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What If America Hadn’t Done the Dumbest Things Imaginable After 9/11?

Photo Credit: BPTU / Shutterstock.com

“Of all manifestations of power, patience impresses men most.”

– Thucydides

You’ve listened the hackneyed that hindsight is 20/20. It’s loyal adequate and, nonetheless I’ve been a regular skeptic about what policymakers used to call the Global War on Terror, it’s always easier to poke holes in the past than to contend what you would have done. My regressive father was the first to ask me what accurately we would have suggested on Sep 12, 2001, and he’s pulpy me to write this essay for years. The ostensible massage is this: under the vigour of that attack and the weight of presidential responsibility, even “liberals” — like me, we theory — would have finished much the same decisions as George W. Bush and company.


Many readers may tremble at the thought, but former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has to be taken seriously when she suggests that anyone in the White House on 9/11 would fundamentally have seen the universe by the lens of the Bush administration.  I’ve long argued that just about every Bush-era policy that followed 9/11 was an utter disaster.  Nevertheless, it stays vicious to contemplate the weight piled on a boss in the arise of unaccompanied terror attacks.  What would you have done?  What follows is my best impulse at that troublesome question, 16 years after the fact, and with the amassed practice of fight tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taking It Personally

9/11 was an insinuate aspersion to me.  It hit home hard.  we watched those towers in my hometown bake on televisions we could glimpse from my plebe (freshman) fighting category at West Point.  My father worked opposite Church Street from Manhattan’s World Trade Center.  Only hours after did we learn that he’d safely transient on the last ferryboat to Staten Island.  Two uncles — both New York City firemen — hopelessly dug for comrades in the rubble for weeks.  Stephen, the elder of the two, identified the physique of his best friend, Captain Marty Egan, just days after the attacks. 

In blue-collar Staten Island neighborhoods like mine, everybody seemed to work for the city: cops, firemen, corrections officers, rubbish men, movement workers.  I knew several of each.  My mom spent months attending wakes and funerals.  Suddenly, tons of streets on the Island were being renamed for upheld police and firefighters, some of whom we knew personally.  Me, we continued to slave along by the typically trying life of a new cadet at West Point.

It’s annoying now to demeanour back at my own immaturity.  we listened in as comparison cadets pennyless the news of fight to girlfriends and fiancées, enviously unresolved on every word.  If only I, too, could live out the fight play I’d always longed for.  Less than two years later, we found myself dipsomaniac with another uncle — and firefighter — in a New York pub on St. Patrick’s Day.  This was back when an Army T-shirt or a fireman’s uniform meant a night of free drinks in that post-9/11 city.  we watched the radio screen covetously as President Bush delivered a final, 48-hour final to Iraqi personality Saddam Hussein.  we inhaled, wished for a prolonged war, and gazed at the young, appealing lead thespian of the rope behaving in that pub.  She was wearing a patron’s tied-up New York Fire Department uniform blouse with a relating tip standing to the side.  It was meant to be voluptuous and oh-so-paramilitary.  It competence seem unimaginable now, but that was still my — and mostly the — universe on Mar 17, 2003.

By the time we got my “chance” to join America’s fight on terror, in Oct 2006, Baghdad was collapsing into chaos as polite fight raged and U.S. deaths were commanding 100 per month.  This second major still hoped for glory, even as the war’s purpose was already slipping ever serve away.  we never found it (glory, that is).  Not in Iraq or, years later, in Afghanistan.  Sixteen years and two months on from 9/11, I’m a changed man, inhabiting a perpetually altered reality.  Two wars, two marriages, and so many practice later, the tragedy and the mistakes seem so obvious.  Perhaps we should have famous all along.  But most didn’t.

How to Lose A War (Hint: Fight It!)

From the beginning, the rhetoric, at least, was over the top.  Three days after those towers tumbled, President George W. Bush framed the implausible range of what he’d instantly taken to job a “war.”  As he told the throng at a Washington inhabitant request service, “Our shortcoming to story is already clear: to answer these attacks and absolved the universe of evil.”  From the first, it seemed clear to the president: America’s aim wasn’t anything as medium as the al-Qaeda belligerent network, but rather immorality itself.  Looking back, this was positively the strange sin.  Call something — in this case, the response to the acts of a tiny jihadist organisation — a “war” and progressing or after everybody starts behaving like warriors. 

