installing power-hungry exiles in key jobs — handing the Oil Ministry to the great con artist Ahmed Chalabi, for example. All in all, Fred Kaplan, who predicted they would screw it up, looked like Nostradamus.
Just consider the numbers. In the short-lived first gulf war, 148 Americans died in battle. In the current war, the toll so far is nearly 4,500 American dead and 32,000 wounded. At least 100,000 Iraqis, most of them noncombatants, have been killed. A war and occupation estimated to cost $100 billion over two years has already cost eight times that amount. And the meter is still running.
For that price, we have purchased an Iraq where the fear of the tyrant has given way to the fear of random death. Baghdad remains a maze of blast walls and checkpoints, less menacing than during the spasmodic sectarian slaughter of 2006-2007, but still a very dangerous place to live. There is a querulous elected Parliament, but few of the other fundamentals of civil society like an adversarial press and trustworthy courts. The economy still depends overwhelmingly on oil and state jobs. It is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. And there is little confidence that things will not get worse. Many Iraqis fear the American occupation (as they still call it) is the only thing preventing a revival of sectarian killing and an even more authoritarian government.
Our occupation of Iraq has also distracted us from Afghanistan, furnished a propaganda point for Al Qaeda recruiters and limited the credibility of our support for independence movements elsewhere. It is worth mentioning, too, that our moral standing as champions of civil society has been compromised by the abuses of Abu Ghraib and rendition and torture, byproducts of the war that will long remain a blot on our reputation.
Where does this leave me? The world is well rid of Saddam Hussein. But knowing as we now do the exaggeration of Hussein’s threat, the cost in Iraqi and American lives and the fact that none of this great splurge has bought us confidence in Iraq’s future or advanced the cause of freedom elsewhere — I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.
Whether it was wrong to support the invasion at the time is a harder call. I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly, but I could see that there was no clear plan for — and at the highest levels, a shameful smugness about — what came after the invasion. I could not have known how bad the intelligence was, but I could see that the White House and the Pentagon were so eager to go that they were probably indifferent to any evidence that didn’t fit their scenario. I could see that they had embraced Chalabi, the exile cheerleader for war, despite considerable suspicion within the State Department and elsewhere that he was a charlatan. I could have seen, had I looked hard enough, that even by the more dire appraisals of Hussein’s capabilities he did not amount to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called in a very different context “a clear and present danger.” But I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.
As a candidate for president, George W. Bush famously argued that to command respect in the world, we needed to demonstrate not only strength but also humility. In office, though, the humility gave way to hubris. President Bush got it wrong. And so did I.
The remedy for bad journalism is more and better journalism. Reporters at The Times made amends for the credulous prewar stories with investigations of the bad intelligence and with brave, relentless and illuminating coverage of the war and occupation. But what The Times writes casts a long shadow. For years, our early stories hyping Iraq’s menace (and to a lesser extent what people like me wrote on the opinion pages) fed a suspicion, especially on the left, that we were not to be trusted.
John F. Burns, a correspondent who chronicled the tyranny of Hussein while the man was still in power and stayed on to cover the invasion and aftermath, recalls the reflexive hostility he encountered as a Times reporter on trips home. “We were all liars, warmongers, lapdogs of Bush and Cheney and so forth,” he told me.
“Whatever we wrote — no matter what it was, and no matter how well documented — was dismissed as Bush propaganda,” added Dexter Filkins, who covered the battlefields and politics of Afghanistan and Iraq for The Times before moving last January to The New Yorker. “That was probably going to happen anyway, but the paper’s real failings gave those criticisms more credibility — and longer legs — than they deserved. Remember that the right-wingers (and a lot of the military) hated us at the time, too, since the war had started to go badly from the get-go, and we were reporting that.”
The last big story to break on my watch as executive editor was the upheaval in Libya. The contours weren’t exactly the same, but they involved another entrenched, grotesque strongman; another oil economy; another fractured Arab society; another cloud of misinformation. This time we all — president, public and press — picked our way more carefully through the mess, weighing the urge to support freedom against the cost of becoming part of a drama we don’t fully understand. That is the caution of a country feeling more threatened these days by our own economics than by foreign enemies. But for some of us it is also the costly wisdom of Iraq.
(Source: International Herald Tribune, September 6, 2011)
How 9/11 Triggered America's Decline
Gregor Peter Schmitz
The smoke was still rising from the rubble of the World Trade Center when Richard Armitage, at the time the US deputy secretary of state, spoke in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. "History begins today," he said.
In the coming decade, Armitage would turn out to be right -- except the politician could not have foreseen how tragic the history would be following the epochal event.
It is the history of the decline of the USA as a superpower.
Immediately before the attacks, this country was in full bloom -- like Rome at its peak, as TV host Joe Scarborough recalls today.
