merica's ruling class lost the "War on Terror." During the decade that began on September 11, 2001, the U.S. government's combat operations have resulted in some 6,000 Americans killed and 30,000 crippled, caused hundreds of thousands of foreign casualties, and spent—depending on various estimates of direct and indirect costs—somewhere between 2 and 3 trillion dollars. But nothing our rulers did post-9/11 eliminated the threat from terrorists or made the world significantly less dangerous. Rather, ever-bigger government imposed unprecedented restrictions on the American people and became the arbiter of prosperity for its cronies, as well as the manager of permanent austerity for the rest. Although in 2001 many referred to the United States as "the world's only superpower," ten years later the near-universal perception of America is that of a nation declining, perhaps irreversibly. This decade convinced a majority of Americans that the future would be worse than the past and that there is nothing to be done about it. This is the "new normal." How did this happen?
September 11's planners could hardly have imagined that their attacks might seriously undermine what Americans had built over two centuries, what millions of immigrants from the world over had come to join and maintain. In fact, our decline happened because the War on Terror—albeit microscopic in size and destructiveness as wars go—forced upon us, as wars do, the most important questions that any society ever faces: Who are we, and who are our enemies? What kind of peace do we want? What does it take to get it? Are we able and willing to do what it takes to secure our preferred way of life, to deserve living the way we prefer? Our bipartisan ruling class's dysfunctional responses to such questions inflicted the deepest wounds.
Wars in general increase the power of any polity's ruling class to answer such questions in its way, and to work its will. Hard times force regimes, as they force individuals, to prove what they are made of. That is why regimes are never more themselves, at home and abroad, than during wartime. After 9/11, at home and abroad, our bipartisan ruling class did the characteristic things it had done before—just more of them, and more intensely. In short, the War on Terror empowered this ruling class to show its mettle, and it did so. Ten years later, the results speak for themselves: the terrorists' force mineure proved to be the occasion for our own ruling elites and their ideas to plunge the country into troubles from which they cannot extricate it.
Most often, wars are won and lost by a faction of a diverse ruling class. Victories validate the winners and what they stand for. Defeats usher in competitors waiting in the wings. So for example, the defeat of Lord North's cabinet in the American Revolutionary War empowered William Pitt the Younger's faction, including Adam Smith. When John F. Kennedy's old-line liberals lost the Vietnam War, their discredit empowered Democratic and Republican successors who embodied an America more collectivist at home and more timid abroad. Such changes, though big, are evolutionary because they simply bring to the fore people and ways that had been gestating within the Establishment.
When, however, the losers are a whole ruling class, and when that class is pervasive enough to have banished to society's margins any people and ideas that diverge from it, its discredit really does put society in a revolutionary situation. For example, the Soviet regime's loss of the Cold War plunged that country into a downward spiral because three generations of Communist rule had utterly destroyed living memory of anything but dysfunctional people and ways.
America's current ruling class, the people who lost the War on Terror, monopolizes the upper reaches of American public life, the ranks of those who make foreign and domestic policy, including the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties. It is more or less homogeneous socially and intellectually. In foreign affairs, the change from the Bush to the Obama Administrations was barely noticeable. In domestic matters, the differences are more quantitative than qualitative. Dissent from the ruling class is rife among the American people, but occurs mostly on the sidelines of our politics. If there is to be a reversal of the ongoing defeats, both foreign and domestic, that have discredited contemporary America's bipartisan mainstream, heretofore marginal people will have to generate it, applying ideas and practices recalled from America's successful past.
The world of 2011 is even less congenial to America and Americans than it was on September 10, 2001. The U.S. government is not responsible for all the ways in which the world was menacing then and is menacing now, of course. Regardless of what America did, China's challenge to the post-1945 Peace of the Pacific was going to become more serious. Vladimir Putin's neo-Soviet Russia was not and could not be anything but a major bother. Western Europe would be living off civilizational capital it had lost the will to replenish, irrespective of any American deeds or entreaties. The Muslim world would be choking on the dysfunctions inherent in its government and cultures.
But U.S. policy has made things worse because the liberal internationalists, realists, and neoconservatives who make up America's foreign policy Establishment have all assumed that Americans should undertake the impossible task of changing such basic facts, rather than confining themselves to the difficult but vital work of guarding U.S. interests against them. For the Establishment, 9/11 meant opportunities to press for doing more of what they had always tried to do.
