Tuesday, September 12, 2006

September 11 and American Politics, Five Years Later


Here in nearby Connecticut, as in New York City itself, many people remember that it was a beautiful morning, with a bright clear blue sky.

Then, suddenly, everything was different.

Tragedy. War. And a new political era.

What happened to the country in the past five years? And why has it happened?

Our enemies and our responses. As best we can tell, Al Qaeda attacked the United States as part of a long term strategy to force America and our allies from its positions in the Arabian peninsula. Since the 1990's America had increased its military presence in Saudi Arabia, where many of the 9/11 hijackers were from. Osama Bin Laden used the American presence both as propaganda and as an intermediate goal-- first get rid of Americans and their allies from the region, then displace the existing corrupt regimes with newer, purer, more fundamentalist ones.

In response the Bush Administration made an initial correct assessment. It recognized that it was essential to make a show of strength against Al Qaeda's sponsors in Afghanistan to deter any state from harboring or working with terrorist groups.

But after that initial correct assessment, very little of the Bush Administration's response to the 9/11 attacks was wise or particularly effective.

Iraq and its consequences. Very soon after the attacks, Administration officials tried to piggyback overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq onto the nation's response to Al Qaeda, even though there was very little evidence to support a connection. (As the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed the other day, there was no credible evidence). The Administration repeatedly and deliberately confused our need to respond to the 9/11 attacks with the danger posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, weapons, which, it turned out, were not even there. In hindsight, this cynical bait-and-switch has harmed the country both in strategic, economic and political terms, as much as anything else in the past five years.

The Administration also conflated the urgent necessity to respond to the 9/11 attacks with a very ambitious plan of remaking the Middle East according to the norms of Western-style democracy, using western military force, led by America, to overthrow tyrannical regimes and establish new ones under the watchful guardianship of the American military. There were many problems with this idealistic plan but one was that insurgencies and terrorism tend to be stoked by the belief that the West is occupying Muslim countries and propping up governments that are to its liking. Thus, the neoconservative vision played right into the hands of the forces that hoped to coalesce a network of insurgency and terrorism around the world against the United States and our allies.

The Iraq adventure also strained and in some cases undermined American strategic goals and America's alliances with our long time partners in Western democracies. Some allies, like France and Germany, refused to participate, and anti-American sentiments grew in Europe and other parts of the democratic West. Other allies who joined the coalition, like Britain and Spain, now became targets for Al Qaeda suicide bombings, even though Iraq and Al Qaeda had nothing to do with each other previously. Now Al Qaeda could point to the fact that these countries had joined with the hated Americans to occupy Muslim countries. Above all, the Iraq adventure helped confirm in the minds of Muslims around the world that America was not to be pitied for the 9/11 attacks, but that it posed a far greater threat to world peace than Al Qaeda.

After a quick initial victory, the Iraq adventure proved to be a complete fiasco, and drained American forces and attention from dealing with Al Qaeda. It also had the effect of increasing the number of Muslim countries with a substantial western military presence, thus increasing the incentives for even more recruitment of terrorists and more suicide attacks. Mishandling of the Iraqi occupation has pushed the country into civil war, leaving American forces with the thankless task of keeping the country from imploding as long as possible. Of course, with American forces stuck in Iraq, America is not free to make credible threats to use military force in other parts of the world, that would back up our diplomacy. Normally diplomacy without a credible threat of force is far less effective than diplomacy with it.

The great beneficiaries of the Iraq adventure were America's adversaries: North Korea, Iran, and, ironically, Al Qaeda itself. Although we have debilitated Al Qaeda, we have not extinguished it, and its key rallying point-- America's military presence in Muslim lands-- is, if anything, more pervasive, more obvious and more generative of new terrorist recruits than before. What is most ironic is that, as the Administration correctly perceived, America needs a military presence in this part of the world, but that, as a result of our mistaken policies of the last five years, it will be increasingly difficult to manage it.

The 9/11 suicide attacks struck at the country's self-confidence and sense of security; but the debilitation we have suffered from our blunder in Iraq will have effects that are far more lasting to our national economy, our national morale, and our national strategic interests. 9/11 was a great tragedy for our country; but the Administration's unwise response to it has been even an greater one. There are only a few times in our history where we have administered so serious and lasting a self-inflicted wound to our own national interests. It is not an auspicious way to begin the twenty first century. And if America's status as a world power diminishes in the next two decades, the blame will rest squarely on our misadventure in Iraq. One of the greatest ironies of 9/11 is that, instead of addressing the real problem-- Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden-- the Administration looked elsewhere and snatched a defeat out of the jaws of victory. Even if we do prevail, it will take enormous sacrifices over a long period of time to make up for the Administration's colossal strategic blunders of the past five years.