The Republican President George W. Bush had inherited a fat budget surplus from the Democrat Bill Clinton. In Kosovo, the US, which Madeleine Albright dubbed "the indispensable nation," had just shown the Europeans how it could resolve conflicts, even in their own backyard. Bill Gates and Microsoft were still cool.
Then came the planes, piloted by the followers of Osama bin Laden -- and for a brief moment, the superpower seemed even more powerful than ever. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had himself photographed donating blood for the victims. Even the French all suddenly wanted to be Americans. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised "unlimited solidarity."
What followed was an unlimited mistake. Bin Laden had hoped to entangle the Americans in bloody wars. How well he would succeed in doing this, he probably could not have imagined himself.
Bush's Tragic Legacy
America was trapped in Iraq for years, where a victory was a long time coming and was never a real one. It is currently trapped in Afghanistan, where victory no longer even seems possible. And it is trapped in an embrace with its ally Pakistan, which it does not trust and yet cannot release.
These are costly defeats for America and the rest of the world. According to a conservative estimate by Brown University, there have been almost 140,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. The massive retaliation cost more than $3 trillion (€2.2 trillion) -- dollars that would have been better used in America's schools or in the wallets of US citizens.
For a short time after the attacks, the country seemed united. Americans embraced each other. Even the cold city of New York suddenly seemed warm. But instead of cultivating public spirit, President Bush sought to find a pretext -- any pretext -- to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. This is his most tragic legacy, the fact that America can no longer even mourn its victims properly -- because Americans have long been not just victims, but also perpetrators.
But the decade of terror did in fact traumatize Americans and turn them into victims -- even those who only experienced the attacks on television.
A Country at War with Itself
Today, following all the Bush-era tax cuts, the US is a deeply divided country in social terms. The gap between rich and poor is almost as great as it was in the days of oil barons and steel magnates in the last century. Five percent of Americans buy almost 40 percent of all consumer goods sold in the country.
The country is at war with itself. It has a Congress where there is perpetual conflict between the right and the left -- and where they don't even want to talk to each other when the threat of a national bankruptcy looms.
Like no other country, the US became great because of its openness. Now, it has become distrustful, fearful and defensive -- against Muslims, against foreigners, against anyone who is different. Citizen militias hunt down illegal immigrants, and many people can still not accept having a black president in the White House.
"American exceptionalism" was always the US's trump card. The new candidates for the White House still refer to it in the election campaign, but it sounds like a hollow mantra -- one of those election promises that shouldn't be examined too closely.
Because if it was, then people might realize that many things in America are only exceptional because they are exceptionally bad. The country has lousy health statistics despite having one of the most expensive health care systems in the world. Then there are the billions wasted in the education system, not to mention the armaments madness -- the US spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world put together.
And then there is the fixation on a financial system that rewards gamblers, where the country's most talented young people no longer work on developing new patents, but devote themselves to financial wizardry. Meanwhile, China and other emerging economies can happily concentrate on their own ascent.
Estranged from the Rest of the World
Where has that one-of-a-kind America gone? New York Magazine sums it up: "Ten years later, America now looks a bit more like other countries do -- our embrace of capitalism has grown more complicated, our class mobility less certain, our immigrants and our diversity less unique."
Even in foreign policy, the world power is no longer seen as the world's role model. "Leading from behind" is the maxim of the current president, Barack Obama. He says it out of necessity, because stateside a strange alliance has formed, between those on the fringes of mainstream politics both on the left and on the right.
They want to turn America into a tight-fisted world power. They only want one thing: US troops should come home, and then other countries should see how they fare. After all, the isolationists argue, these other countries don't understand America anyway.
The US has become estranged from the rest of the world. It is partly its own fault, but the rest of the world also shares some of the blame -- because many only see America as a perpetrator, and no longer regard it as a victim.
This was most evident on the day that bin Laden was killed. Americans cheered spontaneously on the streets when they heard the news. But many people in other parts of the world did not want to celebrate with them. They reacted with agitation to the openly flaunted joy over the terrorist's death. The alienation of the others often sounded patronizing and self-satisfied.
But it underlined the fact that the victims of the attacks were no longer in the foreground. Instead, the sins of the original victim were brought into focus -- America's sins. The superpower, to a large extent, only has itself to blame. But that is still sad nonetheless.
(Source: Spiegel Online, September 9, 2011)
The Uncontrollable Momentum of War
The initial decision to strike back after the 9/11 attacks is easy to understand. History, however, will ask not why the West invaded Afghanistan, but why did it stay so long?
Why, a decade after 9/11, were there still 140,000 coalition troops on the ground? Why were there so many civilian casualties in May and June 2011 — more than in any preceding recorded month? Why had the United States been in Afghanistan for twice the length of World War II?
The conventional answer to all these questions is that Afghanistan still poses an existential threat to global security. In March 2009, presenting his strategy for a surge in troop numbers, President Obama said, “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban ... that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”
These fears are reinforced by a domino theory that if Afghanistan falls, Pakistan will follow, and the Taliban will get their hands on nuclear weapons.
