American Enterprise Online | 10.5.05
By Alan W. Dowd

After Washington, D.C., was sacked by a British invasion force in the summer of 1814, the American people faced a grim choice: fight on or sue for peace. The latter made more sense. After all, their capital city was ablaze, their government in hiding. But barely two weeks after the White House was torched, they defeated the British at Ft.McHenry.

After the infamy of Pearl Harbor, the American people faced a similarly grim circumstance: Fight the empires of fascism in a vicious two-front war or retreat into oblivion. They responded with Doolittle’s Raid, which offered but a foretaste of the fury that was to come. Soon, as Churchill marveled, “With her left hand, America was leading the advance of the conquering Allied armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan.”

As world war gave way to cold war, Americans answered Moscow's ultimatums with the Berlin Airlift, its lunge into Korea with the Inchon landings, its promise to bury the West with a promise to bear any burden.

So it should come as no surprise that after 9/11, Americans responded yet again by taking the battle to the enemy. In fact, the first counterstrike against al Qaeda actually took place on 9/11 itself, when passengers on that fourth plane-turned-missile stormed the cockpit of Flight 93 and prevented al Qaeda completing its mission.

What they began on that doomed jetliner, the US military continued and expanded on October 7, 2001. 

In short, taking the battle to the enemy is nothing new for Americans. As historian John Lewis Gaddis has argued, “In responding to the second attack on Washington and all the other horrors that took place on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration, whether intentionally or not, has been drawing on a set of traditions that go back to the aftermath of the first attack on Washington 187 years earlier.”

We have heard much about the costs of this response, especially the costs of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq; but seldom do we hear about the costs of inaction. What if the American people had instead chosen the path of least resistance and failed to live up to their historic character? The short answer to this question is that some things would be much different and some would be the same. Let us examine this latter category first.

Old Problems

Among the most common criticisms of Washington’s response to 9/11 are that it has isolated America, strengthened al Qaeda, and spurred certain states to acquire nuclear arsenals. Not exactly.

Even if there was no campaign in Afghanistan, no penal colony at GITMO, no diplomatic debacle over Iraq, the UN and the EU would still be at odds with Washington.

It pays to recall that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 awakened a long-dormant dream among Europe’s policymaking elite to transform the international system from one shaped by America’s “hard” power, which relies on the use or threat of military force, into one shaped by Europe’s “soft” power, which relies on diplomacy, treaties, and multilateral institutions. The war over how to go to war in Iraq was only the latest expression of this rift. From the UN arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia to NATO’s maddening war by committee in Kosovo, from the International Landmine Ban Treaty to the International Criminal Court, President Clinton had to deal with a range of European efforts to constrain American power in the 1990s.

Likewise, Washington’s problems with the UN predate the diplomatic train wreck of March 2003. The media mantra that more diplomacy and more time would have translated into more help from the UN on the Iraqi front is simply a fallacy. We now know that UN officials were involved in the Oil-for-Food scandal that enabled Saddam Hussein to buy assistance, interference, and acquiescence from key parts of the UN bureaucracy—which may help explain why much of the UN Security Council was AWOL as the US and UK attempted to bring Saddam into compliance.

Even without the “wars of 9/11,” as Simon Serfaty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies labeled the post-9/11 campaign, Osama bin Laden would still be plotting America’s destruction. After all, he launched this war at least five years before September 2001. At that time he demanded the withdrawal of US forces from Saudi Arabia. US troops left the kingdom after Saddam’s ouster, yet bin Laden’s war on civilization goes on. Simply put, the democracy-building projects in the Middle East do not make bin Laden or his followers hate us more or less.

Finally, contrary to the revisionists, America’s post-September 11 campaign did not drive North Korea and Iran into the nuclear club. With or without America’s war on terror, both governments would still be racing toward the nuclear finish line. They were well on their way in the 1990s. As a high-level North Korean official explained after the Kosovo War, “We’re not going to be another Yugoslavia.” His not-so-subtle point was that Pyongyang had learned that the only thing that gives America pause is a nuke.

As for Iran, the mullahs themselves concede that their scientists were conducting illegal plutonium-separation experiments throughout the 1990s.