National Security and the Rule of Law. The Administration's second significant response to 9/11 was reforming our national and domestic security arrangements. It easily pushed the Patriot Act through Congress. After initial resistance, it agreed first to the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, and, following the relevations of the 9/11 Commission, it agreed to reform of the nation's intelligence services.

Although some of the Patriot Act's reforms were necessary and should have been put in pace earlier, others were more of a wish list for law enforcement officials, and still others were unnecessary and involved overreaching that undermined cherished civil liberties. The Department of Homeland Security has still not been able to devote necessary resources to protecting America's ports. The reform of the intelligence services appears to have been more a means of settling scores with the CIA over Iraq than an effective method of rethinking our methods of gathering intelligence. Indeed, the Administration's zeal to attack the wrong enemy-- Saddam Hussein-- caused it both to deform the use and analysis of intelligence and to create a new set of intelligence institutions that told it exactly what it wanted to hear. It is one thing when other countries give us disinformation; it is quite another when you give it to yourself. And it is a recipe for disaster. Vice-President Cheney has argued that public opposition to the Iraq war has given aid to our enemies, which sounds chillingly like an attack on free public discussion during wartime. What has really given aid to our enemies is Cheney's continual bungling, his abuse of the intelligence process, and his single minded devotion to doing things his way. Much of the blame for America's situation post 9/11 is due to his arrogant incompetence.

One of the legacies of the Bush Administration's domestic response to 9/11 has been repeated and unnecessary fearmongering. Instead of telling the country not to panic, the Administration has encouraged it, and has engaged in the panic itself. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Administration rounded up thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern men using the pretext of material witness warrants and immigration violations. These roundups produced nothing of value, as far as we have been able to determine, and succeeded only in creating enormous human misery for scores of people innocent of terrorism.

Perhaps most important, using the 9/11 attacks as justification, the Administration began creating a secret set of laws that allowed the President to flout American laws and treaty obligations that prohibited torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, and war crimes. The Administration created secret ghost prisons overseas manned by the CIA which engaged in practices like waterboarding that are tantamount to torture. It turned the Guantanamo Bay military facility into a micro-gulag designed to be outside the reach of American law. And it began a secret and illegal domestic surveillance program that spied on Americans' e-mail and phone communications. It is a sad and ironic commentary that only a decade after winning the Cold War in the name of freedom we began to copy the methods of our communist adversaries.

The Politics of 9/11. The Administration's third significant initiative in response to 9/11 was its political strategy. Following the Clinton impeachment and the contested 2000 election, the country was badly polarized, with each side deeply suspicious of the other. The President, who had failed to win even a plurality of the vote, gained power largely as a result of black disenfranchisement in Florida, policies which, in a consent decree, state officials later admitted had violated the federal voting rights act. The elimination of thousands of black votes made the Florida vote close enough to create the recount crisis that ultimately led to the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, which stopped the recounts and handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

Following the election, the President had two choices-- govern from the center or use the fact that he had a majority in both Houses of Congress (and a Republican majority on the Supreme Court) to push through a strongly conservative political agenda. Bush and his chief political adviser Karl Rove chose the latter strategy, pushing for two rounds of tax cuts which eliminated the preexisting budget surplus and primarily benefited the wealthiest Americans, who were, not coincidentally, key to his party's electoral fortunes.

By September 2001, this strategy had stalled. Senator Jeffords bolted the party, meaning that the Republicans no longer controlled both Houses. Opinion polls showed the President's popularity declining steadily.

The September 11th attacks offered the President new political life. As so often happens whenever a country is attacked, citizens rally around their leaders. The President's approval ratings shot up to stratospheric levels. The Administration now had a new choice in response to the tragedy: It could create a government of national unity which demanded sacrifice from all Americans, and it could seek to unify the country and heal divisions created by the events of the past few years. Or it could use the President's sudden popularity to exacerbate the divisions between right and left in hopes of creating a permanent majority for the Republican party.