Every one of these claims is wrong.
First, Afghanistan poses less of a threat to global security than has been imagined. The Taliban are extremely unlikely to be able to seize Kabul, even if there was a very significant reduction in foreign troops. In the unlikely event they succeeded, they are even more unlikely to invite Al Qaeda back: Many Taliban leaders see that connection as their fundamental mistake before 9/11 and believe that if they had not supported Al Qaeda, they would still be in power.
And even with a foothold in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda wouldn’t significantly strengthen its ability to harm the West. The U.S. would respond much more vigorously than it did before 9/11 if Al Qaeda bases were detected in Afghanistan, and the Taliban could offer little protection.
If the question is about regional stability, Egypt is more important than Afghanistan. If the concern is terrorism, Pakistan is more important. And Pakistan’s security won’t be determined by events across the border but by its own internal politics, economic decline and toxic relationship with India. Afghanistan isn’t strategically important enough to justify the West’s current level of military and humanitarian investment — and failure there is inevitable unless we reverse course.
Consider the conventional wisdom that following the fall of Kabul, the West was distracted by Iraq and maintained too light a footprint in Afghanistan, failing to provide sufficient money or troops for the mission. Afghans who initially welcomed a foreign military intervention were alienated by the slow pace of development and the poor governance. This lack of progress created the opening for the Taliban to return. According to this narrative, it was only Obama’s surge of 2009 that, in his words, “for the first time in years ... put in place the strategy and resources” so that by December 2010, the U.S. was “on track to achieve (its) goals.”
An irony is that the “light footprint” of the early years was relatively successful — Al Qaeda members were driven out of the country almost immediately, and very quickly, school attendance improved dramatically, health clinics were rolled out, and mobile telephone usage exploded. Non-state-controlled media outlets were established and elections were held for the first time in decades. These are accomplishments worthy of pride, but sadly, the addition of more troops and resources to the NATO-led mission since 2006 has made the situation worse.
The tens of billions of dollars donated to the government of Afghanistan have undermined its leadership. The fashionable agendas of foreigners on short-term tours and their micromanagement have pushed aside the priorities of Afghan ministers. Many of the reconstruction projects have fueled waste and corruption. What’s more, the increases in foreign troops didn’t improve security: rather the reverse. Helmand is less safe in 2011 with 32,000 foreign troops in the province than it was in 2005, when there were only 300.
When I walked alone across central Afghanistan in the winter of 2001 and 2002, I found Afghan villagers to be hospitable and generous, but also far more conservative, insular and Islamist than foreigners acknowledged. When I returned to the country in 2006, to establish a nonprofit organization, it was clear that their resistance was inflamed by the increasingly heavy presence of Western troops, which allowed the Taliban to gain support by presenting themselves as fighters for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign occupation.
In June, Obama announced a drawdown of U.S. forces, to be completed in 2014 with the handover of responsibility to Afghan forces. But a political settlement in the next three years is highly improbable because neither the Taliban, nor the Afghan government, nor Afghanistan’s neighbors are showing much commitment to compromise, in part because they still believe they can win.
Many people have pointed out the absurdity of the West’s approach. From 2008 to 2010, I ran the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The center’s research fellows collectively had more than a century of experience on the ground in Afghanistan. Research by fellows such as Andrew Wilder, David Mansfield and Michael Semple proved that our aid projects were increasing instability; that we were undermining any chance of political settlement with the Taliban; and that the Taliban-controlled areas were often more secure than the government areas. Their findings explained why our counterinsurgency strategy was empty and the “surge” was counterproductive, but they were often ignored by the military and political establishment, which has remained defiantly optimistic.
Over the last decade of war, many politicians have trusted charismatic, optimistic generals rather than their own instincts and reason. Concerns about the huge costs of the mission ($120 billion per year for the U.S. alone) and exaggerated fears about what would follow if it failed co-opted almost everyone: Afghan businessmen and foreign contractors, writers and academics. All continued to hope that some magic plan would extract us from humiliation.
At the heart of our irrational persistence are the demons of guilt and fear. Leaders are hypnotized by fears about global security; feel guilty about the loss of lives; ashamed at their inability to honor our promises to Afghans; and terrified of admitting defeat.
Failure in Afghanistan has become “not an option.” This is the fatal legacy of 9/11, because with that slogan, failure has become invisible, inconceivable and inevitable.
(Source: The New York Times, September 9, 2011)
An Infamy in History
“What were you doing on 9/11?” In a few days this question will dominate all conversations, at least in the Western world. The emotional centrality of this tragic day remains undeniable, but what about its strategic centrality?
Is 9/11 an historical turning point, one that ushered us into the 21st century just as the Sarajevo assassination in July 1914 marked our entrance into the 20th?
Contrary to what some analysts said in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, 9/11 did not signify the entrance into a world dominated by the “clash of civilizations” announced in the 1990s by Samuel Huntington.
