Editor's note: Pat Buchanan wrote this Sept. 11, 2001 analysis for Newsmax magazine's 10th anniversary commemorative edition. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, click here.
NOT SINCE PEARL HARBOR, 60 years before, had we been as united as in that September after Islamic terrorists brought down the twin towers. The nation stood behind the president in his resolve to exact retribution on the men who had done this, and those who abetted the mass murder of 3,000 innocents. And George W. Bush rose to the occasion.
Within three months, a northern alliance of anti-Taliban Afghans, assembled by U.S. special forces and supported by U.S. air power, had driven into Kabul and deposed Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden, architect of the massacre, was holed up in Tora Bora, his capture or killing seemingly imminent.
Fast forward 10 years. Bin Laden is finally dead. Seal Team Six saw to it. His body lies on the floor of the Arabian Sea. Yet, he will be among the most influential men of this century.
For, as Gavrilo Princip fired the shot that killed the Austrian Arch-duke in Sarajevo, setting in motion the events that led to the greatest war in history, bin Laden devised the blow that may have brought an end to America’s reign as the last superpower.
Princip was not responsible for the Great War. It was rather the miscalculations of the statesmen of Europe after June 28, 1914. And Osama, though he wounded and provoked America as she had not been since Dec. 7, 1941, did not bring down the American imperium. We did that to ourselves.
Ten years have elapsed since 9/11. Looking back, what did the wars launched in response to that atrocity cost? And what did they accomplish?
Taking Afghanistan and Iraq together, the longest wars in U.S. history, the costs have been immense: 6,000 dead, 40,000 wounded. Over $1 trillion sunk. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi dead. Half a million widows and orphans.
Four million Iraqis were uprooted; 2 million have fled into exile, half of them Christians. We unleashed the fury of Islam on the Christians of Iraq where the murders and martyrdoms do not cease. In a Muslim world we set afire, Christians everywhere face persecution as perceived allies of the “crusaders and Zionists.”
Al-Qaida has been eradicated in Afghanistan, but our wars spawned new recruits. Al-Qaida is now in Pakistan. There is an al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, an al-Qaida in Iraq, an al-Qaida in Maghreb, an al-Qaida in Somalia. By plunging into the Islamic world, we caused the infection to spread. And now America is coming home with some of our oldest friends alienated. Pakistan, an ally from the first days of the Cold War — Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane flew out of Peshawar in 1960 — has turned hostile. Blowback from the mission to kill bin Laden has been severe.
Turkey, a NATO ally that fought beside us in Korea, refused to let Bush use its territory to invade Iraq. Ankara has lately confronted Israel over Gaza, repaired relations with Tehran, and begun to highlight her identity as an Islamic state. The autocrats of Egypt and Tunisia, our allies in the war on terror, were deposed this year, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh barely survived an assassination attempt.
Cairo has allowed Iran’s warships to transit Suez, brokered the unity agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, opened its border to Gaza, and is re-establishing relations with Tehran. American displeasure is politely ignored.
Arab attitudes toward us are even harsher than in Bush’s final year. Only 5 percent of Egyptians hold a favorable view of the United States. In Morocco and Jordan, the figures are 10 and 12 percent, respectively.
In our own country, Iraq cost the Republicans control of both houses of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008, as the Democratic Party nominated and elected an anti-war man of the left. Obamacare is thus among the fruits of Bush’s war.
And what did we gain? With the Shia regime in Baghdad tilting to Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr a rising power, Sunni, Shia, and Kurd still at sword’s point, and terrorism returning, was that war worth it? Was it wise to invest 10 years of blood and treasure trying to build a modern nation out of Afghanistan? Or was that, in author-historian Barbara Tuchman’s phrase, “The March of Folly”?
Where did we go wrong? What brought us to the point, 10 years after 9/11, where we are heading home with the future of Afghanistan and Iraq in doubt?
For both these wars, George W. Bush bears full responsibility. For he was the indispensable man in expanding the mission in Afghanistan from taking down the Taliban and killing bin Laden to nation-building in the Hindu Kush. And he was the indispensable man in launching an invasion of Iraq that none of his predecessors whom this writer served — Nixon, Ford, Reagan — would have launched. Nor would Bush’s father, who ordered Gen. Schwarzkopf to halt at the Iraqi border after 100 hours of ground fighting in Desert Storm, have done so.