Within 24 hours of the attacks, the intensity aim list was already expanding over Osama bin Laden and his medium set of followers.  On Sep 12th, President Bush commanded his inhabitant counterterror coordinator, Richard Clarke, to “see if Saddam did this… demeanour into Iraq, Saddam.”  That night, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the boss and the whole cabinet, “You know, we’ve got to do Iraq… There just aren’t adequate targets in Afghanistan… We need to explosve something else to infer that we’re, you know, big and strong…” 

Nonetheless, Afghanistan — and its Taliban rulers — became the first military target.  Bombs were forsaken and commandos infiltrated. CIA spooks distributed briefcases of cash to associated warlords and eventually city after city fell.  Sure, Osama bin Laden transient and many of the Taliban’s foot soldiers simply faded away, but it was still one ruin of a lightning campaign.  Expected to be brief, it was given the confidant name Operation Enduring Freedom and, to listen to the tongue of the day, it revolutionized warfare.  Only it didn’t, of course.  Instead, the concentration was shortly lost, other priorities (Iraq!) sucked the resources away, dishonest warlords reigned, an rebellion developed, and… and 16 years later, American couple levels are once again increasing there.

Over the days, the months, and then the years that followed, the bounds of the Global War on Terror both hardened and expanded.  In his Jan 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush ominously enclosed Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea (though he left out “liberated” Afghanistan), in what he called “an pivot of evil.”  Who cared, by then, that nothing of those countries had had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks?  In a peep the boss conflated all 3 in the open mind, eventually constructing a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Saddam would be defeated and Iraq assigned 15 months after and, had it not been for the indirect chaos, Iran and North Korea competence have been next.  Unsurprisingly, both countries strong their bellicosity and grew all the some-more meddlesome in nuclear weapons programs.

So much followed the 9/11 attacks that it’s no tiny thing to sum up: the Patriot Act, warrantless domestic wiretapping, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, a Taliban resurgence, an Iraqi polite war, drones as global assassins, the Arab Spring, the overpower of Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi and the fall of his country, the Syrian bloodbath, the worst refugee predicament given World War II, and that’s just to start a list. 

In short, U.S. policies have left the Middle East in chaos: maybe a milliondead, Iran empowered, and radical Islamists resurgent.  Meanwhile, this country has turn a castle state, perpetually at war, its military budget doubled, its proletariat clearly indifferent, and its soldier caste shattered – physically and mentally.  Sixteen years have upheld and Washington is no closer to its idea (whatever that was).  Retired ubiquitous David Petraeus, the nation’s prodigal “hero,” has now ominously labeled the Afghan War (and by import the rest of the fight on terror) a “generational struggle.”   

Few, to be honest, even remember the purpose of it all.  Keep in mind that Army recruits currently were maybe two years old on 9/11.  And so it goes.

Lost Opportunities

It didn’t have to be this way.  Nothing about it was predetermined.  Much of the compulsory information — positively the warning signs of what was going to occur that Sep 11th — were already there.  If, that is, one cared to look.  History is contingent, human beings have agency, and events outcome from countless particular decisions.  The CIA, the FBI, and even the Bush administration knew (or should have known, anyway) that an attack of some arrange was coming. 

As the 9/11 commission report painfully detailed, nothing of those agencies collaborated in a suggestive way when it came to preventing that day’s attacks.  Still, there were warnings abandoned and voices in the dark.  When Richard Clarke, counterterror potentate and a Clinton administration holdover, requested through central channels to broach an emergency lecture for Bush’s pivotal unfamiliar policy officials, it took 4 months just to arrange an assembly with their deputies.  Four some-more months elapsed before President Bush perceived a lecture titled, “Bin Laden dynamic to strike the U.S.”  Unimpressed, Bush quickly responded to the briefer: “All right… you’ve covered your donkey now.”

Barely some-more than a month later, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were burning.

Whatever else it did, 9/11 presented the United States with an opportunity, a Robert Frost-like flare in a anomalous path.  And we Americans soon took the road most traveled: militarism, war, reprisal — the easy wrong path.  A extended war, waged against a noun, “terror,” a “global” dispute that, from its first moments, looked suspiciously binary: Western contra Islamic (despite Bush’s pleas to the contrary).  In the process, al-Qaeda’s (and then ISIS’s) narratives were bolstered. 