At home, the American people are less free, less prosperous, more bitterly divided, and much less hopeful in 2011 than in 2001 because a decade of the War on Terror brought a government ever bigger and more burdensome, as well as "security" measures that impede the innocent rather than focusing on wrongdoers. Our ruling class justified its ever-larger role in America's domestic life by redefining war as a never-ending struggle against unspecified enemies for abstract objectives, and by asserting expertise far above that of ordinary Americans. After 9/11, far from deliberating on the best course to take, our rulers stayed on autopilot and hit the throttles.
We must, then, understand what our bipartisan ruling class wrought in international and domestic affairs during the post-9/11 war, and how differently the decade might have turned out had our rulers pursued the proper ends of domestic and international statecraft.
Degrading our Military
In world affairs, the most significant long-term result of the post-9/11 decade is the transformation of the U.S. armed forces into a constabulary designed to occupy unfriendly peoples while our policies attempt to "build" them into friendly nations. This shifting of the American military mind—transforming war into nation-building—started during Vietnam and accelerated in this decade. The material aspects are easy to note: whereas a generation ago the Navy had some 600 combatant ships, today it has 284—ever fewer of which are fit for controlling the open seas, the role appropriate to an island nation's navy. Typical is the diversion of funds to a few Littoral Combat Ships, intended for small-scale penetration of hostile coasts, and away from major combatants such as the Virginia-class submarines. Small-scale penetration of Asia's coast is irrelevant to China's challenge, and good as the Virginia-class subs are, they no longer simply outclass the competition: the newest Russian models dive deeper, run faster, and are nearly as quiet. In short, as China extends its capacity to monopolize the Western Pacific rim, the U.S. Navy has ever fewer means to contest it, and our surface fleet can no longer venture confidently where the Russians don't want it.
The story is the same on land and in the air. In 2002 as part of the transformation to America's new model military, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld canceled the Army's new self-propelled, remote-controlled artillery system. What good would it do, so went the argument, in any situation other than combat against sophisticated, powerful enemies? It would be useless in the urban warfare into which the War on Terror had degenerated and for which America's land forces were being refashioned. The same logic led to the 2009 cancellation of the F-22 Raptor, surely the world's finest fighter-bomber airplane. No more than 187 would ever be built. Why? Because the Russians and Chinese were slower than expected in building comparable planes. When they do build them, the U.S. will oppose them with the F-35—a cheaper and less capable plane. But the government does not believe it will ever have to fight sophisticated opponents. And besides, it needed the money for the War on Terror.
Arguably this war's most typical purchase has been the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), some 15,000 of which were ordered at an approximate cost of $20 billion. The idea was to make it safer for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to live and move in places infested by powerful land mines, emplaced and replaced day after day. Such mines have inflicted the bulk of U.S. casualties in the War on Terror. Of course the MRAPs don't work against shaped charges designed to penetrate them. In short, they cannot make sense out of the criminal nonsense of operating in perpetually replenished minefields. The point is that even had the transformation of the armed forces secured victory in that war, it still would have materially crippled America's capacity for dealing with any other kind of war.
The armed forces' moral decline is more serious. The quality of senior officers (as opposed to that of senior non-commissioned officers, who advance through exams) results from advancement via "efficiency reports"—that is, from pleasing superiors. It starts with generals and admirals chosen for compatibility with the ruling class rather than for winning wars. Below that, the command and general staff colleges and the war colleges help filter out the warriors at the field-grade level. The fact that more officers who have finished their initial military obligation (Army and Marine captains, Navy lieutenants) now choose to leave the military than new officers choose to join is an accurate barometer of their discontent. They, and the military families that discourage their children from becoming officers, blame the top brass for designing operations that please politicians at the cost of wasted lives and lost wars. Endorsing the military nonsense of the War on Terror has become the prerequisite for successful military careers.
From Bad to Worse
This transformation in the structure and mission of our armed forces in the War on Terror was supposed to increase our influence in the world. Instead, our ruling class's penchant for treating its wishes about what foreign realities should be as accurate perceptions of what they are has often made bad situations worse. Immediately after 9/11 the Bush Administration gratuitously assumed that all the world's governments were aghast at what had been done to America, and would cooperate in eradicating terrorism. At least some might have, if we had proved ourselves fearsome abroad and stout at home. Instead, the U.S. government became more pliant than ever in its foreign dealings, while at home it went on a spending binge that indebted it to the rest of the world. Disrespect has been a natural consequence.
