A reader wrote in response to my criticism of the Bush administration’s various ongoing wars:
I would like to request that you write a column — or perhaps a short series of columns — with the subject being how Bush could (or even should) have appropriately responded to the events of “9-11” and state-sponsored terrorism in the aftermath of those events.
I would like to see the column(s) written from the perspective that you are informing someone (who admits ignorance as to what exactly is wrong with using force to pursue sponsors of terrorism, yet realizes that the situation has indeed been handled so that it is now FUBAR) of the FACTS as to what is wrong, & present a moral argument convincing that person why what was done and/or how it was done was wrong (on any number of levels) without using heated invective — or, perhaps better stated, avoids using the “code words” and “code phrases” of the staunch anti-war position that don’t benefit the cause of convincing someone who is, to a certain degree, an “outsider.”
It’s a good question and I believe he deserves an answer. I hope this fairly lengthy essay is that answer.
The Bush administration made a number of profound mistakes in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon — mistakes that no one in the White House or the Pentagon needed to make. The first of these was to create a single, over-arching "War on Terror" when simply dealing with al-Qaeda’s brand of Revolutionary Islam was going to be difficult enough. The second mistake was to decide that fighting al-Qaeda, a highly decentralized movement that is more an ideology or a brand name than it is an organization in any hierarchical sense, was going to be too difficult, and that the United States needed to pursue a war it could fight — "shock and awe," the moving of large numbers of troops across borders to fight armies and destroy governments. Stuff the US military can do, but stuff that was also completely irrelevant to the struggle against al-Qaeda. That led to two more really rotten ideas: that by toppling a recalcitrant Arab government, the US could demonstrate to Arabs and Muslims that we were not to be messed with, restoring the value of American military might as a deterrent in the "War on Terror." And the hugely unconservative notion that by addressing the "root causes" of bad governance in the Arab (and Islamic) world, by removing tyranny and allowing the (alleged) natural human desire for democracy to spring forth, the great lake of rage and resentment that watered Revolutionary Islam would be dried up and we would more or less live happily ever after. That made Republicans sudden and enthusiastic supporters not of mere Clinton-style nation-building, but of Soviet-style nation and state building.
And it took our eyes off the prize — al-Qaeda, its affiliates, associates and franchisees. Had it been my war, the United States would have remained focused solely, completely and entirely on al-Qaeda.
Sure, the Ba’ath Party government of Iraq had close ties with terrorist groups like Abu Nidal and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There’s never been any doubt about that. But those groups belong to the golden days of the Left-leaning, Marx-inspired, Franz Fanon-touting era of Arab terror, and by the mid-1990s, these organizations were done. They were no longer important. (And Saddam Hussein’s support for Abu Nidal did not stop the Reagan administration from extending agricultural export credits, military intelligence or loans to an Iraqi state in a brutal and bitter war with Iran). To equate them with al-Qaeda, to blur that line by referring to "terror" as Bush constantly does, is foolish: they have different motivations, cite different texts, and want vastly different things. Neither the Iraqi state, nor any other Arab state, supported al-Qaeda as a matter of policy. The declaration of war on terror itself — a technique practiced by many different and disparate groups — was a needless expansion of what would be a difficult enough conflict on its own. Besides, it was Muslim revolutionaries, not Marxist revolutionaries, that blasted a hole in the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, that bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, that blew up the night club in Bali, that attacked the trains in Madrid, and that organized the dreadful attacks of September 11, 2001.
(Yes, conspiracy theorists, Muslims working all by themselves were behind all of those attacks. I have supped with revolutionaries and believe them to be smart enough, motivated enough and clever enough to pull those things off without any help from the CIA or anyone else.)
The war against al-Qaeda was not a conflict that should have employed soldiers or armies. It required ruthlessness, tenacity, and a great deal of determined patience, not the methodical and brutal war we wage best. The men and women who would fight that war — and there only would have been a few thousand at most — would have done so silently. Some would have skulked around the hills and in the shadows of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and wherever else was necessary, carefully and quietly looking for leaders, organizers, runners, anyone involved in al-Qaeda. And capturing them or slitting their throats with big sharp knives. In the event of mistakes, for there would have been mistakes, they would have had large sacks of cash and gold to hand out as hush money. Many of those other "fighters" would have done their jobs from US Treasury Department offices in Washington and New York, going after al-Qaeda’s money and communications networks with a passion and a vengeance, getting inside it, pinging and spoofing those networks (physical and otherwise), stealing its cash, learning how the network functions so as to muck it up and take it down. And learning, always learning, as the complex adaptive network that is al-Qaeda and like-minded folks adapts to us.