Hard Questions

Contemplating what might be different today had the United States not responded in a forceful manner October 7 requires a bit more conjecture, but it doesn’t take Tom Clancy to sketch the outlines of that harsher, grimmer world.

Before wading into that world, it should be noted that some things—some worlds—would be decidedly better: Somewhere around 2,000 American troops would not be dead. Instead, they would be with their families, or going to school, or building their careers. Some 15,000 more would not be wounded. Instead of rehabbing at Walter Reed or replaying the nightmares in their minds, they would be whole.

But it’s possible—perhaps likely—that many more American civilians would be dead or wounded. In those days after the attacks on Manhattan and Washington, no one thought 9/11 would represent what it increasingly looks to be—the high-water mark for al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden certainly didn’t. Consider his 1996 fatwa against the United States, in which the terror mastermind mocks the American people for being cowardly, citing Beirut and Mogadishu. “Your problem,” he rages, “will be how to convince your troops to fight, while our problem will be how to restrain our youths to wait for their turn in fighting.” He vows to carry his jihad into “every part of the world.”

Soon after the maiming of Manhattan, he howls that “the defeat of America is possible, with the help of God, and is even easier for us—God permitting—than the defeat of the Soviet Union was before.” But then something changes. The promised follow-on attacks against America’s homeland never materialize; and the mass-murderer himself seems less certain. In fall 2004, for instance, bin Laden offers an olive branch: “Your security is in your own hands…each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.” 

So what happened? Somewhere on the long road connecting Manhattan and Kabul and Baghdad, bin Laden learned that America was not what he thought it to be. Viewing America through the grimy prism of our own popular culture, he didn’t grasp that beneath the soft outer edges of America’s democracy there exist muscle and bone that can withstand heavy blows and unleash an unspeakable fury:

  • In the four years since October 7, 2001, U.S. military and intelligence assets have fought in Afghanistan and the Philippines, in Iraq and Syria and Africa.
  • They have toppled the terror regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban; and they have stayed on to plant democracy.
  • As Iraqi President Jalal Talabani observes, US troops are preventing “a renewed civil war—renewed because there has already been a civil war in Iraq. For 35 years, Saddam and his Baath Party made war on the Iraqi people. The liberation of Iraq ended that civil war.”
  • And as Musab Zarqawi, the most active and effective of bin Laden’s lieutenants, lamented in a letter about Iraq, “Our field of movement is shrinking and the grip around the Mujahidin has begun to tighten…Our enemy is growing stronger by the day…This is suffocation.”

A New World

While it’s debatable how many more 9/11s America would have endured, it’s an absolute certainty that some 50 million people would still be under tyranny.

Whether or not the realists care to admit it, the rollback of tyranny and spread of democracy are essential ingredients of US security in a post-9/11 world: We know that tyrants in Syria and Iran use terror as a tool of foreign policy. We know that the Saudi system spawned bin Laden and his followers. We know that the Taliban tyranny ceded Afghanistan to al Qaeda. We know that Saddam deployed his own terrorist agents overseas, provided safe haven to non-Iraqi terrorists, and collaborated with both to fund and wage a postwar terror campaign inside Iraq.  

Planting free government in Iraq and Afghanistan has been costly. However, it has not been a waste. As Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has noted, the effort in Iraq has provided vindication to Washington’s post-9/11 doctrine, imperfect as it is. “The entrenched systems of control in the Arab world,” he argues, “are beginning to give way”: 

  • Intoxicated by the “purple thumb revolution” in Iraq, the people of Lebanon rallied to end Syria’s occupation, oust Syria’s puppet government and open the way to freedom.
  • According to a Pew survey of Muslim nations, sizable majorities in Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, and Indonesia “say democracy can work well and is not just for the West.” Slowly but surely, Afghanistan and Iraq are proving this day by day.
  • Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese political figure with no love for America, argues that “this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq, but when I saw the Iraqi people voting…it was the start of a new Arab world.”
  • Even beyond the Arab world, in the wider Muslim world, the aftershocks are reverberating. In March 2005, Spain’s Islamic Commission issued a religious decree condemning bin Laden and al Qaeda.

All of this is a result not of 9/11, but of 10/7.