Consider Russia. Vladimir Putin recently called America "a parasite on the world economy." In the international arena, he has shown similar contempt. While the Putin regime was eager enough to help the U.S. strike a blow at Islamists in nearby Afghanistan, it never deviated for an instant from its neo-Soviet image of itself and from its consequent antagonism toward America. The Bush team, Condoleezza Rice especially, was eager to propitiate Putin with a quiet reformulation of the U.S. missile defense program, which effectively preserved Moscow's ability to devastate America with missiles (President George W. Bush's legal rejection of the 1972 ABM Treaty notwithstanding). This policy only whetted Putin's eagerness to press America for further concessions in that field, and to resent not getting them. Since 2002 the Putin regime has not passed up opportunities to embarrass Secretaries of State Rice and Hillary Clinton by making peremptory announcements of decisions against them on matters they had come to negotiate, and to lend support to America's enemies, from opposing U.N. resolutions against Saddam Hussein to opposing meaningful sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. And of course Russia has continued, unabated, its intimidation of Georgia and Ukraine (the former by war) to pull them back into the Soviet orbit. The U.S. government's response was to cancel plans for missile defense cooperation with Poland and the Czech Republic and to ratify a treaty demanded by Putin under which U.S. reductions of missiles will keep pace with the natural decay of Moscow's arsenal. Our bipartisan ruling class earned Russia's contempt.
The same goes for China. Its long-range goal is to expel the U.S. from the Western Pacific, its immediate goal to prevent Taiwan from obtaining the wherewithal to defend itself. Because the crucible of any military struggle for Taiwan is control of the Taiwan Strait, China's diplomacy has focused on restricting Taiwan's acquisition of the airplanes and submarines that are essential to that control. The U.S. government responded by excluding precisely those items from its military sales to Taiwan. China's increasingly bold warnings that the U.S. should not interfere with its pressures on other Pacific islands should surprise no one.
Iran became a major problem for the U.S. in 1979 when the Carter Administration helped overthrow its pro-Western shah, and when the Carter and Reagan Administrations and their successors answered its seizure of the U.S. embassy—a textbook act of war—with textbook demonstrations of unseriousness. They convinced countless persons that terrorism against Americans is safe. The U.S. response to Iran's building of nuclear weapons has been typical. The Iranians—not just the regime—want nukes because they are the only Shia state in the Sunni-dominated Muslim world, and because they want to further the interests of Shia populations in Sunni dominated states. They want nukes all the more because they know that the U.S. government takes sides against the Shia in all possible situations. But American threats of military action are obviously hollow, if only because the U.S. government complains publicly that Iranians are killing American solders in Iraq—another act of war—while not responding with war. Moreover, in 2006 the U.S. government stopped Israel from answering with full-scale war the war that Iran's pawn, Hezbollah, had started against Israel. American economic sanctions are similarly unserious because serious ones would displease the European, Russian, and Chinese governments. In short, our rulers have made Iran a worse enemy by siding with its enemies and suffering its deadly attacks, thus advertising our impotence.
The War on Terror is turning Pakistan's people, long friendly to America, into enemies. Pakistan is necessarily very interested in Afghan affairs because some of the same ethnic groups, especially the Pashtun, live on both sides of the artificial border. In the 1990s, Pakistan sponsored the formation of Afghanistan's Taliban to safeguard Pashtun and Pakistani interests after the Soviet Union's departure. When, after 9/11, the U.S. government indicted the Taliban for having harbored some of the attack's planners, Pakistan was quick to pull its support for the Taliban and helped the U.S. overthrow them.
But after 2002, and much more rapidly after 2008, the U.S. government literally occupied Afghanistan to "nation-build" it according to the standard recipe, including equality for women. Armed resistance to the American occupation by tribal and Islamist elements grew quickly on both sides of the border. U.S. occupiers termed it "Taliban." Regardless of the name, the Islamist opposition designated Pakistan's government as an enemy quite as much as the U.S. Our government then began striking targets inside Pakistan, putting Pakistan's government in the position of having to fight its own people. The U.S. helped to overthrow the country's president, Pervez Musharraf, for insufficient alacrity in doing so. As Pakistani public opinion becomes ever more anti-American, his successors writhe in the same bind.
This leads us to consider Afghanistan. While the U.S. invasion of 2001 did America some good by showing that Americans would punish those who harbor terrorists, the subsequent occupation did America much harm by showing the extent to which our new way of war is counterproductive. In 2001 few Afghans had ever heard of the U.S. Of those who had, most knew that Americans had helped them rid themselves of the deeply hated Soviets. True, the Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden's Afghan Arabs because they brought money and lent a little help in their fight against the Uzbeks and Tajiks. Whether any Taliban knew or cared about bin Laden's anti-Americanism is by no means clear.