That war also required understanding who our allies were. Had it been my war, I would have reached out early to Damascus, Tehran and even Saddam Hussein himself and made deals — help us and we will help you. For Iraq, the incentive to cooperate would have been an immediate end to sanctions, replaced by a fairly loose technology control regime. Damascus was the best natural ally we had in the fight against Revolutionary Islam, and we needlessly alienated the Syrian government to the point where it is now most certainly allowing Iraqi Islamists and foreign Islamists fighting in Iraq to use portions of Syria as a staging and supply base. This is not say that all governments in the region are perfect, nor should we have loved them or defended them unconditionally as allies. Saudi state policy, and the ruling Al Saud family, is vehemently opposed to the revolutionaries, given the first thing most Muslim revolutionaries that I knew wanted to accomplish was to topple the Saudi regime and replace it with a proper Islamic one. Yet, some individuals within the Saudi state, and even the Al Saud family, continue to provide financial support and very likely other kinds of assistance to the revolutionaries. That is a reality we would have to accept and deal with — deal with who we can deal with eyes wide open and no illusions, taking what help we can.
But virtually every Arab Muslim government — Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan — has faced a revolutionary Islamist threat to its legitimacy and its rule and defeated it through force of arms. The honest truth is that Syrian soldiers can do things in Hama (or Jordanian troops can do things in Makka) that American soldiers, as occupiers and ferengi, cannot get away with in Fallujah. Or anywhere else. We were fools when we failed to understand and take advantage of that.
I would have had little or no respect for national sovereignty or international borders. If an al-Qaeda training camp or communications hub sat somewhere, the men in black jammies with very long, sharp knives (or even Army or Marine commandos or paratroops) would pay the place a visit, no matter where it was. As quietly as possibly, especially if the government in question was helpful officially but divided in practice. The conflict would look a lot more like highly militarized police work rather than war. But the goal would not have been to arrest al-Qaeda suspects with an eye to trying them; that’s a waste of time and effort, though I might have kept the idea of a few show trials of major organizers or fighters, in international venues, as part of the process of keeping European allies on board. The goal of the fight is to get inside the organization, to disrupt its operations and planning to the point where anyone who adopts its means and ends has to work too hard to keep a step or two ahead of the United States.
And rather than lecture Europeans on their softness, I would have reminded Americans that European governments are a whole lot more experienced at dealing with non-state terror groups than ours is. During the 1970s and early 1980s, internal terror groups, motivated mostly by Marxism and having ties of convenience to the East Bloc, kidnapped people and blew stuff up with regular and giddy abandon. (Anyone remember Bader Meinhoff? The Red Brigades? The IRA? Even the PLO?) European police and European laws are better placed than ours for such work, and they have skill and experience we don’t have. They are also a lot loss likely to panic over the whole thing — and panic is something American officials seem all too capable of when it comes to terror. So, it was important to make sure and nurture the support and sympathy of European governments that arose in the days following the September 11 attacks.
(If there is anything Bush needs to be faulted for, it is the squandering of all that international sympathy and goodwill.)
Toward that end, one of the first things I would have done following September 11, 2001 (as much as I hate the idea of new international rules) is sat down with major NATO allies as well as the UN and said "we need a fifth Geneva Convention covering non-state combatants, their rights, and our obligations toward them." That would have outlined any rights those suspected of being Muslim revolutionaries, limited the likelihood that anyone would have resorted to torture and mistreatment as official policy, and prevented the establishment of a permanent prison camp in a legal and constitutional black hole like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Frankly, I have few problems with suspected al-Qaeda fighters being physically held in the United States while being held under an entirely different legal code that does not afford them constitutional rights or even proper due process (as long as the death penalty is not involved). So long as mental or physical torture and mistreatment are not involved (bad policy no matter how you consider it), I don’t even (God forgive me) have much problem with permanent legal limbo for such folks.