With the benefit of hindsight, this unique human tragedy — nearly 3,000 people died in the Twin Towers of Manhattan — appears instead as the culminating point and the beginning of decline for Al Qaeda in its sectarian warfare against established Islam, as much as against the West.
Nor did 9/11 usher in, fortunately, a world dominated by “hyper-terrorism.” Terrorists inspired by Al Qaeda have continued to strike from Spain to Britain and from India to Nigeria, just to mention a few of their targets.
But placed on the defensive by the mobilization of the world against them — a collaborative effort that really made the difference — they have never been able to repeat 9/11.
The death of Osama bin Laden in the midst of the Arab Spring — a revolution that began without the knowledge or involvement of fundamentalist Islamists — declared the defeat of the terrorists and the dawn of a post-Islamist world, even if Islamist parties do well in elections in countries like Egypt.
Of course terrorism can never be fully defeated. There will be more terror attacks. Al Qaeda may win a few more battles, but it has lost the war.
If 21st century historians will continue to regard 9/11 as a symbolic date, as a revealing accelerator of history, it will be less for the terror attacks themselves than for the American response.
Historians speak of the “law of unintended consequences.” The encounter between a few thousand confused voters in Florida in the presidential elections in 2000 and a dozen terrorists indoctrinated by a nihilist ideology accelerated and may even have modified the course of history.
The encounter between George W. Bush and 9/11 produced consequences that even the terrorists, in their darkest dreams, could not foresee. It is unlikely that Al Gore as president would have used 9/11 as a pretext to launch the war in Iraq, a war that has resulted in the doubling of the American debt.
It would be highly exaggerated to say that Bin Laden became the equivalent for the United States of what Ronald Reagan was for a declining Soviet empire — the prime mover of a ruinous and ill-considered rush forward (the armaments race for Moscow, and foreign adventures for Washington). And of course America today is not the equivalent of what the Soviet Union was yesterday — America’s internal contradictions have neither the depth nor the gravity of the Soviet Union’s.
Yet it is legitimate to ask whether the first decade of the 21st century has not been a “lost” one for the United States, and whether, in American eyes, the tree of fundamentalist terrorism did not hide the forest of the rise of Asia.
The purported American victory against fundamentalism has been a Pyrrhic one not only because of its financial, moral and diplomatic cost, but in its overreaction, in the waste of energy that could have been used far better in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
America probably underreacted to the terrorist threat before 9/11, and overreacted after the event.
So 9/11 is a historical moment, but not necessarily for the reasons that seemed to prevail at the time. It did not signal the arrival of a new world, but it has accelerated the end of the American Century.
(Source: The New York Times, September 7, 2011)
My daughter turned four that day. She was in my arms as my wife and I ran down Remsen Street to the Brooklyn Promenade. Smoke from the towers was thickening into a churning cloud. Papers from incinerated brokerage houses fluttered across the East River beneath that sky I think of now as 9/11 blue.
Journalists are bound to observe which way people are moving and go in the opposite direction. I boarded the No. 2 train at Clark Street. The woman next to me was fighting back tears. Her brother was in the North Tower, she thought. I tried to console her. The subway, one of the last to run, passed beneath the inferno to Times Square.
It was my first day in a new job as an editor. I’d been at my desk 10 minutes when, at 9:59 a.m., the South Tower came down. Adrenalin kicked in: the alchemy of newspapering. Grief suppressed only became irrepressible a couple of days later. A woman searching for her lost husband had tacked to a wall an ultrasound showing an unborn child who would now grow up fatherless. That did it.
The fires burned, fed by molten steel buried deep. They burned for weeks. Sometimes, in certain winds, the acrid-sweet smell below Canal Street carried into Brooklyn, an emetic reminder of what the fires had consumed.
I remember that. One thing 9/11 teaches, a decade on, is that memory is treacherous. It is ever shifting and unscientific, close to imagination, as distinct from history as emotion from form.
How many times since that day have I listened to people around the world expound on their theory of what really happened, based on what they believe they saw. No conspiracy has proved too outlandish or too foul to entertain. I’ve had to restrain myself.
Tell me your 9/11 and I’ll tell you who you are.
Joseph Brodsky once wrote: “If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy.” That’s not a bad definition of what the best journalism does: restore intimacy. The Portraits of Grief that appeared in The New York Times for months after the attack hit home because they undercut, through the particulars of single lives, Stalin’s formula: Murder en masse and loss becomes a mere statistic.
There followed the nation’s loss — of direction. The early 20th century was a period of giddy American expansion. The early 21st century has been a period of gathering American doubt. The American Century is behind us; this one still seeks its epithet among the emergent powers. What role the attack played in this reshaping of the globe, and what part of it is attributable to the inexorable currents of history, is an open question.