Clearly though, the Taliban were not, per se, America's enemies. After the invasion, most Taliban switched sides and happily sold to the Americans every Arab they could find in their midst. Ten years later, after American "nation-building," involving economic aid that dwarfs Afghanistan's GDP, millions of Afghans are America's enemies. Through legitimate and illegitimate channels (it matters little which), American money made fortunes for countless Afghans. But that did not counterbalance the resentment of those who did not get their share of the loot; and then there was the antagonism engendered by American forces' countless intrusions and killings, many on the basis of unsubstantiated intelligence reports. Even in the absence of such things, the mere presence of wealthy, haughty foreigners would have rubbed the Afghans the wrong way.
That is roughly the story of Iraq, too. Saddam Hussein supported and advocated terrorism by paying bounties to suicide bombers, and hosting terrorist organizations' headquarters and training facilities. The first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 was mounted from Iraq. Some of its organizers, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, also took part in 9/11. U.S. Intelligence still shrouds in secrecy what it knows about the deep relationship between Iraqi Intelligence, al-Qaeda, and other organizations infiltrated by it. Saddam had made himself the paladin of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Thus the 2003 U.S. invasion that overthrew him served the American people well. Had our forces withdrawn quickly, they would have left most Iraqis grateful to America, and the rest fearful of it. But the subsequent occupation of Iraq was a multidimensional disaster.
Under the rubric of "nation-building," dressed and complicated by commitments and semi-commitments to democracy, women's rights, and anti-terrorism, the occupation's practical political purpose was not to leave Iraq to its Shia majority and Kurdish separatists, but rather to "stabilize" (read, to preserve) the role of its ruling Sunni minority. Its practicaloperational purpose was to tamp down a civil war—at first a one-sided attack by Sunni on Shia, and then a two-sided affair from which the Sunni eventually sought relief (the 2007-08 "surge" of U.S. troops that protected Sunni enclaves). The day-to-day reality of the Iraq occupation was U.S. troops driving around the country trying to disarm "insurgents," and getting blown up by roadside bombs. By the time our troops withdrew, the Kurdish north had become Kurdistan, the Shia ruled from north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf, the Sunni enclaves were well armed, and all Iraqi sides were convinced that the next round of struggle would yield better results for them. Disrespect for America may be the occupation's most harmful international legacy.
Iraq's legacy in America is worse. The occupation habituated the U.S. armed forces to regard it as normal to bleed without prospect of victory. Officers who commanded their troops to operate in replenished minefields, and who enforced "rules of engagement" that make troops vulnerable to un-uniformed enemies until these took action, profited by turning their backs on soldierly ethics that are as fundamental to the profession of arms as the Hippocratic oath is to the medical profession. At home, the occupation of Iraq became an occasion for bitter partisan warfare. The Democratic Party and the major part of the ruling class denounced President Bush for applying the Democrats' own formula of warfare to Iraq, to the point of identifying with the conspiracy theories about Bush purveyed by Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11. The Republican Party countered by espousing nation-building more strongly than the Democrats ever had. Some even adopted the neoconservative view that nation-building is America's defining duty, that America exists primarily to reshape other peoples whether they like it or not. More harmful yet, the Iraq occupation sapped the patriotic generosity with which the American people had supported the War on Terror. The American people had expected the war to end the threat from terrorists. But the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan proved that our ruling class is capable only of fruitless bloodshed.
Our rulers proved unable to deal with foreign realities in part because they superimposed images of themselves on them: liberal internationalists saw peoples eager for secular technocratic progress, realists saw sober adjusters of national interests, and neoconservatives saw budding democrats. All sides, however, held fast to their longtime affections for individual foreign regimes. By this jumble of irrationalities, our rulers defined the Arab world's turmoil of 2011 as "the Arab Spring." They were confident that it would deliver the world from the troubles that the Arabs had caused during the previous generation, and attributed this wonder in part to the War on Terror. Typical was Fouad Ajami:
This was the Arabs' 1989, their supreme moment of historical agency, a time when younger people broke with their culture's history of evasion and scapegoating. For once the "Arab Street" was not gripped by anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, for once it wasn't looking beyond its geography for alien demons.
Pedestrian explanations are better grounded. Ever since the Western powers' post-World War II withdrawal from the Arab world, politics there has been a struggle between, on the one hand, secular Westernizing elites—ranging from Egypt's Nasserite regime to the Syrian Baath, the Algerian and Palestinian party states, and the Saudi and Gulf monarchies—and on the other hand, Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. All these regimes are alike in that they are defined by corruption and repression, and try to refocus their peoples' anger on outsiders. Nearly all have presided over ever-worsening economic and social conditions. Islamists have become more popular and powerful in each and every one because they are the only alternative to the regimes' client networks. Talk of "Arab Spring" is silly because it supposes that the understanding of and desire for liberal civil society exists in the Arab world. Even sillier is the notion that the "Arab springers" who have shaken regimes from Tunisia to Syria are moved, not by the urge to put tyrants in iron cages and then to take their place (and tighten the siege on Israel, to boot), but by the notion that all human beings have equal rights because all are created in the image and likeness of God. In Islamic terms, that idea is blasphemy.