Finally, I would begin a fairly rapid drawdown of US forces stationed abroad — especially in the Middle East. We are no safer with many hundreds of military bases scattered across the globe, nor are we much safer with large numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines stationed in and around the Arabian Peninsula. It would be necessary for some troops to remain in the region, but I would keep the presence as low-key as possible, and focused on Kuwait and Dubai, places where our presence was not so problematic. I would also re-evaluate ties with Israel, forcefully and firmly tell the Israelis they need to yank out most of the West Bank settlements and cut the Palestinians loose, yesterday if possible.
There are risks with the war I would have waged. The biggest is that al-Qaeda would not have gotten from me what it wanted most — an American army on the ground, invading and occupying an Arab Muslim state — and would have tried harder in their next attack to provoke that response.
What was it al-Qaeda wanted to accomplish with the September 11 attacks? With any of their other attacks? I think the organizers of the attacks believed that by leveraging our stupidity and arrogance against us, they hoped we would invade a Muslim state and occupy it. The hope was, I think, that would give wavering Muslims a cause to rally behind, might even result in the toppling of a government or two, and give the revolutionaries a new cause to organize and fight around.
Let’s take a quick look at the failure of Revolutionary Islam by 2001. In nearly 30 years of fighting governments, the revolutionaries went toe-to-toe with Arab security forces and lost. Even when local politics worked in their favor, such as Algeria or Egypt, brutal and efficient policing on the part of the state combined with the fact that mass violence alienated the revolutionaries from the very people they sought to govern deprived them of any significant popular support. Only when the revolutionaries fought foreign occupiers in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine, has there been both significant popular support and military victory. All the revolutionaries could point to, in 30 years of fighting, was the alleged Islamic state of Sudan (the result of coup d’tat) and the Taliban (and they were only accidental allies; as the Taliban were rising, the revolutionaries distrusted and were hostile to them, accusing them of being a creation of the CIA). Fighting one’s own government was a losing proposition, and they knew it.
However, they had a couple of other examples. The mujahedin beat the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, Hizbullah forced the Israelis to withdraw from Lebanon, and Hamas has returned blow for blow with the Israelis, and can even be said to have forced the Israelis to quit Gaza. Fighting foreign occupiers, if you can swing it, is the way to victory.
So why not get the Americans to do your work for you? Every one of their attacks in the 1990s was designed to provoke us to do exactly what the Bush administration did three years ago — invade an Arab state and topple an Arab government, giving them an easy battlefield they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Like Afghanistan, it would be a training ground, a place to make contacts, and create the links that would serve well in creating terror and mayhem for another 20 years.
I would not have given them that battlefield, believing that one enemy at a time is enough. And al-Qaeda, a self-organizing, self-perpetuating and ideologically motivated network which one identifies with more than "joins," was going to be enough of a struggle for a rigidly hierarchical state to deal with. No one — and I mean no one — needed the costly distraction of fighting insurgencies and nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter how many girls’ school we built or how many elections we sponsored.
Given that, al-Qaeda would likely have begun preparing for the next attack, one likely more devastating than September 11, one they surely would have hoped would give them the war they wanted. That’s why it was so important to commit whole-heartedly to dealing with al-Qaeda, rather than throw up our hands and saying "Waaah! This is too hard! Let’s invade Iraq instead! That’s easier!" Muslim revolutionaries are not impressed or frightened by our strength; they would not have spent the 1990s trying to goad us into war had they been. Any show of strength would have been huge waste of time and effort. The Republican willingness to accept a Likudnik worldview, that the only way to achieve national security is to threaten and beat all potential enemies into submission, is a losing proposition, and it is unfortunate that no one in the United States forcefully articulated an alternative position in the weeks following the attack. That allowed America’s Likudniks, the neoconservatives and the muscular nationalist Republicans — people who fear the world and believe that preventative violence is the only realistic response to possible threats — to dominate the discussion on national security, to say that you either support total war (the Republican version) or you support capitulation and appeasement.
Let’s be clear — there is no way to deter the revolutionaries nor is there any way to awe them into compliance. But that very fact is the problem with the total war outlook of the Likudniks. Overwhelming force will never buy you security. It is important to emphasize over and over again that almost nothing Team Bush has done since September 11, 2001 — and that includes total war against the Muslim world — demonstrates their seriousness in actually fighting and defeating al-Qaeda.