There was — there always is — another path. Imagine if President Bush and his unfamiliar policy organisation had paused, taken a breath, and demonstrated some piety and patience before plunging the country into what would indeed turn a fight or set of wars.  There were positively questions vagrant to be asked and answered that never perceived a correct hearing.  Why did al-Qaeda attack us? Was there any consequence in their grievances?  How did bin Laden wish us to respond and how could we have avoided just such a path?  Finally, which were the best collection and strategy to respond with?  Let’s consider these questions and suppose an choice response.

Why They (Really) Hated Us

Americans and their supervision were prone to accept the many uncomplicated reason for the terror attacks of 9/11.  As George W. Bush would assure us all, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda just “hate us for the freedoms.”  The end. 

Something about the guilelessness of that explanation, which was the hackneyed one of that moment, never definitely seemed right.  Human motivations and actions are almost always some-more complex, some-more multifaceted, reduction simpleminded than that.  While Bush boiled it all down to “Islamic” fundamentalism, even a cursory demeanour at bin Laden’s written declaration of “war” — or as he called it, jihad – demonstrates that his tangible concentration was apart some-more physical and reduction categorically eremite than was suggested at the time.  Couched between Koranic verses, bin Laden listed 3 all-too-worldly grievances with America:

* The U.S. military had assigned bases in the closeness of Saudi Arabia’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina.  (Well… that had indeed been the case, at least since 1990, if not earlier.)

* U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq had caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.  (This was, in fact, a reality that even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright awkwardly acknowledged.)

* America’s leaders had prolonged adored Israeli interests to the wreckage of Palestinian wellbeing or inhabitant aspirations.  (A bit simplistic, but loyal enough.  One could, in fact, stock several bookshelves with reputable works substantiating bin Laden’s explain on this point.)

To state the obvious, nothing of this faintly fit the mass murder of civilians in New York and Washington.  Nonetheless, at that moment, an honest research of an adversary’s motives would have been prudent.  It competence have warned us of the domestic landscape that bin Laden was beckoning us — in his own bloody, baleful conform — to enter.  In addition, as publisher Stephen Glain astutely observed, “By obscuring the genuine motives behind the attacks, Bush relieved the U.S. supervision of any shortcoming for them.”  This was a deadly error.  While the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims worldwide did not approve of bin Laden’s methods or his theology, much of his critique of Washington’s Middle Eastern policies was widely shared in the region.

Avoiding the Al-Qaeda Script

Al-Qaeda’s care knew this ideally good and they dangled it (and their suicidal acts) as a kind of bait, romantic for the arrange of compulsory U.S. military response that they knew would serve irritate the Greater Middle East.  Even in 1996, when publisher Abdul Bari Atwan interviewed bin Laden, the Saudi belligerent had expressed the enterprise to “bring the Americans into a fight on Muslim soil.”  Only then, bin Laden surmised, could al-Qaeda strut its argument, win translates from the boring Muslim masses, and — hopefully – bankrupt the United States in the bargain.

Suppose, for a moment, that President Bush had taken the high road, a trail of patience focused on twin tracks.  First, he competence have addressed broadly-shared Arab grievances, pledging a some-more offset proceed to the doubt of Israel and Palestine in his still-fresh administration, tailoring Iraq’s sanctions to aim Saddam and his cronies rather than trusting citizens, and vowing to examination the prerequisite of military bases so close to Mecca and Medina (or even the prerequisite of so many of the American bases that dirty the region).  He could have followed that with lethal, precise, targeted movement by America’s intelligence, law enforcement, and Special Operations forces to hunt down and kill or capture the men actually obliged for 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leadership.

This manhunt indispensable to be inhuman nonetheless totalled in sequence to equivocate the very quagmires that, 16 years later, we all know so well.  Allies and adversaries would have had to be consulted and cautioned.  Remember that, nonetheless al-Qaeda was trained and effective, on Sep 12, 2001, it remained petite in distance and definitely extrinsic in its informal support.  Dismantling its networks and bringing the loyal criminals of that day to probity never compulsory remaking apart societies or occupying frail nation-states with compulsory military forces. 