Silliness hides what ought to be the basic distinction in international affairs: between regimes antagonistic to American interests and those that respect those interests. It hides the question of what opportunities any situation might offer for advancing those interests. Thus, our ruling class helped overthrow Egypt's regime despite its 30-year alliance with us, but did nothing to overthrow Syria's, whose 40-year record of opposition to America includes using the terrorist group Hezbollah to kill Americans. Nor did our rulers imagine that they could exact prices from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms for U.S. forbearance in the face of their troubles. And when Libya's regime was faced with armed insurrection, our rulers eschewed both a swift coup de grace and dignified quiet. Instead, our ruling class, joined by Europe's, mounted an indecisive military campaign that, whatever else it did, earned contempt for its authors. We can gauge that contempt by noting the new Libyan authorities' refusal to extradite Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted perpetrator of the 1989 Lockerbie bombing.
The Home Front
"Homeland security" grew into a quarter-trillion-dollar public-private industry that changed life in America so quickly, with so little debate, because it followed the template established a generation earlier by the Nixon Administration's response to the first aircraft hijackings. American leftists were hijacking planes to Cuba, and Fidel Castro was sheltering them. But because Nixon feared confronting Cuba and the American Left, he preferred to pretend that hijacking was a non-political problem to be solved by subjecting all passengers to metal detectors and prohibiting passengers from interfering with hijackers—never mind that gun-carrying passengers had thwarted some hijackings. Thus, Nixon made clear that the U.S. would be officially blind to the political responsibility for terrorism. Once that happened, Palestinian terrorists and their sponsoring governments made aircraft hijacking a major international problem. More important, this official blindness meant that thenceforth the U.S. government would consider any ordinary American to be as likely a perpetrator of terrorism as any actual terrorist or terrorist government. The pretense of value-free, politically neutral security proved to be catnip for politicians eager to evade responsibility. Businesses supported the policy because doing so meant they would be paid for providing the screening equipment to treat millions of Americans as potential hijackers or suicide bombers. For people looking for easy jobs, homeland security was a bonanza.
Has homeland security prevented something like another 9/11? No. In fact, no one has tried anything of the sort. Had they done so, nothing homeland security has put in place would have stopped them. We do not know of any operation planned and manned by professionals, as 9/11 was, that has been stopped. We do know that American society has countless inherent vulnerabilities to terrorism, which no one has taken even a little trouble to exploit. Nothing could ever stop ten people in ten states from throwing flaming gasoline bottles into ten school buses simultaneously, thus shutting down the U.S. school system. But no one has done it. Homeland security created closely packed lines of people in front of airport security checkpoints—the perfect target for explosive-laden carry-on luggage. But no one has attempted that, either, nor committed any of the other outrages so obviously feasible and requiring so little skill and organization. We don't know why not. In short, homeland security has proven irrelevant to terrorism.
For the American people, homeland security means badges and procedures, ritual humiliations of grandmothers and children at the hands of people who would melt at the sight of an actual terrorist. Confronting terrorists is not what our "security" people sign up for. Though no one takes this security seriously, it has serious consequences. For some it has meant becoming accustomed to being herded, while others have become accustomed to doing the herding. For all, it means suppressing the knowledge that terrorists have been almost exclusively Muslims, while indulging the politically correct fantasy that one's neighbor could be a terrorist. The facile misapplication of the term "terrorist" leads all too naturally first to labeling and then to treating domestic political competitors as enemies. Thus does war prosecuted indefinitely and incompetently against foreign enemies make for real war among fellow citizens.
As Professor John Yoo has explained at length, the legal-political basis for the post-9/11 security state is the notion that war invests any commander-in-chief with essentially enormous, almost unlimited power. The Romans had put it succinctly:salus populi suprema lex, the people's safety is the supreme law. But when war is defined as endemic, without end, the invocation of war power becomes simply the claim that the government may do whatever it can get away with. Such law brings war home. While working in the Justice Department under George W. Bush, Yoo wrote that the president has the power to declare and treat anyone as an enemy combatant. For this and other opinions, the succeeding administration came close to treating Yoo himself as a criminal. My point is that once those who participate in politics become accustomed to the notion that political power is unlimited, they have a harder time finding reasons why they should restrain their passions. Why not push to the limit the policies that most benefit one's own supporters? Why not first label (as Vice President Biden has done with the Tea Party) and then treat as terrorist or simply criminal whatever and whoever stands in one's way?