This also explains why there has not been another attack in the United States — al-Qaeda simply doesn’t need it. The revolutionaries have what they want. Oh, from the standpoint of motivating Arab masses to revolt and support their neighborhood Islamists, the invasion of Iraq has been a stunning disaster for the revolutionaries. But it has provided a new training ground, a new place to make friends and connections that will bite us all again over the next two decades. But an unexpected result of the invasion of Iraq, one al-Qaeda did not anticipate but I believe has discerned and hopes to take advantage of, is the fact that it is going so badly for us, that we are a very divided nation over the whole endeavor (that division was guaranteed when Bush and the Republicans made support for their version of the never-ending war a party political program and the international branch office of the Culture War, something I would not have done), and we are slowly bleeding in a very expensive conflict that is proving to the world just how easily American arms can be fought to an effective draw.
Revolutionary Islam may have its roots in religion, but it is above all a political ideology, and it makes promises about a paradise on earth that it cannot and will not be able to deliver. That failure, just like the failure of Marxism, will prove the ideology’s undoing. Only in Palestine do the revolutionaries have any experience governing, and there they govern well simply because there is no other real government — aside from brutal occupation or the venal authority — to speak of. The nation-state at greatest risk for a likely seizure of power by the Islamists is Pakistan, the home of the movement’s chief ideologue, the late Maulana Maududi, and a society saturated with Revolutionary Islam. With our resources stretched thin, our military broken or nearing broken, our finances a disaster, and Republicans unwilling to exert any kind of fiscal discipline or hold the president accountable for mistakes and bad decisions, how any US administration deals with the possibility of Islamist control of Pakistan is beyond me.
So, above all, I would have reminded Americans that while we face a tenacious and dangerous opponent, our enemy is dangerous in large part because their ideology is doomed to failure and ignominy. It has already failed. It is selling goods few in the Muslim world want to buy, has little popular support, and will burn up of its own accord eventually if we are patient, vigilant, cautious, determined, do as little harm as possible and simply let it.
I never believed the war in Iraq was “winnable” in any way you might define victory (save for the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of his government’s army). The only way to have "won" that war would have been to have appointed a Sunni general as the new leader of the place soon after arriving in Baghdad, looking down at our watches, and saying: "Here’s a list of people we want in custody. We want to go home now. Get us those people, and we’re gone." But the nonsense about democratization (and that’s why I take that excuse for the war seriously; had it been a mere resource grab, we’d of done just what I propose) turned the invasion into an occupation, and there was no way to win that.
I had fewer qualms about Afghanistan, and had few problems with the toppling of the Taliban and certainly supported going after al-Qaeda’s operations and personnel there. However, this effort to rebuild Afghanistan in the image of a prosperous, stable Social Democratic nation-state is nonsense and will fail in the end. The Soviet Union spent more than a decade "nation-building" in Afghanistan (including the much-loved elevation and education of women), and it was all for naught when their government collapsed a few years after the Soviet Army left. It’s nice the Taliban don’t run the place, but really, that is a secondary issue compared to dealing with the real bad guys.
But I have now also concluded that the war against al-Qaeda will be lost as well. We are not serious about fighting the revolutionaries, never have been, and even if the next administration decides that invading nation-states is a lousy way to fight a non-state, self-organizing network (and this self-realization is unlikely, given who is running), it will be too late, we will likely have lost too much time and squandered too many resources. Because of Iraq, we face the potential of 20—30 more years of well-trained and reasonably fearless terrorists. The attempt to leverage the war for political ends as part of the American Kulturekampf has needlessly and pointlessly divided us. (I do not apologize for my part in that division — I was as willing as most anyone else to support the Bush administration in the outset, and did so until it became clear they didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t want to.) That doesn’t mean the revolutionaries will win either — they won’t march up Constitution Ave. and hoist a green flag over the US Capitol. Aside from some of their more fantastic pronouncements, conquering and converting the ferengi has never been a serious goal of Revolutionary Islam. Outside eternally besieged Palestine and wobbly and perpetually ungovernable Pakistan, the revolutionaries will probably not gain control of any nation states. Most of their goals will go unwon. So it will be a wash, though as a long-time wargamer, I would suggest that al-Qaeda will win a "marginal victory" on points alone.
I also suspect that future historians will someday marvel at all the damage and catastrophic change 19 men with box cutters were able to wreck upon the world, and how easily they were able to twist in knots the globe’s wealthiest and most-powerful nation-state and set it at war with the world and with itself.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.