I must confess that I skipped most of the stories and columns on the anniversary of 9-11, but I did read a few, two of which are worth mentioning.
Surely the award for the strangest must go to the house editorial in The Washington Post . The column was notable for complacency and a peculiar weighting of the effects of September 11, but more than anything else, it was an attempt to defend the paper’s pro-war position.
It argued that “the conventional wisdom seems to be evolving from ‘We will be hit again’ to ‘Osama bin Laden won by provoking us into a decade of overreaction’ ” The latter position is that “al-Qaeda goaded the nation to curtail civil liberties and construct a monstrous homeland security apparatus while bungling into adventures abroad that birthed new enemies, sapped the American economy and distracted the nation from bigger problems.” The Post declined to endorse the new paradigm: “it would be dangerous if it took hold.”
The editors did acknowledge that not everything has gone well over the past ten years. “The nation stained itself with its treatment of foreign detainees and particularly its use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that had long been recognized as torture. By refusing to raise taxes to face the new reality, it endangered its fiscal health. The United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence . . . .” Homeland security programs resulted in ”an occasional total lapse of common sense and undoubtedly a large dose of self-dealing in the contractor world. . . .” But these, apparently, are relatively minor matters; on the whole, everything worked out for the best; as the caption of the column put it, “The gains outweigh the mistakes.”
According to the Post , even though “there were excesses in the earliest, most panicked years,” and “hateful acts against Muslim Americans,” there were no major assaults on civil liberties. “The Patriot Act enabled a modest, mostly court-supervised expansion of law enforcement vigilance.” No doubt that is why states and cities passed resolutions condemning the Act. We invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence, but apparently we were nonetheless right to do so: “The United States must protect itself at home as much as it sensibly can while taking the fight to its enemies overseas. . . .” The Post understands that invading countries is not a perfect solution to security threats; however, that simply leads it back to another rationale for dominating the Middle East: “aggression must be coupled with efforts to promote development and democracy in places that would otherwise breed terrorism.”
In case that isn’t enough backup, here are a few more theories: “The toppling of dictatorships in Iraq and Afghanistan gave two nations at least a chance at freedom, removed potential havens for America’s enemies and, along with the fall of dictators elsewhere in the Arab world, opened for Muslim-majority countries an alternative path to the medieval caliphate championed by Osama bin Laden.” Note the waffle on “potential” havens. The caliphate was an absurd fantasy, but by invading two countries and prolonging one invasion into the longest war in our history, we’ve provided an alternative dream.
Although it was irresponsible to cut taxes in war time, no big deal: “Over the decade, the United States devoted a far smaller share of its gross domestic product to defense than it did throughout the Cold War. Although it would be nice if those resources could go toward something more peaceful and constructive, the spending is not the cause of America’s economic difficulty.” As I understand the numbers, relative spending on “defense,” including many warfare-related costs not included in the DOD budget, is lower, but not “far lower,” than in the Cold War period. In either case, does that justify the wars? Spending on the wars, whatever its percentage of GDP, is one of the causes of our economic difficulty, along with tax cuts and the bubble-created recession, and it would be more than “nice” if that money had been spent on projects which actually would make us more secure.
Even if we have focused too much on war, the Post thinks that we can be excused: “if the U.S. foreign policy establishment hasn’t paid enough attention to the rise of China or the spread of AIDS, that shouldn’t be blamed entirely on the fight against terrorism; a great power will always have to do more than one thing at a time.” That doesn’t make much sense. If we, the great power, must do more than one thing at a time, why haven’t we?
“None of this means that the United States must remain perpetually at war.” Oh, good. “Having created an enormous apparatus to protect the country, we should be vigilant that it does not exaggerate the threat to justify its existence.” But there still are bad guys out there: “the greatest danger now may be premature retreat from a difficult battlefield.”85 Weaklings that we are, might be tempted to do that; after all, “it is human nature to be recaptured by the bustle of ordinary life. That we have had the luxury to do so is testament to the dedication of compatriots, in uniform and out, seen and unseen, fallen and surviving, who have fought and worked to keep the country safe.”
The last line is the one that most turns me off to the ten-year remembrance. If it were focused on the sacrifice of the first responders, the murder of those on the planes and in the twin towers, the brief moment of genuine togetherness, then yes, let us remember the date. However, too much of it is in one way or another a justification for the wars that followed, which often takes the form of praise for the soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan “to protect our freedom.” True, it is difficult to face the fact that most of the casualties in those wars were unnecessary and, as to national security, pointless. The dead, and the wounded, and those who gave years of their lives may have believed that they were defending the nation, but the wars have had far less to do with that than with misguided imperial adventures. We should remember them, and honor their loyalty and sacrifice, and provide for their care and for their families, but do so honestly, not use them as props in a tableau of faux patriotism.
The other column dealt with economic aims and effects, and addressed the new “conventional wisdom” which the Post disdains. Jon Talton, in Sunday’s Seattle Times , argued that a goal of the attacks was to “provoke a hysterical American overreaction that would begin bleeding the nation into economic ruin”, and asked, “Mission accomplished?” The source of his comment about al Qaeda’s goals presumably is a taped address by Osama bin Laden, broadcast by al Jazeera in 2004. Here is a summary by CNN:
"We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy, Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah," bin Laden said in the transcript.He said the mujahedeen fighters did the same thing to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, "using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers.""We, alongside the mujahedeen, bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat," bin Laden said.He also said al Qaeda has found it "easy for us to provoke and bait this administration." "All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations," bin Laden said.86
Talton stated that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “as well as other increased military spending” cost $1.469 trillion through the 2009 fiscal year. He didn’t cite his source, and it’s difficult to establish a firm figure. The studies I found place the direct cost of the wars as of the end of the current fiscal year at about $1.3 trillion, which surely is appalling enough. Talton also noted the estimate by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes that the wars eventually will cost from 3 to 6 trillion. He described examples of waste and crony contracts, which make the costs even more unpalatable.
He turned, rather irrelevantly, to “what might have been, either without 9/11 or with a different American response.” We have “taken no serious steps to address either climate change or looming worldwide oil scarcity, both of which will prove to be major national-security challenges as well as costly to the economy.” Infrastructure is neither well maintained nor, in some cases, modern. Education needs improvement, but we are laying off teachers.
These failures cannot be laid at the feet of bin Laden or the misdirected reactions to 9-11, as he acknowledged. Even without war, we might still have been too foolish to deal with climate change or other issues. Neither the attacks nor the wars required tax cuts, and the economy collapsed for reasons largely unrelated to war spending. However, Talton’s conclusion is apt: “The tragedy is that America still lacks an exit strategy — from any of these challenges and follies.”
85. In a column on Sunday, Jackson Diehl, the Post’s deputy editorial page editor, made a separate argument for staying the course, describing a policy which would have us stuck in Afghanistan at least until 2014. The house editorial argued on Monday that the GOP candidates have gone “AWOL from Afghanistan.”
86. Excerpts from the bin Laden tape are here: http://articles.cnn.com/2004-11-01/world/binladen.tape_1_al-jazeera-qaeda-bin?_s=PM:WORLD
and the full broadcast is here: http://english.aljazeera.net/archive/2004/11/200849163336457223.html