Rules by Experts
The War on Terror has moved American politics and institutions further away from mutual persuasion toward antagonistic assertions of prerogative. Wars for hazy ends prosecuted without clear declaration of purpose did not begin in 2001. But never before were enemies designated by intelligence agencies, which declined to make public the bases for their judgments. Between 2001 and 2007 a bitter debate between the CIA and the Defense Department (backed by Vice President Dick Cheney's office) bubbled to the surface over Iraq's role in 9/11, and terrorism in general. The debate, which really was about whether and on whom we should make war, was settled intramurally by bureaucrats who used sympathetic journalists to discredit their opponents while foreclosing rebuttal. "Security of classified information" in wartime is the official reason why our ruling class thus cut Congress (and the American people) out of decisions on this and other vital matters. By the same logic, the CIA announced in 2010 that the president and his advisers had concluded that one Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen in Yemen, was so involved in terrorism that American forces would hunt him down and kill him. Of what capital crime was he accused? By whom? Who convicted and sentenced him? The experts. On the basis of what evidence? Sorry, can't say. Classified. Wartime necessity, you know.
Decision-making by "experts" rather than by people and procedures responsible to the American people has always been American progressives' prescription for American life. During the past decade, the pretense that America was at war has given this practice a major boost. For example, official and semi-official panels of experts from government, business, and the academy generated "studies" on the energy and health-care sectors of the economy. Based on these, the government promulgated regulations and presented Congress with demands that it approve massive legislation to "stop global warming" and to "establish universal medical care." These government-business-academic experts, i.e. this ruling class, presented their plans as demands because, they shouted, "the debate is over," and opponents are not qualified to oppose. Regardless of these demands' merits, such claims to authority are based strictly on the proponents' credentials. My point, however, is that these credentials are based largely on the government endowing these proponents with positions and money. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his farewell address, such expertise is a circular function of government power.
The event for which the decade is most likely to be remembered, namely the "great recession," was a similar phenomenon. When the financial bubble in mortgage-backed securities burst in 2008, the leaders of both parties, and pundits from theNew York Times to the Wall Street Journal, assured Congress authoritatively that appropriating some $800 billion for the Treasury to buy up "toxic assets" would fix the problem. Three out of four Americans dissented, in part because of widespread recognition that the U.S. government's increase in expenditures from $1.86 trillion in 2001 to $2.9 trillion in 2008, due in part to the war, was unsustainable. Yet Congress bowed to "expert" opinion. But the markets tanked, the fix did not work, and the economic collapse gathered momentum. The subsequent Democratic administration increased spending even more radically, to $3.7 trillion, roughly doubling federal expenses in a decade, and pushed the national debt over $14 trillion—almost equal to America's GDP. By 2011, 40 cents out of every federal dollar spent had to be borrowed.
As a prescription for salvation, the very same spectrum of experts that had certified the efficacy of bailing out big banks emphasized to Congress that the country needed to borrow more money and pay more taxes. Three fourths of Americans wanted neither to borrow more nor to pay more. The experts labeled them "irresponsible" and even "terrorists." The markets tanked again, and the great recession got a second wind. The 2010 census reported that in 2009 the inflation-adjusted median family income was $49,445, down from $51,161 in 2001. Although the official unemployment rate at this writing is only 9.1%, a truer measure of America's condition is that only 45.4% of Americans of working age are employed full time—a true definition of depression.
Whatever It Takes
The common denominator of our ruling class's domestic and international strategy in the post-9/11 decade is its determination to double its bet on already failed policies. This self-referential mindset is the root cause of America's decade of loss. The New York rescue worker's shout to President Bush to do "whatever it takes" summed up the American people's priorities: rid the world of the kind of people who trammel our way of life so that we can get back to living it. Congress' authorization for the use of force echoed that mandate. But as the ruling class set about "doing something" in response to the attacks, it started from the premise that the American people are ignorant and hardly worth listening to. Hence there was no need to depart from the ideas and policies with which the Establishment had identified itself. Nor was there any discussion in the mainstream media about whether those ways might have violated principles of statecraft to which it might now be necessary to repair.
In statecraft as in everything, understanding the problem correctly is prerequisite for doing no harm, and maybe some good. Because the Bush Administration took CIA director George Tenet's snap judgment that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were responsible "game, set, and match" for 9/11 as a warrant for identifying them with America's terrorist problem in general, it failed to ask the classic headwaters question: what is the problem? Had it done so, it might have noticed that the 9/11 hijackers were part of a wave of deadly disrespect for America that had been growing throughout the Muslim world—and not just there—for a generation. Had the Bush team focused on the realities that fed growing images of America as "the weak horse" (to use Osama bin Laden's words), they would have had to consider who were the major contributors to that disrespect, what they and their predecessors had done to incur it, and then to decide what actions would restore it.