I’d say the power shift was inevitable but accelerated by 9/11 and by chance. Hanging chads contributed. The United States found itself with an accidental president. He took the nation into two wars without preparing the nation for sacrifice. His righteousness brooked no questioning. Irresponsibility was allied to conviction, a heinous marriage. Self-delusion is the mother of perdition. Wars killed. Wall Street made killings. “Whatever” became the watchword of maxed-out Americans; and in time things fell apart.
When they do, extreme ideologies thrive. There must be an enemy within. Scapegoats must be found, compromise crushed. The most devastating effect of 9/11 has been the polarization of America and the incubation of hatred.
The national interest has lost out to settling scores or whipping up bigotry. It is the manipulation of memory — not fit remembrance — that has turned an attack by a band of fanatical Muslims into grounds for the grotesque attempt to ban Shariah law in several U.S. states, and to scurrilous imaginings about President Obama and Islam.
There is a coda to this decade: Hope. Arabs have risen up by the hundreds of millions to claim a dignity and freedom long denied them. The kleptocratic tyrannies they lived under were production lines for the fanaticism behind 9/11; the hypocrisy of Western support for those tyrannies was a great propaganda tool for terrorists. As America has learned of late, change is hard. It will be uneven in the Arab world. But in this transformation a constructive answer to 9/11 is at last being traced.
On one of those scraps of paper that fluttered over the East River I found these words written to my daughter: “I am leaving this world on your birthday. Remember what you see. Write it down. This is what hatred does. Go forth. Embrace love. Seek understanding. Anything can happen. I don’t know if God exists. It might be better for His reputation if He didn’t.”
My little girl is now an adolescent poised on the fulcrum between childhood and womanhood. She used to say her birthday was famous but she’s not. She used to say her birthday is on the day the towers came down. Now she says nothing. That seems wise. There’s enough noise. Silence is remembrance.
I never gave her that note from a departed soul because in fact I imagined it.
(Source: The New York Times, September 8, 2011)
After September 11: What We Still Don’t Know
After September 11, 2001, it is often said, “everything changed.” The shock of that day, on which nearly three thousand civilians were murdered, still reverberates, affecting politics, law, and policy here and abroad. But ten years later, it is worth asking what, precisely, did and did not change, particularly with respect to law, liberty, and security.
One of the most important lessons of the past decade may be that the rule of law, seemingly so vulnerable in the attacks’ aftermath, proved far more resilient than many would have predicted. President George W. Bush’s administration initially rejected the constraints of law as inconvenient obstacles on the path to security. But the administration was eventually forced to adapt its response to legal demands. The American constitutional system ordinarily relies on courts and checks and balances to impose legal restrictions on government officials. But in this period, with one significant exception, restraint of government was brought about neither by judicial enforcement of constitutional law nor by legislative checks on executive power, but by civil society’s demands for adherence to basic principles of human rights. Ten years and one administration later, the threats, both to our security and to our liberty, are far from over. But the experience of the last ten years shows the importance of maintaining public pressure for fidelity to our core principles as we enter the second decade of the “war on terror.”
Much has changed since September 11. The United States launched two wars, one against the country that harbored al-Qaeda, the other against a country that did not. The federal government undertook the largest bureaucratic reorganization since the New Deal, creating the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counterterrorism Center. The FBI shifted its focus from law enforcement to intelligence-gathering and preventing terrorism, aggressively employing informants and provocateurs to “flush out” would-be terrorists before they acted. Congress expanded the government’s authority to gather intelligence on people in the US and to prosecute even speech and association that allegedly gave “material support” to terrorist groups.
How much are we spending on counterterrorism efforts? According to Admiral (Ret.) Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence under both Bush and Obama, the United States today spends about $80 billion a year, not including expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan (which of course dwarf that sum).1 Generous estimates of the strength of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Blair reports, put them at between three thousand and five thousand men. That means we are spending between $16 million and $27 million per year on each potential terrorist. As several administration officials have told me, one consequence is that in government meetings, the people representing security interests vastly outnumber those who might speak for protecting individual liberties. As a result, civil liberties will continue to be at risk for a long time to come.
The most radical responses to September 11 were undertaken unilaterally by the Bush administration in the first couple of years following the attacks. It imprisoned hundreds of people it called “enemy combatants” indefinitely, sought to keep them beyond the reach of courts or the law, and denied them even basic Geneva Convention protections, such as humane treatment—protections the United States had afforded its foes in all previous armed conflicts. It “disappeared” suspects into secret CIA prisons, or “black sites,” holding them incommunicado and refusing to acknowledge even the fact of their detention for years at a time. We still don’t know a good deal about the secret prisons or those who were detained there.
The government held suspects without trial or even hearings, and subjected them to torture and cruelty, including waterboarding, slamming them into walls, and forcing them into painful stress positions for hours at a time. It “rendered” still other suspects to security services in countries, such as Syria, Egypt, and Morocco, that we had long condemned for using torture as a tool of interrogation, so that they could torture them for us.
