The Response to 9/11

The liberal left was very critical of President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and the so-called "neocons" for getting the U.S. into war with Iraq, an antipathy occasionally extending to the war in Afghanistan.  Whenever such criticism was voiced to me, I would always ask what the U.S. should have done as a result of 9/11.  I never got a satisfactory answer.

Douglas J. Feith's 2009 book War ‎and ‎Decision: ‎Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism, is a fascinating account of the days immediately following 9/11 and the intellectual debate which accompanied the decision-making process.  Feith was ‎the ‎undersecretary of defense for policy from the first days of the George Bush presidency‎ and ‎as such ‎was in the thick of things, enabling him to write this firsthand account.‎

In the beginning of the book, he lays out his career trajectory.‎  His father escaped from the Nazi killing ‎machine ‎ and came to America just after ‎Pearl Harbor.  His grandparents, three aunts, and three brothers were ‎not so lucky, dying in ‎the Holocaust.  Feith took an interest in diplomacy at an early age and was particularly ‎interested ‎in ‎studying how Britain attempted to "manage" the rise of Adolf Hitler through ‎diplomacy.  He ‎writes, ‎‎"It was also obvious to me, with hindsight, that nothing short of war could ‎have stopped, ‎let ‎alone reversed, Nazi aggression."  He was, at the time, a liberal, like all "good"‎ Jews.‎

Feith studied international relations at Harvard in the early seventies.  A big ‎issue at the ‎time was how to promote peace through diplomacy between Israel and its Arab ‎neighbors.  He ‎came "to distrust conventional wisdom and its optimistic assumption that ‎negotiations and ‎treaty relations could produce peace and stability between deadly enemies."‎  Smart man.‎

Other memorable quotes include:‎

But the 'peace process', I recognized, suffered from the same lack of mutuality that impaired detente [with the USSR]. The Israelis and the Arabs were playing the game with incompatible motives. The Israelis intended to purchase peace and security; their Arab interlocutors were seeking territorial concessions without recognizing Israel - let alone urging their people to accept - Israel's right to exist.

Diplomacy, it occurred to me, was unlikely to produce good results if one party saw the talks as a continuation of war by other means.

‎I believed that history and common sense both warned against relying on international legal ‎agreements to moderate the behavior of totalitarian rulers who were unconstrained by even their ‎own domestic laws.

Before being appointed undersecretary by Bush, he obtained a law degree at George Washington U, served in ‎the Reagan administration for five and a half years with Richard Allen, and practiced law for fifteen years.  ‎As undersecretary, he was Donald Rumsfeld's right-hand man.‎

At the outset of the book, he takes pains to debunk the mainstream media ‎narrative about the "war mongering, pro democracy neo-cons" populating the Bush Pentagon.  (Feith himself was accused of being one of them.)  Contrary to popular belief, the neocons, he writes, urged Bush to tone down ‎his democracy rhetoric and stressed the downsides of going to war more than did the ‎CIA or the State Department. ‎

Feith was in Russia with other Pentagon military and civilian personnel on Sep ‏‎11,‎‏ ‏‎2001‎ ‏when he ‎received word of the jihadi attack.‎‏  ‏In order to return to the U.S. as quickly as possible, he and his entourage had to take a commercial flight ‏to Germany the next day, where a U.S. military plane was waiting to take them ‏together with other high-ranking personnel‎ to Washington.  ‎The flight time was not wasted, as those on board took ‏the opportunity to consider the terrorist challenge and how to deal with it‎.  ‎They understood that ‏they had to deal with a terrorist network and a host of countries that were aiding and abetting ‏them‎.  ‎But the problem was that there were at least a dozen such countries, and the U.S. couldn't‏ declare war on all of them.

They arrived in Washington at 5:00 PM on September 12, and Feith had to sprint to arrive at a ‎meeting at 6:00 PM chaired by President Bush.  Bush, he tells us, had a reputation for locking ‎the doors promptly at the appointed time, thereby denying entrance to latecomers.  Bush set ‎the stage by saying: "We believe we are at war, and we will fight it as such.  I want us to have ‎the mindset of fighting and winning a war."  Also, "[w]e won't just pound sand."