So why did George W. do it? A rare blend of moral arrogance, ideology, and ignorance of history produced what Gen. William Odom called “the worst strategic disaster in U.S. history.”
For Bush, 9/11 was a road-to-Damascus experience.
As he had been spontaneously converted in midlife to evangelical Christianity, the attack of 9/11 so seared itself into his soul that he became a different man. Consider: In November 1999, candidate Bush had repudiated the “indispensable nation” triumphalism of the Clintons and Madeleine Albright.
“Let us have a foreign policy that reflects the American character,” he had said at the Reagan Library, “The modesty of true strength. The humility of true greatness.” Debating with Al Gore, Bush went further: “The United States must be humble . . . in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.”
Hearken now to the post-9/11 Bush. “Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators [have] weapons of mass destruction,” said Bush, “Deterrence is less likely to work against rogue states willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people.”
Yet containment and deterrence had worked with Mao and Stalin, far greater monsters than the petty tyrants Bush faced. Not only were the core foreign policy doctrines of 10 presidents discarded, America’s war aims were expanded far beyond the destruction of al-Qaida. In June 2002, Bush told the cadets of West Point: “The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress [and] the requirements of freedom apply fully . . . to the entire Islamic world.”
America’s Christians may have failed to halt the remorseless march of secularism in our own society, but we were going to change the culture and thinking of tens of millions of people on the other side of the world who have been marinated for 14 centuries in a religion whose name is synonymous with “submission.”
This is hubris of a high order.
In 2002, Bush issued a “National Security Strategy” mandate instructing the world that America would not permit any nation to reach a level of power where it might challenge U.S. predominance in any part of the world we deemed significant to our security.
Foreign policy scholar and former soldier Andrew Bacevich wrote of the NSS that, “its fusion of breathtaking utopianism with barely disguised machtpolitik . . . reads as if it were the product not of sober, ostensibly conservative Republicans but of an unlikely collaboration between Woodrow Wilson and the elder Field Marshal von Moltke.”
Bush began preaching a world democratic revolution he would lead to decide the destiny of all mankind. In his second inaugural address, he declared, “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Hence, America shall commit herself to the “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Astonishing. With half the United Nation’s 192 nations ruled by autocrats and dictators, were we to overthrow them all? What had happened to Bush?
He lost sight of the real war against al-Qaida, a war in which even Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah were passive allies. The former, a whiskey-drinking secular despot, was despised by the Islamist fanatic bin Laden.
The Ayatollah hated the Taliban, who had murdered his diplomats. Instead of cobbling together a global coalition to fight al-Qaida, Bush, only weeks after the overthrow of the Taliban, went before the Congress to identify Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” that we must never allow to acquire weapons of mass destruction, even if that meant preventive wars by the United States.
Where on earth did Bush get his “axis” idea?
Iran and Iraq had fought an eight-year war in the Reagan decade. One was Arab and Sunni-dominated, the other Persian and Shia. North Korea had almost nothing to do with either.
Among the most reckless speeches ever delivered by a U.S. president, Bush’s “axis-of-evil” State of the Union split his country, split NATO, and forced the Islamic world into opposition against us, only months after 9/11 had brought us the sympathy of the world.
His neoconservative acolytes assured Bush that Iraq would be a “cakewalk” war. Moreover, they claimed to have evidence Saddam was behind the anthrax attacks, that Saddam was tied to 9/11, that Saddam was producing chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam was enriching uranium in schools and chicken coops.
To stop the stampede, several of us on the anti-war right launched The American Conservative. In the first issue, September 2002, I predicted what would happen when we invaded: “If Providence does not intrude, we will soon launch an imperial war on Iraq with all the ‘On-to-Berlin!’ bravado with which French poilus and British Tommies marched in August 1914.
But what comes after the celebratory gunfire when wicked Saddam is dead? With our MacArthur Regency in Baghdad, Pax Americana will reach apogee. But then the tide recedes, for the one endeavor at which Islamic peoples excel is expelling imperial powers by terror and guerrilla war.
“They drove the Brits out of Palestine and Aden, the French out of Algeria, the Russians out of Afghanistan, the Americans out of Somalia and Beirut, the Israelis out of Lebanon. We have started up the road to empire and over the next hill we shall meet those who went before. The only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.”
So it was that George W. Bush sent an army halfway around the world to invade and occupy a country that did not threaten us, did not attack us, and did not want war with us — to strip it of weapons it did not have. The ultimate unnecessary war.