In addition, the Bush administration unilaterally created “military commissions” to try prisoners. As originally formulated, they would have permitted the execution of defendants on the basis of evidence gained from torture, without any independent judicial review. It authorized the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless wiretapping, including of US citizens, in direct violation of a federal law that made such surveillance a crime. And it subjected more than five thousand Arab and Muslim foreign nationals within the United States to preventive detention—not one of whom stands convicted of a terrorist offense. Its rationale for many of these actions, formulated by a young Justice Department lawyer, now a Berkeley law professor, John Yoo, was that as commander in chief, the president was free to take any action he deemed necessary to “engage the enemy,” even if Congress or international law expressly forbade it. In short, the president was above the law.
Times like these test the limits of the rule of law. The nation wanted security, and an administration none too sensitive to civil liberties in the best of times took that demand as a mandate to thrust legal restrictions aside. And who could stop it? The United States was the most powerful country in the world and, at least militarily, easily outmuscled any other nation. The group that had attacked us in such a brutal and cold-blooded manner had few friends beyond the Taliban. And the American population was unlikely to object to measures that sacrificed the rights of others—Arabs and Muslims, and especially Arab and Muslim foreigners—for American security. Had you asserted, on September 11, 2001, that the United States would not be able to do whatever it wanted in response to the attacks of that day, you would have been met with derision.
Yet the Bush administration was forced to retreat on all of these fronts. When the memorandum authorizing the CIA to use waterboarding and other forms of torture and cruelty was leaked and published by The Washington Post, the administration retracted it. When conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, among others, condemned the military commissions for the absence of judicial review, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote an Op-Ed column claiming that the President never meant to deny judicial review—despite having said exactly that in his original order. And after The New York Times revealed the NSA’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program, the administration was compelled to suspend it.
In a series of extraordinary cases reviewing the administration’s asserted authority to hold “enemy combatants” beyond the reach of the law, the Supreme Court repeatedly rejected the administration’s position that judicial review was unavailable, even after Congress had expressly sought to insulate the detentions from judicial review. The Court overruled the administration’s position that the Geneva Conventions were inapplicable to al-Qaeda detainees, thereby confirming that they had a right to humane treatment. The Court also refuted the administration’s position that it could hold even US citizens as “enemy combatants” without a hearing and an adequate opportunity to defend themselves. And it declared the President’s scheme for military commissions illegal. Despite his contention that the courts had no authority to intrude upon his power as commander in chief, President Bush had to comply.
None of the administration’s retreats was voluntary. In each instance, it acted reluctantly, adhering to legal constraints only because it felt that it had no choice. In some instances, moreover, it sought to give the impression that it was complying with the law, while secretly continuing to act lawlessly. Thus, when the Justice Department retracted its August 1, 2002, “torture memo,” it wrote, in secret, a series of further memos that continued to give the CIA a green light to employ waterboarding and other inhumane and coercive interrogation tactics for six more years.2 And while it transferred detainees out of the CIA’s secret prisons in Romania, Poland, and elsewhere when it became clear that they were protected by the Geneva Conventions, it kept the prisons open for potential future use. Still, by the second term of the Bush administration, US counterterrorism policy had stepped substantially back from its post–September 11 origins.
In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama vigorously attacked the Bush administration’s lawless ways, and promised meaningful reform. Immediately upon taking office, he closed the CIA’s secret prisons, barred the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and vowed to close Guantánamo within a year. He released the previously secret Justice Department memos that had authorized torture and cruel treatment, in the President’s own words, “to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.” In May 2009, he delivered a major speech on the importance of fighting terrorism within the rule of law, insisting that “time and again, our values have been our best national security asset.”
President Obama expressly renounced his predecessor’s theory that the commander in chief had unilateral power to violate the law, and maintained instead that his authority was limited by the scope of Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force, issued shortly after September 11. And when, in 2010, a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the president’s authority to detain was not bound by the laws of war, the Obama administration took the extraordinary step of arguing that the court had granted it too much power. It argued to the full court that the president’s authority is indeed constrained by the laws of war. The appeals court then rejected the panel’s prior reasoning as unnecessary to the result.
These developments suggest three conclusions. First, the values of the rule of law are more tenacious than many cynics and “realists” thought, certainly than many in the Bush administration imagined. The most powerful nation in the world was forced to retreat substantially on each of its lawless ventures.
Second, there is no evidence that the country is less safe now that the lawless measures have been rescinded. Bush administration defenders often assert that its initial responses were driven by necessity, but the fact that we remain reasonably secure under a more law-bounded regime refutes that claim. Indeed, even some of Bush’s own security experts now recognize that our success rests on resisting overreaction. Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center under Presidents Bush and Obama, maintained at the Aspen Security Forum in July that the way to defeat terrorism is “to maintain a cultural resilience,” and that if we do not overreact, “our basic principles that have held our country together…can continue to do so.”