That would have pointed to the Middle East's regimes, and to our ruling class' relationship with them, as the problem's ultimate source. The rulers of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority had run (and continue to run) educational and media systems that demonize America. Under all of them, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Wahhabi sect spread that message in religious terms to Muslims in the West as well as at home. That message indicts America, among other things, for being weak. And indeed, ever since the 1970s U.S. policy had responded to acts of war and terrorism from the Muslim world by absolving the regimes for their subjects' actions. For example, when Yasser Arafat's PLO murdered U.S. ambassador Cleo Noel, our government continued building friendly relations with Arafat, and romancing the Saudi regime that was financing him. Since then the U.S. government has given $2.5 billion to the PLO. Part of the reason was unwarranted hope, part was fear, and part was the fact that many influential Americans were making money in the Arab world.
An honest assessment of America's problem would have led the Bush team to ask: why, given how we have behaved, should any Muslim government take the trouble of restraining anyone inclined to do us harm? The local regimes know far better than we who among their subjects is inclined to do us harm. Their schools and media are anti-American because the regimes make them so. Why not change course and hold them fully responsible for any harm that comes to us from their subjects, no matter how indirectly?
Had the National Security Council, the CIA, the State Department, or the Pentagon thought in terms of forcing foreign ruling classes to live up to their responsibility to curb harm from within their jurisdictions, they would not have entertained the thought of trying to do that job for them. If a regime, say Iraq or Syria or the PLO, did not stop behaving as it had since the 1970s, the U.S. government could have overthrown it, and turned its remnants over to its domestic enemies' tender mercies. The U.S. would not have thought in terms of "nation-building," but instead would have maintained the distinction between our business and other countries' business. The short military operations that might have ensued would have wiped out the prominent people who are the sources of our troubles, quickly establishing massive incentives for their successors to respect America.
Instead, by supposing that America's problem was a singular bunch of renegades called al-Qaeda, supported only by a primitive band called the Taliban, the Bush Administration began the War on Terror as in effect a chase after wild geese. Even al-Qaeda, never mind countless other terrorists, got principal support from glitzy Saudis rather than from grizzled Afghans. The Afghan wild-goose chase was all the more ridiculous because catching these geese could not fix America's problems. Setting objectives other than the ones that rid you of your problems is the biggest mistake anyone can make in war.
After the 2001 invasion ousted the Taliban and put a substantial percentage of all "Afghan Arabs" in Guantanamo Bay prison, the number of terrorist acts for which the perpetrators claimed credit on behalf of al-Qaeda (though previously they had never heard of the group) increased geometrically. The Bush team explained that the network had "metastasized." The government thereafter simply labeled all significant terrorists "al-Qaeda." Doing this further clouded our understanding. Unlike cancer, crab grass, or the mythical Hydra, human organizations do not respond to severe cutbacks by instantly sprouting multiple new tentacles. No, more people took up anti-American terrorism after America's initial acts in the War on Terror because these acts had shown once more the impotence of American policy.
The logical consequence of the Bush Administration's error was that that henceforth it would be necessary to root out these previously nonexistent bands by long-term military intervention or outright occupation of foreign lands. The attempt to do jobs that only other governments can do—to mind others' business—meant a "long war" that no one could even think of ending. It resulted in failure after failure, met by pathetic attempts to redefine success. Instead of respect, such operations earned America yet more contempt.
How could anyone have imagined that killing or imprisoning in Guantanamo hundreds of low-level persons, evidence of whose relationship with anti-American terror was usually weak and secondhand, would keep America safe from terrorists while America continued, among other things, to prop up the Wahhabist Saudi regime, financing Yasser Arafat's PLO, and sparing Syria's terrorist Baath? Why suppose that the armed bands roaming Iraq and Afghanistan are anti-American terrorists who must be fought in their countries lest they come and strike America, when it was perfectly obvious that Iraqis and Afghans were fighting one another for local advantage and fighting Americans insofar as they got in their way? The answer seems to be that recognizing that the regimes and the cultures that spawn terrorists are the problem would force our leaders to acknowledge how mistaken they were in fostering those regimes, and how monumental the task of dealing with them really is. By fighting small fry, our leaders can pretend to be waging patriotic war while also pretending that hostile regimes are really not so hostile and that dallying with them had been the right thing to do all along. Thus did the crafting of operations that are not part of a plan for ending the war—operations that combined intrusiveness and fecklessness—open America to worse than terrorist acts.