Leading his crusade against “evil,” Bush did not understand bin Laden’s act of terror was political, crafted to inflame America and suck us into a wilderness where a humiliating defeat could be inflicted on this superpower, just as the mujahedeen had bloodied and broken the Soviet superpower. Bin Laden had snapped a red cape in front of the American bull, and George W. Bush charged into Afghanistan and Iraq.
What President Bush failed to understand is that terrorism, even of 9/11 horror and magnitude, is the weapon of the weak. It is the last recourse of those desperate to be rid of a foreign presence.
Across the Muslim world, we Americans are seen as the last of the imperial powers, the crusader state that came after the British. And as long as we intervene in the Muslim world to impose our views and values, and to maintain our troops, bases and satraps, we will be resented and resisted, even as we came to resent and to resist the British in our own country.
In June 1991, sitting next to the presidential reviewing stand as George H.W. Bush took the salute of the Army of Desert Storm as it marched up Constitution Avenue, I thought to myself, “This is how it must have been, when the victorious legions returned to Rome.”
We were on top of the world, a decisive victor in a Cold War that had lasted four decades.
Just months later, George H.W. Bush, at the apex of his prestige and popularity, was at the United Nations, committing America to creation of a “new world order.” Those calling for a post-Cold War policy rooted in the Washington-Jefferson tradition of “no permanent alliances” were abruptly dismissed. We can’t have “isolationism,” said George H.W. Bush. We can’t have “isolationism,” said his son George.
So, off we went into Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya. And here we are, 20 years on, more isolated than we have ever been — and bankrupt.
Where do we go from here? “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen in 2010, an echo of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
If not addressed and resolved, the deficit-debt crisis will eat up the resources we allocate to defense and destroy the dollar. A default would do to the U.S. system of alliances and archipelago of bases around the world what the fall of the pound did for the worldwide British Empire.
What America needs today is what she should have had, and failed to conduct, 20 years ago, when she emerged victorious in the Cold War, with no peer rival. She should have undertaken a bottom-up review of all the alliances and commitments made over 45 years of Cold War, severing and discarding those no longer essential to national security.
When the Soviet Empire collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the Red Army withdrew all the way from the Elbe to Russia, all U.S. troops should have come home from Central Europe, U.S. airbases should have been shut down, and control of NATO passed to the Europeans.
In 1961, Eisenhower urged John F. Kennedy to execute just such a withdrawal, lest the Europeans become military dependents of the United States, as they have today.
Why, two-thirds of a century after the end of World War II, does America still borrow from Europe to defend Europe? Why are we plunging deeper into unpayable debt defending rich countries that refuse to sacrifice to defend themselves? Why is their defense seemingly more important to us than to them?
Today, a third Obama deficit of 10 percent of GDP and a national debt of 100 percent of GDP are forcing upon us decisions we should have made 20 years ago.
Specifically, U.S. ground forces should be withdrawn from Europe. If Europe refuses to raise the divisions for its own defense, let Europe live with the consequences.
Second, the 28,000 U.S. troops should be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula. Seoul has an economy 40 times as large as North Korea’s, has twice the population, and access to U.S. weapons superior to anything the North possesses.
Third, U.S. troops should be moved out of Japan. America needs to become again the strategic reserve of Western Civilization, not a front-line fighting state. Why should U.S. soldiers be first to die in any future Asian war?
Fourth, with the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, those nations are going their own way and this nation would not tolerate a reintroduction of U.S. troops. The security interest we have in the Near East and Central Asia is that these nations not serve as base camps for terrorism and that the oil of the Gulf continue to flow to the West. U.S. air and naval power, which ought to be enhanced with the savings from base closures abroad, is the way to counter any attacks on threats from terrorist elements or rogue states in this vast region of the world.
America needs to review every alliance, every trip wire, every war guarantee dating back to a Cold War that has been over for a generation, and to sever some and renegotiate others.
She needs to reduce her military presence abroad, lower her profile, come home, repair and rebuild her military forces after a decade of attrition and war, and let other nations begin to provide for their own defense, as we had to do from the first earliest days of the republic.
America emerged victorious in World Wars I and II and the Cold War. But the nation that emerged triumphant from the post-Cold War era does not appear to be the United States. We need to understand what China has been doing right, and what America has been doing wrong.
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