The next day, the president met with the National Security Council and other important players, including Feith, to give more definition to the task at hand.  It had to be determined if the war would be carried out only against those culpable for the attack, namely al-Qaeda, or against the wider target of the global jihadist network.  The latter option was favored by Rumsfeld.  Powell put in his two cents by advising that we should make it clear to the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) that "we are after terrorists, not Arabs and Muslims."  Powell also advised that the U.S. should ramp up Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy "so we can show we remain engaged."  Evidently the OIC had been applying pressure on Bush to pick up where Clinton had left off.

Saddam Hussein, who had been a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration for eight years, was also discussed.  Was he in any way involved?  Should the U.S. attack Iraq also?  The problem with al-Qaeda and Afghanistan was that there were few if any targets to destroy.  Iraq, on the other hand, had much to lose, and attacking the country would send a big message to other states to desist from supporting terrorism.  It was assumed at the time that Iraq had WMDs, and no one questioned this assumption.  Bush insisted that the U.S. go beyond just making a statement in Iraq and instead aim at bringing about a change of government.  Bush challenged those in attendance to define the mission.  It should not be a "photo-op war," he said.  He stressed that time was of the essence.

In the decades preceding 9/11, the U.S. had suffered many attacks in which hundreds had been killed, but none of them, individually or collectively, was severe enough to be considered an act of war instead of a terrorist attack.  The U.S. treated terrorism as a criminal act requiring prosecution in the courts.  This was different.  This was war.  But what did that mean?

Feith writes:

Administration officials continued to use law enforcement terms like 'punishment', 'justice' and 'perpetrators' publically and in National Security Council discussions. In the interagency debates about the way ahead, the National Security Council principals would test the President's willingness to break with the standard law enforcement frame of mind. Americans and others instinctively understood that 9/11 was not an ordinary event in the decades-long history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Bush got broad, bipartisan support when he announced that 9/11 meant war. But fighting terrorism strategically was little more than a notion. Having coined the term 'war on terror', the President now had to flesh out the idea that international terrorism was more than a conspiracy of provably guilty individuals.

Because Iraq had been a center of terrorism for many years, there was no need to link it to al-Qaeda or 9/11.

Secretary Rice presented three options: 1) attack al-Qaeda only, 2) attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and 3) also attack Iraq.  Paul Wolfowitz was against all three and insisted that "[t]he chief purpose of the military action was not punishing those behind 9/11 but attacking those who might launch the next 9/11."  Gen. Richard Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, counseled caution: "Many of our NATO allies were beginning to move backwards, demanding evidence before they would support military operations."

The next day, Rumsfeld announced that there was pressure on the president to "go soon," but this created a danger that we might do "something hollow, inefficient or embarrassing."  He wanted the U.S. to plan for a "sustained broad campaign" that would surprise people and include "economic, political and other moves, not just military action."  Rumsfeld wanted to determine "[h]ow we should think about this" before deciding "[w]hat do we do."

Feith was in agreement.  It fell to Feith and Rodman to prepare a memo for the Sept. 15 meeting of the NSC at Camp David.  He writes, "The US had more than an al Qaeda problem, it had a terrorism problem. It was incumbent on the US to determine what action -- military or otherwise -- to take against which targets and on what timetable."  And again: "we considered identifying the enemy as an ideology and using a term like "radical Islam" or "Islamist extremism."  "But we were reluctant to do so before the origins of the 9/11 attack were certain and in any event we did not want to suggest that we were at war with Islam."  Nevertheless, he believed that all terrorists and their enablers must be confronted because "the US cannot tolerate continued state support for terrorism. ... The objective is not punishment but prevention and self-defense."

What the Bush administration was attempting to do was to attack the practitioners and the countries that supported them without taking on the ideology that motivated and informed them.  But if they were to declare war on Islam just as previous administrations had declared war on Communism or Fascism, what exactly would that mean?  In the latter case, America set out to demonstrate that her capitalistic system and "We the People" form of government was superior.  In the former case, the U.S. would have to utterly reject that part of Islam that imposes sharia and jihad, preferring instead the Judeo-Christian value system.  This was a war Bush was not prepared to wage.

In hindsight, nothing permanent was accomplished, but the cost in American lives and treasure exceeded many times the costs of 9/11.

Afghanistan is returning to the Taliban.  Pakistan is destabilized.  Iraq is heavily influenced by Iran and Russia.  The Islamists have gone from strength to strength and have infiltrated the U.S. government.

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