A fiery blasts rocks the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Fifteen years after the carnage of 9/11, American foreign policy is still mired in its fossilized dogmas and dangerous delusions. The consequences are obvious. Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and long an avowed enemy of the United States, has filled the vacuum of our ignominious retreat from the Middle East, even as the mullahs move ever closer to possessing nuclear weapons. Russia, Iran’s improbable ally, bombs civilians in Syria, kills the Syrian fighters we have trained, bullies its neighbor Ukraine, consolidates its take-over of the Crimea, and relentlessly pursues its interests with disregard for international law and contempt for our feeble protests. Iraq, for which thousands of Americans bled and died, is now a puppet state of Iran. Afghanistan is poised to be overrun by the Taliban in a few years, and ISIS, al Qaeda 2.0, continues to inspire franchises throughout the world and to murder European and American citizens.
So much for the belief, frequently heard in the months after the attacks of 9/11, that “this changes everything.” The smoking ruins and 3000 dead surely had awoken us from our delusions that the “end of history” and a “new world order” had followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, “a world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak,” as George H.W. Bush said in 1990. The following decade seemed to confirm this optimism. Didn’t we quickly slap down the brutal Saddam Hussein and stop his aggression against his neighbors? Didn’t we punish the Serbs for their revanchist depredations in the Balkans? With American military power providing the muscle, the institutions of international cooperation like NATO, the International Court of Justice, and the U.N. Security Council would patrol and protect the network of new democracies that were set to evolve into versions of Western nations and enjoy such boons as individual rights, political freedom, leisure and prosperity, tolerance for minorities, equality for women, and a benign secularism.
The gruesome mayhem of 9/11 should have alerted us to the fact many Muslims didn’t get the memo about history’s demise. Indeed, long before that tragic day in September, we had been serially warned that history still had some unpleasant surprises. Theorists of neo-jihadism like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb for decades had laid out the case for war against the infidel West and its aggression against Islam. “It is the nature of Islam,” al-Banna wrote, “to dominate not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations and extend its power to the entire planet.” So too the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini: “Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world,” which is why “Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers.” The kidnapping of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Tehran by a group called “Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam [Khomeini]” sent us a message that we were engaged in the religious war the jihadists warned would come. But few of those responsible for our security and interests had ears to hear or eyes to see.
Not even when the words became bloody deeds did we listen. The bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983, which killed 241 servicemen, was supported by Iran and executed by its proxy terrorist group Hezbollah. Our refusal to respond reflected our failure to take seriously Khomeini’s vow to spread his revolution to the whole world. The humiliating televised abuse of our dead soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993, followed by our withdrawal, was exploited by Osama bin Laden in his sermons as signs that America had “foundations of straw.” That same year came the first World Trade Center attack, which killed six and wounded 1,042, an operation inspired by al Qaeda and traditional jihadist doctrine. In 1995 five Americans were killed by al Qaeda operatives at a training facility in Riyadh. In 1996 a truck bomb exploded in front of a residential complex housing Air Force personnel near Dhahran, killing 19 Americans. In 1998 al Qaeda bombed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Twelve Americans died in Nairobi. And the last warning came in October of 2000, when the destroyer Cole was attacked by a fishing boat loaded with explosive. Seventeen sailors died and 39 were wounded.
Yet during these two decades of attacks that proved the jihadists’ words were not just bluster, we did little in response. We interpreted the attacks as crimes, not battles in a war, and reflections of poverty, autocracy, or vague “evil,” rather than as the fulfillment of Allah’s divine commands. Instead, Clinton launched cruise missiles that made a lot of noise but accomplished nothing, limited as those attacks were by timid rules of engagement. His foreign policy was internationalist and idealist, seeing the spread of democracy and the promotion of human rights as paramount in foreign affairs. America’s presence needed to be reduced in the world, and the use of force should be a last resort, and even then carefully calibrated to avoid international condemnation and American casualties. “Dialogue” and “outreach” were preferable, for the jihadists were just defending “traditional values,” as one State Department official said. The wages of that delusion were the burned and dismembered bodies in Manhattan, the Pentagon, and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
This history is worth reviewing, for all these mistakes, these failures of imagination, these indulgences of naïve idealism, these sacrifices of our security and interests to political advantage, all comprise the “everything” that 9/11 was supposed to “change.” But here we are, fifteen years later, with a similar history of folly. George W. Bush pursued a delusional program of democracy promotion in Iraq and Afghanistan, with scant appreciation for the profound cultural differences between Islam and the West. But he at least left his successor a stabilized Iraq, which Obama quickly abandoned just to fulfill a campaign promise and assert his progressive bona fides. Then Obama blustered that Syria’s “Assad has to go” and laid down “red lines” that were not to be crossed, only to do nothing when they were serially crossed, and to sacrifice this country’s credibility in his pursuit of the disastrous deal with Iran, our inveterate enemy stained with four decades’ worth of American blood. ISIS was allowed to flourish in the vacuum created by our withdrawal, creating a Hobbesian war of all against all, whose beneficiaries so far have been our rival Russia and our sworn enemy Iran.
Perhaps worst of all, Obama has turned jihad denial into a fatal disease. He is not alone in this delusion, for “religion of peace” and “nothing to do with Islam” have been mantras chanted by our foreign policy savants going back to the Iranian Revolution. No matter that al-Banna, Qutb, Khomeini, bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the mullahs in Iran all have grounded their violence and aggression in Islamic scripture and tradition. Our smug Western analysts and apologists dismiss the jihadists’ exegesis as a “hijacking” or “distortion” of the “true” Islam, presuming to understand the Islamic faith better than pious Muslims do. So we half-heartedly fight an enemy whose name we cannot even say, and whose religion of violence we desperately distort into a religion of peace and tolerance. Meanwhile, like Bill Clinton and now Obama, we use bombs and drones as telegenic marketing tools to hide our failure of nerve and short-sighted political calculations.
So fifteen years later, we still sleep. And don’t expect things to change after November. Neither candidate has shown any indication he or she is willing to make the hard decisions required to destroy ISIS and reaffirm American prestige. Trump issues vague threats about “bombing the shit” out of ISIS, while Hillary chatters about “smart power” and “coalitions,” doubling down on Obama’s failing policy. But no one proposes using the mind-concentrating levels of force, including troops as well as bombs, necessary to repair our broken foreign policy in the Middle East. Too many voters are in an isolationist mood, sick of wars and casualties, and concerned more about jobs and the economy.
The attacks on 9/11 supposedly “changed everything.” When it comes to foreign policy, they didn’t. One shudders to think how much worse the destruction and death will have to be to wake us up.