How We Lost The War On Terror

I know this seems callous, but I don’t care much about September 11th. It was terrible, yes, but nothing about that day changed or defined this country.

If you want to commemorate a turning point in our recent history, try September 20th: the day President Bush declared to Congress that the attacks were acts of war. In hindsight, his speech is bursting with irony and/or despair, not the least of which is that only Congress has the power to declare war. But check out this gem:

Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.

Cue sad trombone music. We are demonstrably less free, demonstrably more afraid. The world under our leadership is less free and more afraid. Our democratic institutions are weathering their most severe storm in 150 years. And we didn’t even wipe out terrorism — not even close.

During the Obama administration, one could at least argue we had fought terrorism to a stalemate: if we hadn’t won, at least we hadn’t lost outright. But given at our current circumstances, stalemate is too ambitious a descriptor.

We lost the war on terror – bigly.

The thing is, this failure was almost entirely due to own goals. We did some things right — give me a few minutes and I could name maybe two — but we did so many things insistently wrong that Al Qaeda barely had to take the field to win.

The crux of our failure is that we did not understand the rules of the game. To be more concrete, we let Bin Laden and Al Qaeda dictate those rules to us — we played exactly as they wanted us to. And by accepting their rules, we made sure we couldn’t win.

To understand those rules, it helps to understand what bin Laden wanted from September 11th. For him, the War on Terror (= War on America) began in 1996, with his “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites“, in which he announced, “Today your brothers and sons from the two holiest sites started the jihad for the sake of God to expel the occupying enemy from the land of the two holiest sites.” By which he meant Saudi Arabia, and this was apparently an attempt to piggyback on Hezbollah’s attack against the Khobar Towers, which killed several American servicemen.

That statement wasn’t enough, so in 1998 Bin Laden and company issued the “World Islamic Front’s Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders“: “[…]we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it […]

That fatwa was issued in February. In August, Al Qaeda detonated bombs at two American embassies, in Kenya and Tanzania.

There are three key points to take from these statements, as well as the many speeches and videos bin Laden produced. First, bin Laden wanted war with the United States: his goal was to provoke a war between Islam and America. Second, he almost exclusively addressed fellow Muslims, with only the occasional aside to Americans. Third, he rarely differentiated between the American people and the U.S. government.

With respect to the first, Bush’s response to September 11th gave bin Laden exactly the validation he was looking for. After five years trying, bin Laden finally provoked the Americans to go to war. If Afghanistan wasn’t enough, he certainly had his war with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. By 2004, bin Laden was crowing about September 11th: “As for its results, they have been, by the grace of Allah, positive and enormous, and have, by all standards, exceeded all expectations.” Granted that even while the War on Terror was in pragmatic terms a concession by the U.S. to bin Laden, in theory we could have given him his war and then won that war. But we didn’t.

A big part of the reason we did not win, and also why we did so much damage to ourselves, was our failure to recognize the second and third points — that bin Laden was talking to Muslims, and didn’t see any distinction between Americans and our government. This is important because an effective response to terrorism requires a proper understanding of the actors and dynamics involved.

Terrorism is a form of communication, a form of threat-in-practice. In almost all cases, there are three parties: the terrorist, the target, and the audience. The terrorist attacks the target to compel the audience to respond, although sometimes the audience and the target are the same.

So, for example, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murragh Building in OKC, his target was Federal civilian employees, but his audience was fellow ‘patriots’, whom he hoped to spur into an insurrection against the Federal government. That did not happen, and nor did the Federal government give McVeigh his war.

In bin Laden’s view of September 11th, the target was America and the audience was all Muslim people. He almost always addressed his speeches and statements to the Muslim people.

But in Bush’s view, the target was the American government and the audience was the American people, or maybe vice versa. Instead of formulating a response aimed at Muslims, Bush formulated a response directed at the American people. But, again, bin Laden rarely addressed his remarks to Americans directly, and rarely distinguished between the American people and government.

The result of Bush’s indifference to bin Laden’s audience was chaos in the Muslim world — two American-led wars, the Arab Spring, the clusterfudge¬† in Libya, a military dictatorship in Egypt, a proxy war in Yemen, violent repression in Bahrain, the civil war in Syria, etc. We killed bin Laden, but he died knowing he had more or less accomplished his goal.

Parallel to that was the incredible pressure brought to bear on the American people to support the Bush administration’s military agenda. Instead of responding to the attacks in a way that denied bin Laden his goals, Bush used the attacks to achieve his own goals. Let that idea settle in for a minute.

Rather than working to strengthen and preserve our freedoms, the Bush administration played to and played up our fears, to ensure our continued support for his agenda. This was not only a perversion of the oath of office, but also had the consequence of validating and rewarding bin Laden’s agenda. Not that Bush wanted the terrorists to win; rather, he simply ignored their agenda in favor of his own.

In his 2004 speech — which basically asked for America’s surrender — bin Laden argued that the Bush administration was indistinguishable from a military dictatorship: “in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents.” He described these governments as “replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth.”

He further argued that the Bush administration deliberately copied those repressive tactics: “and they named it the Patriot Act, under the pretense of fighting terrorism.” Compare his critique of the United States to the worldview of Steve Bannon or Alex Jones or even President Trump. Whose is more realistic?

In 2001 I would have argued against nearly every point bin Laden used to justify his war against America: our hypocrisy on human rights, our indifference to Muslim suffering and death, our support for oppressive regimes, our antipathy to Islam, our overwhelming militarism, our imperialism, our pride, arrogance, and greed. The hardest part of the War on Terror for me has been accepting that bin Laden’s view of America was more accurate than my own. Not that he was right, but he saw us more clearly than I did.

And the fear the Bush administration spread over this country continues to corrode our democracy. It’s a pretty obvious line from Bush’s speech on September 20th, through to our present troubles. For all his talk of freedom, Bush’s response validated the use of fear as political capital and governing strategy, to the point that pretty much every freedom named in the Bill of Rights was violated on the pretext of fighting terrorism. And though Obama rolled back some of the worst excesses, that administration did not change direction.

Which brings us to the current government: can we now say with sincerity that we are a democracy of free people, rather than an empire of fear? And to which pole are are we closer? We lost the War on Terror, and the penalty is that we are more or less the people Osama bin Laden said we always were. Whom does “pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth” describe better than our President?

If it seems too easy to quarterback sixteen years after the fact, let me point out that much of this argument is borrowed from my master’s thesis, written in 2004, in which I argued that the Bush administration’s policy was deeply problematic in terms of appropriateness and efficacy. I would change barely a word of it today, but I would add a hell of a lot more.

If anything, it was easier in 2004 to imagine a response to September 11th that 1) denied bin Laden his war, 2) strengthened America’s relationship to the Muslim world, and 3) did not pit the U.S. government against the American people. Thinking about that possibility, and what the world would look like now, is so painful I can hardly stand it.

So we have come to a point where we ought to admit that we lost the War on Terror. Based on bin Laden’s stated aims, he won. Based on Bush’s stated aims on September 20th, we lost. There’s no feasible read of either man’s statements that suggests otherwise.

As painful as it is to revisit this history, I bring this up because it will happen again. We will face another serious terrorist attack, and it’s important to understand why we lost the War on Terror so that we do not again make the same pointless, easily avoidable mistakes.

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