On the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the question asked within and outside of the United States is whether America is winning the global war on terrorism (GWOT). As far as President George W. Bush is concerned, the answer is “yes.” But about 85 percent of the counterterrorism experts recently polled by Foreign Policy magazine disagreed with that assessment. Anniversaries are times when a strategic assessment of the problem at hand is made. That should also be done on the anniversary of 9/11. What went right and what went wrong since that dark day when American territory came under terrorist attacks?
The decision of the Bush administration to declare a global war on terrorism was a quintessentially American reaction. When faced with a problem of immense magnitude, the first thing a sitting president does is coin a compelling and, indeed, transfixing phrase. For instance, no one has forgotten President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “war on poverty,” to underscore his earnestness about creating an egalitarian society. Faced with the severe energy shortages of the early 1970s, President Richard M. Nixon appointed an “energy czar” in order to dramatize his administration’s resolve to deal with the grim challenges stemming from the Arab oil embargo of 1973. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter still faced energy shortages and was obliged to indulge in hyperbolic rhetoric of his own, when he called the continuing saga the “moral equivalent of a war.” (Interestingly enough, America’s energy profligacy has emerged again as a major problem.)
When terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush was only issuing an archetypal response in the tradition of his predecessors by declaring a global war on terrorism. The problem with such a highfalutin phrase is that the coining administration comes under strong, ceaseless scrutiny from the media as to whether its actions match its rhetoric. This time, however, the U.S. media was either swept away by a strong feeling of patriotism that kept it from steadfastly scrutinizing the Bush officials, or it was intimidated into not challenging a popular president who had declared, “in this global war, either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” In an intensely emotional environment of “us against the terrorists,” the media could not be too harsh about “us” without seeming unpatriotic.
The initial thrust of the GWOT went well, when the United States easily dismantled the Taliban regime, which was allied with al-Qaeda. But then the U.S. lost track of what it should have done. Instead of going after al-Qaeda, Bush, with strong guidance and advice from his neoconservative vice president, Dick Cheney, as well as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, digressed and decided to invade Iraq. Only Bush himself will be able to tell most authoritatively when or if he writes his memoirs how much the decision to invade Iraq was his own. All the currently available evidence suggests that he was as much a dedicated pursuer of that goal as any other neocon in his administration. The pretext was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which he would launch against the U.S. or its allies within a short period of time.
The toppling of Saddam was done with impressive speed. Then George Bush met his Waterloo, when Iraq became the gathering place of global jihadists, pan-Arabists, and Saddamists, who started their own prolonged campaign of “shock and awe” against the United States.
American exceptionalism at least its most-touted aspects died in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prison abuses. No top military official had the guts to own up to his or her crimes. Only the lowly functionaries were punished, but the controversy lingers. Who ordered the prisoner abuse is a question that will not be answered anytime soon.
It’s generally understood that President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assigned such a high significance to having access to timely intelligence that nothing could stand in the way. Prisoners and detainees had to be broken in order to get information. International law was ignored and even abused with dubious, legalistic rationales for torture and prisoner abuse. The United States the beacon of democracy systematically sent detainees to Arab autocratic regimes (Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and other countries) so that they could be tortured into saying what the U.S. authorities really wanted to hear. There were “black” dungeons run by the CIA in different European countries, the locations of which are still unknown. More important, no one to this day is sure that such prisons have been dismantled. What is driving the administration, above all, is its resolve to “win” against global terrorism, no matter how much it disfigures American democracy and the good name of the United States in the process.
In the meantime, Iraq became a place where death and mayhem rule. Iraqis are killing each other over Shia-Sunni differences. The Kurds want to get all they can while the getting is good by fracturing Iraq and establishing an independent Kurdistan. The Iraqi Shias have decided to emulate the Kurds by eventually seeking a Shia state of their own. Homegrown death squads run rampant. Foreign jihadists have converted Iraq into a laboratory to wage their “long war” against the United States. Consequently, the blood of Iraqis has become cheaper than dirt. They are dying by the hundreds each month. This was not the intent of the United States when it invaded Iraq, but this is what is emerging as reality.
Iran’s prestige and influence has already gone up considerably. Iran is interested in helping the United States stabilize Iraq. But, like everything in the world of realpolitik, there is a price. Iran wants U.S. guarantees against regime change, which the Bush administration is reluctant to offer. So Iran is letting if not helping Iraq deteriorate into a place worse than hell.
Now the American people have had enough of Bush’s rhetoric that, as long as America is fighting “terrorism” abroad, its homeland security is on solid ground. The public is saying that is not so. A Pew Research Center report of Sept. 6, 2006 notes,
“By a 45% to 32% margin, more Americans believe that the best way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. is to decrease, not increase, America’s military presence overseas. This is a stark reversal from the public’s position on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. In the summer of 2002, before serious public discussion of removing Saddam Hussein from power had begun, nearly half (48%) said that the best way to reduce terrorism was to increase our military involvement overseas, while just 29% said less involvement would make us safer.”
As unstable and violent as Iraq has become, there was a glimmer of hope that Afghanistan where America’s GWOT started in 2001 had a promising future. That seems increasingly doubtful. The resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda is a worrisome reality, as Afghanistan begins to resemble Iraq. Suicide attacks are on the rise, even though the Taliban-al-Qaeda forces are currently following a strategy of conventional skirmishes with the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF). The security conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating, though this has yet to capture the attention of the American people, who remain focused on Iraq.
America lost the war in South Vietnam because the U.S. government suffered from the worst possible “credibility gap,” as the late John Kenneth Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to India and a well-known economist, then famously noted. Today, the Bush administration suffers from a similar, perhaps even more acute, credibility gap. The rhetoric of fear won a second term for President Bush. However, if Republicans lose in the 2006 midterm elections in significant numbers, then America’s departure from Iraq may materialize soon thereafter.
The Bush administration’s GWOT might have been more of a success story if the ideologues the neocons had not been in charge, using false intelligence, torture, and the conflation of Saddam and al-Qaeda. As things stand, America appears to be heading toward losing the GWOT, but not because of any marvelous success on the part of al-Qaeda. The incompetence, inanity, maladroitness, and general myopia of the neocons are to blame.