American Enterprise Online | 10.7.05
By Alan Dowd

An old military maxim warns that no plan survives contact with the enemy. So it should come as no surprise that Washington’s post-9/11 battle plan, which leaped from rhetoric into reality when the US military began to dismantle the Taliban on October 7, 2001, has yielded its share of, well, surprises. Some of these have been pleasant, some have been unpleasant and some have even been both. 

Among the pleasant surprises is the political transformation now underway across the Middle East, a transformation that even Washington’s critics concede is linked to its post-9/11 doctrine. “The American invasion of Iraq,” as Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese political figure with no love for America, put it, “was the start of a new Arab world.”  

If, amid that autumn of uncertainty in 2001, I had written that within 48 months a new Arab and Muslim world founded on representative government would be taking root, you probably would have logged off. Yet we now live in what Fouad Ajami has aptly called the “autumn of autocrats”: 

  • Afghanistan and Iraq have held democratic elections, pushing the terror regimes of the Taliban and Saddam ever deeper into history.
  • Lebanon has rallied to oust Syria’s puppet government, and the Syrian dictatorship finds itself isolated like never before. The only question is how the Syrian regime will end—with a violent crash or with a whimper.
  • According to a Pew survey of Muslim nations, sizable majorities in Morocco (83 percent), Lebanon (83 percent), Jordan (80 percent) and Indonesia (77 percent) “say democracy can work well and is not just for the West.”  

Muammar Qaddafi's stunning pre-emptive surrender of his WMD arsenal and al Qaeda’s failure to carry out another 9/11 also qualify as pleasant surprises—and both are the result of America’s aggressive post-9/11 doctrine.  

There have been pleasant surprises and political transformations at home as well. Four years ago, I wrote that perhaps America’s greatest challenge would be matching the enemy’s patience. Could a nation accustomed to bloodless, push-button wars hold its interest (or its nerve) once the trail to terror went cold, once our allies started to bleed and burn, once American bodies were dragged through some faraway city?  

Yes. All of these things have come to pass, yet the American people have continued to support this war effort. That could change, of course, but the fact that Americans are still willing to carry this burden after four years of bleeding and dying underscores just how much 9/11 has transformed us: Owing at least partly to the fact that a post-Vietnam America would simply not tolerate casualties, Carter (Desert One), Reagan (Beirut) and Clinton (Somalia) were quick to shut down operations as soon as US troops started dying. Likewise, the elder Bush’s decision to stop short of Baghdad was shaped by America’s low tolerance for casualties. 

The American people still don’t want their troops to fight or die in vain, of course; but they have rightly, if reluctantly, concluded that it is better for the troops to risk life and limb on foreign shores than for civilians to be evaporated on our own.    

Mercifully, there have been fewer unpleasant surprises than most of us expected in October 2001. The scarred state of transatlantic relations is one of them. There was a brief, unmeasured moment when Le Monde declared, “We’re all Americans,” when NATO invoked Article V, when the EU’s stalwarts on the UN Security Council seemed willing to bless America’s global war on terror. But that moment faded somewhere on the long road that connected Manhattan and Kabul and Baghdad.  

Why did it fade away? There are many reasons, including the possibility that it was just a mirage. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair concluded on the eve of the Iraq War, key European capitals simply failed to understand America’s “strategic anxiety over terrorism and WMD.” Likewise, Washington failed to understand Europe’s anxiety over war itself.  

Then there are those surprises that fall into both categories. Iraq and Pakistan top this list. 

As the statues tumbled in Baghdad, the world was pleasantly surprised that Saddam had failed to pull the trigger on his WMDs. It pays to recall that today’s war opponents—The New York Times and John Kerry, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder—all believed that Saddam was hiding WMDs. When he didn’t use them, some of us found a reason to breathe a sigh of relief; others found an opportunity to pounce on the president’s preventive war. And that leads us to the unpleasant surprises in Iraq: “Postwar” Iraq would be deadlier and bloodier than the war itself. After months of scouring Iraq, the US found only a dormant WMD program—but no WMDs—calling into question a central rationale for war (though not the only one). With only the gallows awaiting him, one wonders if the Iraqi dictator has taken any satisfaction from his last, deadly game with Washington.  

The pleasant surprise in Pakistan is what Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been able to do over the last four years—namely, hold onto power while publicly aligning himself with the US. Yet the further we drift from 9/11, the less helpful Musharraf becomes, which brings us to the unpleasant surprise in Pakistan. 

Recall that Musharraf initially agreed to support Washington without reservation: He promised to grant US aircraft over-flight and landing rights, to allow US forces access to Pakistani bases and borders and to hand over intelligence data. Musharraf has seemed to backslide on these commitments. While he deserves some credit for helping to nab a handful of al-Qaeda lieutenants, it’s important to note that Pakistan has blocked US forces from freely crossing the border in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, that Pakistani troops have fired on US troops at times and that most intelligence experts believe Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan. 

This invites a worrisome prospect: Is Musharraf unable to prod his military into capturing bin Laden or unwilling to give his military that order? Neither alternative is comforting. If the former is true, then Pakistan’s military and security forces are beyond the general’s control. If the latter is true, then the general is playing a game with Washington, a game that must come to an end. After all, the very centerpiece of Washington’s post-9/11 doctrine holds that the US will make no distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them.

Four years on, some have learned that lesson and some have not.