And keep in mind that such meditative about the conditions isn’t quite retrospective.  Take the Nation magazine’s Jonathan Schell.  That October, after the advance of Afghanistan had begun, appearing on the Charlie Roseshow he called for “police work” and “commando raids,” but not war.  He then prophetically observed:

“I consider the doubt doesn’t revolve so much around the justification for fight but about its wisdom, and we know that’s the doubt for me.  we know that, from my indicate of view, terrorism is customarily a domestic issue and secondarily a police issue and then, only in a very teenager way, can it be addressed by military means and we consider that, on the contrary, the fight we’re fighting now will tend to wear the problems.  The doubt we ask myself is, at the finish of the day, do you have some-more terrorists or do you have fewer and we think… today, right now, it looks like there are going to be more.” 

Of course, at the time, just about no one in this country was listening to such voices.

A advantageous boss competence also have schooled from his father.  Just as George H.W. Bush had meticulously constructed a extended general coalition, including all-important Arab states, to chase Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, George W. Bush could have harnessed widespread international sympathy after the 9/11 attacks to fire a prudent path.  A new, broad, U.N.-backed coalition, which ought to have enclosed several Muslim-majority nations, could have shared intelligence, secure out jihadis (who represented a vicious hazard to many physical Arab regimes), and eventually discredited al-Qaeda, dismantling its networks and bringing bin Laden himself to justice.

The Right Tools

Global magnetism — Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first universe personality to call George Bush after the attacks — is as unaccompanied as it is fleeting.  So that moment represented a unaccompanied and singularly consumed opportunity.  The United States could have led a large general effort, emphasizing law enforcement, not warfare, and including increasing charitable aid, U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping operations, and a joining to live America’s supposed values by conscientiously avoiding crimes like torture and civilian casualties.  Of course, it wouldn’t have been ideal — formidable operations occasionally are — but solemn strategy demanded a severe effort.

One some-more needed for the new campaign against al-Qaeda would have been garnering extended support and a authorised permit from Congress and the American people.  Two weeks after 9/11, President Bush vapidly suggestedinstead that this country’s adults should respond by getting in airplanes again and “enjoy[ing] America’s good finish spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.”  Instead, he competence have steeled the race for a tough fight and desirous a new epoch of open service.  Think: John F. Kennedy.  Think: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Bush competence have requested from Congress a narrow, targeted authorisation for the use of military force rather than the rushed, expansive, open-ended permit he actually demanded and perceived and that is still being used two administrations after to clear any acts against any organisation or country opposite the Greater Middle East and Africa. 

He could have followed this with the display of a new National Service Act, rallying the immature and incentivizing military or Peace Corps enlistment, infrastructure improvement, inner-city teaching, and several other kinds of open service. Imagine a new “Greatest Generation,” pulling together in a time of crisis.  This, in retrospect, was a genuine opportunity.  What a empathize that it never came to pass.

It’s tough to know, of course, how such an swap trail competence have played out, but overtly it would have been formidable to do worse.  The U.S. stays stuck, spinning its wheels in informal conflicts and feeling no safer.  The series of worldwide belligerent incidents has exploded since 2001.  New Islamist groups were shaped in response to U.S. actions and counteractions and they continue to widespread but an finish in sight.

I don’t know if there will be a next time, a possibility to do it right.  But should new threats emerge, some-more harmful attacks be endured, there simply has to be a better way, nonetheless the contingency that President Donald Trump and his generals will find it are, honestly, next to nil. 

Complex ideological threats infrequently direct counterintuitive responses.  In such moments, tough as it may be to imagine, receptive calculations should arise above the kneejerk romantic responses.  True leaders step up and weather critique in times of crisis. So next time, Americans would do good to set aside comforting illusions and take the universe as it is, not as we suppose or wish it to be.  The future may count on it.

That future may good embody new “terror” attacks on (or at slightest in) America’s cities.  Expect this boss to use those unavoidable tragedies to suppress domestic dissent, expand the ongoing wars, and — just maybe — fan the abandon of nativism and white nationalism for sparse domestic gain.  The doubt is which institutions, which groups, will be prepared to fight back? we fear there’ll be few left peaceful to challenge the tide of war.  A era innate after 9/11 will opinion in the next presidential election.  They’ve never famous peace.  Will they even worry to direct it?

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former story instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnoitering units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has created a discourse and vicious research of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and 4 sons in Lawrence, Kansas.  Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet


Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as good as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World

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