Solidity of the home front, i.e., mutual trust between the people and their government, has to be statecraft's paramount priority. But the assumption on which our ruling class based its approach to internal security against terrorism—namely, that it is impossible to distinguish ordinary Americans from terrorists—negates the basis for mutual trust. Ordinary Americans, on whom the government imposed ever more intrusive security measures and whom it scolded for being "Islamophobes," reasonably felt that government might regard them as "violent extremists." Our rulers also went out of their way to appease the most unfriendly parts of America's tiny Islamic population, including seeking advice on the proper attitude to take toward Muslims from the transparently anti-American Council On American Islamic Relations. But this simply gave such people more power to further their agendas, while foisting upon the American people a dispiriting political correctness. How could anyone have imagined that any people would not lose confidence in elites that seemed arguably more solicitous of enemies than of fellow citizens?
What would have happened if, instead, our ruling class had approached the problem of internal security by reminding itself that the American people had secured American society very adequately during World War II and the Cold War, against enemies far more potent and who blended into American society more easily than contemporary terrorists ever could? Honesty would also have required admitting that the hijackers of 9/11 were able to succeed partly because the U.S. government had trained a generation of Americans not to interfere with hijackings. Our bipartisan rulers might also have reconsidered whether perhaps they might have erred by configuring new public buildings and reconfiguring old ones to treat the public, whom officials are supposed to serve, as potential threats? Our rulers might have paid attention to Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that America was much less policed than Europe, but suffered from less crime because ordinary citizens took public safety into their own hands.
Only with difficulty can we imagine post-9/11 America minus the razor wire (which anyone intent on mayhem can cut), minus the stanchions around public buildings (which any rented bulldozer can clear), minus the badges (easy to counterfeit), and minus the TSA screeners (whose uselessness is demonstrated by every "red team" test penetration). But we don't have to imagine that the passengers of Flight 93 took matters into their own hands the moment they realized that government rules were costing them their lives, and that, ever since, aircraft passengers have policed their flights with absolute efficiency. Nor do we have to imagine that ordinary Americans naturally recoil from and protect themselves against persons who display the kind of foreignness and animosity that Islamists and their sympathizers cannot hide. The 2006 case of "the flying Imams" showed the Imams' threatening behavior caused ordinary Americans to remove them from a flight and hence from the possibility of doing harm. Unfortunately, it also showed that the U.S. government came close to making the Americans' immunological behavior liable to civil penalties. Again and again, the American people are forced to confront the fact that its ruling class is not on its side.
After 9/11 President George W. Bush told the American people to go shopping and behave normally. In short: forget that you will never again be free to live as before. Think about money. This advice followed naturally from the government's decision to persist in its ways instead of lifting terrorism's burden from America. What might have happened if, instead, Bush had told Americans that the terror threat would not last forever, because their government would now undertake some expensive military operations that would soon allow normal life to resume? To support those operations the government would have had to cut back other spending and perhaps raise some taxes. No doubt, in fall 2001 the American people would have accepted these sacrifices. But they would have demanded results. Since the administration was not about to try that, it sought to satisfy the American people with the pretend-safety of "homeland security," with images of U.S. troops in combat, and perhaps above all with domestic prosperity fueled by record-low interest rates and massive deficit-spending.
This pretend-prosperity aimed not only to anesthetize criticism of endless war, but also to feed both political parties' many constituencies—the ruling class's standard procedure. Both parties joined in expanding federal guarantees for sub-prime mortgages, subsidies for education, alternative fuels, and countless activities dear to well-connected players. Both parties congratulated themselves for establishing new entitlements for prescription drugs and for medical care for children. When the "great recession" began in 2007 Democrats blamed Republicans' excessive spending on "the wars," while Republicans blamed it on Democrats' excessive spending on everything else. Both are correct, and both are responsible.
Ten years after 9/11, America is not at peace, is poorer, less civil, and less hopeful. But the experts are in charge as never before.
In the American political marketplace of 2012, the American ruling class's stock is at a historic low. President Obama and nearly all who vie to replace him try to disassociate themselves from the decisions of the past decade. So do most of our elites. But since none explains and accuses his own errors, it is by no means clear whether any have learned from their mistakes. More important is what the rest of the country may or may not have learned. For us to understand how these mostly intelligent people could have made errors so big for so long requires understanding the principles they violated, and the moral as well as the intellectual dimensions of their errors. More difficult yet, both intellectually and morally, is the essential task of explaining the hard choices that will be required to deal with the troubles bequeathed us by this decade of defeat.
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