The Administration chose the latter path. It demonized its critics, labeling them as unpatriotic and unconcerned with the terrorist threat. Not surprisingly, this caused the President's critics, who regarded themselves as every bit as patriotic as he was, to oppose him even more firmly. One of the most remarkable features of the five years since 9/11 is that the country is just as polarized-- perhaps even more so-- than it was before the crisis. The only thing that seems to have changed is that the agenda has shifted from domestic to national security issues. The poisonous atmosphere of politics is still very much with us.

The Administration, and in particular Rove's political strategy of division, must take the lion's share of the blame for this. The President, more than any other public official, has the opportunity to shape the country's political agendas. Had the President conducted himself differently, he could have moved the country in a much less polarized and much more politically serious direction. But he and Rove concluded that 9/11 presented the political opportunity of a lifetime-- an opportunity to cement Republican dominance for a generation. All they had to do was use the war on terror cynically to frighten the public and smear their opponents as unpatriotic and as giving aid and comfort to our enemies. This they did repeatedly and effectively over the course of the next four years.

Rove's political game plan worked perfectly in 2002 and 2004. The Republicans increased their Congressional representation (and retook the Senate) in the off-year 2002 elections (when historically they should have lost seats), and they won reelection to the Presidency in 2004, despite the serious problems growing daily in Iraq. Since that point, however, the strategy of divide and conquer has worked far less effectively. The President's attempt to privatize aspects of Social Security and its bungling of Katrina, and the Administration's Orwellian account of the war despite the face of the daily toll of violence in Iraq demonstrated to an increasing numbers of Americans that the Administration was both radical, disingenuous, and incompetent. What began as a brilliant method to discomfit their political opponents and forge a permanent Republican majority may now do exactly the opposite-- precipitate the beginning of the end of the conservative movement's unquestioned dominance in American politics. A toxic combination of corruption, illegality, and just plain stupidity has tarnished the Administration, so much so that important parts of the conservative movement-- which originally saw it as the movement's fulfillment in American politics-- are now abandoning it.

Immediately after 9/11, the Bush Administration had both the challenge and the opportunity of lifetime. There are many possible paths it could have taken; many possible ways it could have shaped the direction of American policy and American politics. It could have unified the country, healed the divisions of the past, and made America admired and emulated around the world. Instead it further divided and weakened America, and made it hated by people around the globe. It could have devoted resources inside the United States to strengthen the country and keep us free from fear. Instead it squandered the budget surplus on payoffs to its wealthy contributors, wasted enormous resources on an unnecessary war and repeatedly-- and cynically-- stoked up resentments and fears to keep itself and its party in power. Claiming to be committed to Republican values of law and order and constitutional government, it repeatedly broke the law and plunged the country into a constitutional crisis. Promising to be guided by values, faith, and ethics, it turned a blind eye to torture and abuse and authorized waterboarding and inhuman and degrading treatment. Committed to freedom and the rule of law around the world, it created a secret detention system that "disappeared people," seized American citizens and denied them their protections under the Bill of Rights, and created secret tribunals with secret laws, secret evidence, and secret prisons. What a shame that with so many choices available to it, this Administration chose the path of incompetence, demagoguery, deceit, authoritarianism, and corruption. To quote George W. Bush himself, speaking of the Administration that had preceded him: "so much promise, to no great purpose."


Thanks for summing up how I feel about, well, everything. Great post.

Nice one, Jack.


It was not and is not "war" that we engage in against Al Qaeda; i.e., we are not engaged in armed struggle between nations, and that is the only meaning of the term that can be deemed legitimately embraced by our Constitution. Al Qaeda represents no nation, nor does any nation claim them, nor can any nation reasonably be held accountable for their acts. But the acceptance, and reinforcement, of the war context comes at a non-trivial cost, the most obvious of which is the silencing of dissent and the stifling of discourse.

Also, which specific parts of H.R. 3162, the so-called "patriot" act, would you say were "neccessary"? I have read other views which categorize the bill as an undoing of restrictions placed on the intelligence community in the wake of proven abuses of a political nature.

Please understand that your blog is *the* place I come to in order to read "my side" saying the right things well. All the more reason I feel compelled to ask the questions I pose.

well, that eloquently sums up what happened and why -- but now what?

How do we pick up Humpty-Dumpty?

You might also note that Bush dd exactly what bin Laden had demanded -- removed US forces from Saudi Arabia.

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