Based on what I’ve read and seen, the prevailing narrative on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is that the war on terror went pear-shaped. 9/11 presented a test, and we failed it.
On September 12, 2001, America was unified as it hadn’t been for decades. Our allies were fully behind us. But we blew it, or rather the Bush administration did by plunging us into war in Iraq. So I keep reading and hearing.
I disagree. My view is that we won the first 20 years of the long war on terror. Sure, we made many mistakes, as always happens in difficult wars. But there hasn’t been an attack on our homeland of anything remotely like 9/11’s scale in 20 years.
Few predicted this on 9/12, and the fact that the grim predictions of that time didn’t come true isn’t down to luck. It’s due largely to the war on terror.
This alone represents victory to me.
I would view things differently if the price of preventing major attacks had been a forfeiture of our freedom and core principles. But it hasn’t been.
Claims that America has become a surveillance state are wildly exaggerated. Indeed, we don’t hear them much anymore. When we do, they seem paranoid, at least to me.
This is not to deny that America is less free than it was 20 years ago. But our lack of freedom stems from speech codes, the cancel culture, and the pandemic, not from any overreaction to 9/11.
What about our obvious lack of national unity? This phenomenon too has nothing to do with 9/11.
It’s true that the Iraq war was extremely divisive, although not nearly as divisive as the Vietnam war. However, we largely overcame the divisions over the Iraq war, as we did with Vietnam. America reached a consensus (valid or not) that invading Iraq was a major mistake for which “neo-cons” were to blame.
The lack of nationality unity we experience today has next to nothing to do with Iraq or the war on terror. We’re bitterly divided because the left wants to transform America radically (it’s very open about this desire) and at least half the country — significantly more than half, I believe — doesn’t want major national transformation.
What about our relations with allies? Donald Trump alienated some of our allies through actions and words having nothing to do with that war. Joe Biden lost the trust and respect of many allies through his unilateral decision to pull troops out Afghanistan the way he did.
So yes, the way Biden is prosecuting the war on terror has harmed relations with our allies. But this isn’t what most commentators have in mind when they complain about what they consider the deleterious effect of the war on terror on our foreign relations.
Finally, let’s consider the state of play around the world when it comes to the threat of terrorism. In 2001, Iraq posed a threat. Saddam Hussein harbored terrorists. He plotted to assassinate George H.W. Bush.
As far as I can tell, Iraq no longer exports terrorism.
Afghanistan didn’t either for 20 years. With the Taliban back in power, Afghanistan might once again become a source of international terrorism. We can hope, however, that after 20 years of war the Taliban will be at least somewhat more inclined to deter al Qaeda and other such groups from attacking the U.S.
In 2001, the Saudis were key supporters of terrorism against the West. That’s no longer the case. The U.S. had something to do with this turnaround, although terrorist attacks within the Kingdom in 2003 and 2004 were a more important factor.
In 2001, the United Arab Emirates was one of only three governments in the world that recognized the Taliban — the others were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Now, the UAE has not recognized the Taliban, at least not yet. By contrast, as Fareed Zakaria observes, it has recognized Israel. Zakaria also points out that the UAE no longer panders to Islamist fundamentalists. Instead, it openly embraces most aspects of modernism.
What about the infamous “Arab street?” It too has been transformed. Zakaria cites polls about support for terrorism among Muslim populations. In 2005, 57 percent of the Jordanian public thought suicide attacks are sometimes or always justified. By 2009, that number was down to 29 percent. Zakaria cites similar results from “the Muslim” street in Indonesia and Pakistan.
The overall picture of the Islamic world that Zakaria paints is too rosy. He ignores instability in places like Libya, Sudan, and the Congo.
Zakaria also ignores Iran, a major exporter of terrorism in the Middle East and a potential exporter to the U.S. Of course, Iran’s biggest potential threat to world order isn’t its penchant for terrorism, but rather the likelihood that it will develop nuclear weapons. The war on terrorism didn’t produce this potential threat, but neither have we truly dealt with it.
In sum, I view the war on terrorism as a success because (1) for 20 years, we haven’t been attacked in anything like the way we were on 9/11, (2) we’re considerably less vulnerable to such an attack than we were in the months following 9/11 because of measures taken in response (coordination of intelligence gathering and heightened airport security, for example), (3) key state actors have turned against terrorism or, in some cases, been replaced by more benign regimes, (4) Islamic populations view terrorism far less favorably than they used to, and (5) we have accrued these benefits without forfeiting our freedoms and our principles.
Americans are considerably safer now than we were 20 years ago, though we aren’t fully safe.
Not great, but not bad for government work.