Third, the choice to jettison legal constraints has inflicted long-lasting costs. The principal reason that we have yet to bring any of the September 11 conspirators to justice, ten years after their abominable crimes, is that we chose to “disappear” and torture them, thereby greatly compromising our ability to try them. And the decision to deny those at Guantánamo any of the most basic rights owed enemy detainees turned the prison there into a symbol of injustice and oppression, exactly the propaganda al-Qaeda needed to foster anti-Americanism and inspire new recruits and affiliates.
The Constitution created a divided government to limit overreaching by any one branch, and established judicial review to ensure that we would have a government “of laws, not men,” as Chief Justice John Marshall put it. In ordinary times, that structure functions reasonably well. But in times of crisis, it has proved inadequate. In World War I, Congress made it a crime to speak against the war, the executive prosecuted hundreds for doing so, and the Supreme Court upheld the sentences. In World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration interned more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, and neither Congress nor the Supreme Court tried to stop it. And in the McCarthy era, Congress and the Truman administration imposed guilt by association on Communist “sympathizers,” and the Supreme Court did nothing to restrain them until the Senate had censured McCarthy and he and his allies had lost power and public influence. In each crisis, the political branches were more likely to goad each other on than to impose limits, and the Supreme Court either expressly affirmed what went on or looked the other way.
This time was different. As before, the executive overreacted. As before, Congress imposed no meaningful limits. But this time the Supreme Court, breaking from its past, stood up to the President. It insisted that it was responsible for reviewing detentions during wartime, rejected claims that it must defer to the executive, ruled that military detainees must be accorded Geneva Conventions protections, and, most extraordinarily, kept the courthouse door open for the Guantánamo detainees even after Congress and the President, acting together, had unequivocally sought to close it.
Still, it would be wrong to say that the Supreme Court was the only, or even the principal, checking mechanism. The Court’s decisions were in truth quite limited. Two decisions addressed only whether Guantánamo detainees could be heard in court, but said nothing about the law that would apply once their claims were adjudicated. Since then, many district courts have ruled that Guantánamo detainees should be released for lack of evidence, but those decisions can be appealed. In each case that the Obama administration has appealed, it has won in the D.C. Circuit; the Supreme Court, in turn, has declined to exercise further review. Thus, in nearly ten years, not a single detainee has been released by order of a court. (The administration has forgone appeals in some cases and released the detainees, but given its record in the court of appeals, these releases were a matter of choice, not legally compelled.)
The Supreme Court’s ruling that a US citizen was entitled to due process upon being held as an “enemy combatant” failed to specify the particular procedures due him, and the administration avoided further court review, releasing the detainee on condition that he resettle in Saudi Arabia. And the Court’s decision declaring President Bush’s military commissions illegal rested only on statutory grounds, which Congress promptly overruled.
Beyond these cases, the Court has done nothing to halt the government from overreaching its legitimate constitutional powers. In a case I argued, it ruled that Congress could constitutionally make it a crime to advocate for peace and human rights as a form of “material support” to a disfavored group, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey. It dismissed suits against Attorney General John Ashcroft for mistreatment of September 11 detainees and for abuse of the “material witness” statute to lock up a Muslim man without probable cause. And it has declined to review several cases challenging the executive’s aggressive uses of secrecy, torture, and rendition.
Yet despite the fact that no detainee has been released by court order, more than 600 of the 775 people once held at Guantánamo Bay have been released. Torture and inhumane treatment are no longer official US policy. The NSA spying program now has a statutory footing and is subject to judicial approval and oversight. Widespread preventive detention of Muslim and Arab immigrants in the United States has not been repeated. There have been no reports of rendition to torture in years. And the CIA’s black sites are closed.
If these changes cannot be attributed to judicial enforcement or congressional mandates, what was the moving force? The answer is not to be found in the institutions of government, but in civil society—in the loosely coordinated political actions of concerned individuals and groups, here and abroad. Following September 11, many organizations took up the task of defending liberty—among them the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Most of these groups did not even exist in the McCarthy era, our nation’s last security crisis.
Many individual defenders of liberties also spoke out, including Lord Steyn, a former British Law Lord who labeled Guantánamo a “legal black hole”; 175 members of Parliament who signed an amicus brief on behalf of Guantánamo detainees in the first detainee case to reach the Supreme Court; several retired US generals and admirals who insisted on the importance of adhering to the Geneva Conventions; many members of the press, who not only disclosed some of the worst abuses but published countless editorials on the importance of adhering to constitutional and human rights; and individual members of Congress, especially Senators Pat Leahy, Dick Durbin, and Bernie Sanders, and Representatives John Conyers Jr., Jerrold Nadler, and Keith Ellison. These individuals and organizations issued statements, held hearings, filed lawsuits, wrote reports and articles, and tirelessly insisted that the rule of law should not be abandoned in the pursuit of security.
