In an old Yahoo email archive, I stumbled upon and unearthed an email exchange between my friend Bruce Johnson and myself from the days following the 9-11 attacks in 2001. How hysterical, thoughtful or wise were we in those early days?
Not surprisingly, we believed then that the 9/11 attacks were a bigger historical event than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched massive American mobilization and involvement in World War II. We were clearly wrong about that. And yet, the problem of Islamic terrorism persists longer and has proven more intractable, if less of a direct threat to the United States, than we perceived in 2001. We would be surprised that there were no further mass attacks on the U.S.
“We were rather eloquent at times,” Bruce writes now of our post-9/11 email exchange. “To me, the overriding lesson is that in the world as in one’s own life many problems are long-term or even apparently intractable. I agree with what you said in 2001 about Americans wanting instant solutions. I think there are problems that not only don’t have instant solutions, they may not even have solutions. You deal with them, which isn’t the same thing as solving them. Had you asked a European in the Dark Ages how long he expected to fight barbarians I think he’d first have been surprised by the question and then would have replied, ‘Forever.'”
In 2001, I quoted a Taliban member who believed Americans were soft and lacked persistence, and would not stay in Afghanistan long. He found out different.
In retrospect, America has proven that it is tough enough to stay the course in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2016, even if we do sometimes seem to have lost our strategic objectives. I was right in 2001 when I asked skeptically what our strategic objectives were and predicting that it would become a quagmire. And yet, such skepticism about the war in Afghanistan became so politically incorrect that not even a peace candidate like Barack Obama could publicly acknowledge in 2008 that the US had lost its strategic objectives there.
On the other hand, in retrospect, in my emails from 2001, I maybe come across as a hand-wringing wimp, since I had no real solutions to the problem of terrorism other than a few strategic bombings on terrorist training camps, “following the money,” financial sanctions on those who cooperate with terrorists, beefing up intelligence-gathering and strategic killing of terrorists such as Bin Laden and his compatriots. After 9/11, the American people almost demanded that their president declare war on SOMEONE. We weren’t in the mood for long-term strategic calculations, but for a frantic, short-term search for security vulnerabilities, the possible perpetrators who might threaten our security in the future.
So we removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. And yet, their insurgent army is believed to be stronger today — 60,000 soldiers — compared to 40,000 in 2001.
By 2003, we invaded Iraq, without thinking through the long-term consequences and without prudent strategic calculations.
It is troubling that we are still fighting a war on terrorism 15 years later, and indeed, it may be a wider war today than it was then. Nowadays it is concentrated in Iraq and Syria, with a group, ISIS, even more radical than Al Qaeda.
There is some evidence that we have made things better in Afghanistan. The people are optimistic since the June, 2014 democratic election and say they are happy — unbelievably, happier than Americans.
We rid Afghanistan of the imminent threat of Al Qaeda and retaliated against the 9/11 training camps. In Afghanistan, we have apparently made Al Qaeda go underground, at least until we leave for good. Then radical Islamists might come back.
Clearly there was a flaw in the logic of those Americans who claimed there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until we toppled Saddam and that led to Al Qaeda flocking to Iraq to fight the Great Satan. In reality, ISIS seems to be indigenous to the region, rising up in the power vacuum created by an incompetent or hostile Shia-dominated Iraqi government and the power vacuum created by Assad’s lessened power grip in Syria.
I have no confidence that our very limited campaign against ISIS is effective. ISIS emerged from the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq. As long as Assad is in power, the vacuum will exist. But toppling him might make the civil war worse, unless we and Western Europe STRONGLY back some sort of alternative. But that smacks of colonialism, and would create its own opposition.
I have no solution for Syria.
Our only hope is that the new Iraqi government is strong enough to inspire confidence among Sunnis, and reduce support for ISIS in Iraq.
Sad, too, that we Americans are back to supporting a tyrant in Egypt, who routinely violates the human rights of Egyptian citizens. Egypt is no closer to democracy today than it was in 2001. We tried supporting democracy in Egypt 2011-12-13 and the US refrained from toppling the Muslim Brotherhood when it came to power, in hopes that democracy would bloom and have a moderating influence on the MB and bring them into the political process. After a year, the military toppled them, so that experiment was still-born. Now the MB has been forced underground, and is persona non grata throughout the Middle East. Except for Qatar. But the Arab world really can’t blame the US for that development.
I don’t have much hope for democracy in the Middle East. Authoritarianism, whether by Saddam or Assad or Gen. Sisi in Egypt, or by Gulf monarchies, may be the only way to prevent radical or fundamentalist Islamic groups from winning favor.
The autocratic, egomaniacal Erdogan, leader of the world’s largest Islamic democracy, Turkey, doesn’t look so great these days. Five years ago, I thought Turkey might provide a model for Islamic democracy. No more. Erdogan has revealed himself to be a bigot and control freak, if not personally corrupt, and oppressor of women, saying their primary job is to stay home and make babies. In office since 2003, power has gone to his head. And the opposition parties can’t seem to remove him through democratic elections, though he has clearly lost the support of the moderate Islamists in the Gulen Movement as well as the secularists in Turkey.
The UAE, tiny as it is, is looking like a diamond in the desert, an oasis of calm and share-the-wealth stability amid a region of autocrats and authoritarians.
This Thanksgiving, we can at least be thankful that America has escaped another terrorist attack. And for all the world’s problems, and America’s problems, we should be very thankful we are Americans, if only that we prefer our lesser problems (Ferguson, MO., etc) to their greater problems.
- When Stopping for a Cup of Coffee Was Difference Between Life and Death. An email conversation immediately post-9/11.