But of course it’s not only that American civil society mobilized in defense of liberty. Civil society mobilizes around a lot of issues, and as often as not it is unable to make much, if any, headway. That the public criticism of government repression was effective also attests to the residual power of the ideals encompassed in the rule of law—liberty, equality, fair process, and dignity. Those values were strong enough, when pressed by a wide range of voices, to restrain the highest officials of the most powerful country in the world. Margaret Mead famously warned that one should “never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world.” One might add that one should also never underestimate the power of appeals to the rule of law.
Still, President Obama’s administration has fallen short in a number of critical ways. He has continued to rely on broad claims of secrecy, invoking the “state secrets privilege” to block lawsuits seeking redress for victims of torture and extraordinary rendition. He has dramatically expanded a program of targeted killings using unmanned drones, without setting forth the general procedures or criteria he is employing. Killing the enemy during wartime is not illegal, of course, but assassinating people outside of war is. As long as the contours of the targeted killing program remain secret, we cannot know whether it accords with basic principles of constitutional and international law.
Obama has also defended a sweeping interpretation of the laws prohibiting “material support” to designated terrorist groups. His then solicitor general, Elena Kagan, told the Supreme Court in 2010 that the law makes it a crime even to file an amicus brief on a designated group’s behalf. By a divided vote, the Court upheld the statute, but the dissenting justices—Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor—made it clear that a much narrower reading, limited to aid intended to further terrorism, was available had the administration chosen to adopt it.3
Now the administration is defending on appeal a conviction, under the same statute, of members of the board of the Holy Land Foundation, the nation’s largest Muslim charity, who were sentenced to as much as sixty-five years in prison for providing humanitarian aid to hungry and indigent families in the West Bank—even though, according to the government’s own evidence, not a penny went to any group designated as terrorist, and not a penny was used for anything but humanitarian purposes. Lacking such evidence the administration argued that the board members’ provision of aid to small West Bank charities violated the law because they should have known the charities were affiliated with Hamas—even though the government had never before said so.
Obama has also failed to deliver on his promise to close Guantánamo, and backed down on his commitment to try terrorists in civilian court wherever possible. In both instances, he did so because of substantial opposition from members of Congress, many from his own party, so he is not solely or even primarily to blame. But on this subject, as on too many others, he has failed to lead.
But most disturbing, from the standpoint of resurrecting the rule of law, the administration has refused to confront honestly the nation’s past wrongs. As President Obama entered office, he sought to make a clean break with his predecessor. But at the same time, he has insisted that we look forward, not back. His administration has refused to conduct the criminal investigation that the Convention Against Torture requires wherever there are credible allegations that a person within our jurisdiction has committed torture. His Justice Department vetoed the recommendation of its own Office of Professional Responsibility that lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee be referred to their bar associations for disciplinary action in view of their having failed to provide candid legal advice in drafting the “torture memos.” The administration has sought to derail efforts in Spain to investigate US responsibility for torture of Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo. And President Obama continues to oppose even a high-level commission to investigate and report on the nation’s departure from the rule of law and descent into torture, abduction, and disappearances.
Obama appears to believe that such an investigation would be divisive, and might undermine his efforts to portray himself as above partisan wrangling. But division is a fact of life in Washington these days. And being above the fray is not an unmitigated good; some things are worth fighting for. A legal and moral accounting of the wrongs we have done should be high on the list.
Because so much was done under the veil of secrecy, much remains unknown about the extent of the illegality. Mark Danner’s publication in these pages of the Red Cross’s report on the abusive interrogations of “high-value” detainees provides a glimpse at the horrors US agents inflicted. But we do not even know how many people US officials have abducted, rendered, disappeared, tortured, or killed. We do not know the extent of the injuries suffered, and still being suffered, by those we abused. We still know relatively little about the mistreatment of most of the Guantánamo detainees. We have not apologized to even a single victim—not even to those, like Canadian citizen Maher Arar and German citizen Khaled al-Masri, who were targeted for renditions and torture based on misinformation, and have been cleared of any wrongdoing themselves.
Meanwhile, our former president in his memoir has proudly proclaimed that he personally authorized waterboarding—a practice we prosecuted as torture in the past when it was used against our troops. The former vice-president recently replied affirmatively when asked whether waterboarding should “still be a tool” of interrogation. Failing to condemn such blatant wrongdoing in some official way leaves an open wound both for the victims and for the integrity of our system, and implies that the tactics were neither lawless nor immoral. The rule of law may be tenacious when it is supported, but violations of it that go unaccounted corrode its very foundation.
All of which only underscores the continuing need for an engaged civil society committed to the ideals of liberty and law. The past decade suggests that the rule of law may be stronger than cynics thought. It teaches that adherence to values of liberty, equality, and dignity is more likely to further than to obstruct our security interests. But it also illustrates our collective reluctance to confront our past, a reluctance that threatens to erode our most important values. As one of America’s greatest judges, Learned Hand, once cautioned, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”
(Source: New York Review of Books, September 11, 2011)