Int. Perspective Archive

Another 9/11 Debate: America’s World Role

By Eugene B. Kogan

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s public testimony on April 8 before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks revealed important details about how the Bush Administration responded to the increasing threat of international terrorism before 9/11. While the commission continues to reconstruct America’s actions in the run-up to the deadly attacks, the Bush Administration must initiate a national debate about the strategic course that America has taken in the aftermath of 9/11.

Lost amid the barrage of mutual accusations between Rice and Richard A. Clarke, the former Bush counterterrorism tsar, are the seeds of a truly important dialogue about America’s role in the world. Rice was at pains this week to rebut Clarke’s scathing criticism that Iraq, not al-Qaida, was the “urgent” priority for the Bush Administration before 9/11. Yet, she did relatively little to address Clarke’s truly important point—that the Iraq war was a distraction from the war on terrorism, not its central part, as the Administration still argues.

The Washington Post editorial on March 23, while disagreeing with Clarke’s position, called it “a legitimate alternative to Bush administration policy.” The New York Times editorial on March 26 also called for “a grown-up national conversation of how best to deal with terrorism”.

The Bush Administration must level with the American people about 9/11, and about how the events of that day led America to adopt a misguided, unilateral foreign policy strategy—in Iraq and beyond.

The attacks of 9/11 robbed America of its sense of invincibility and security. Our leaders, however, made us believe that 9/11 showed that America was weak. 9/11 thus developed into a syndrome: that not to feel weak, we must act forcefully, whatever the rest of the world thinks. “In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action,” President Bush said on June 1, 2002 in his speech at West Point.

Our allies perceived 9/11 as a call for the world to unite in the face of the common danger of international terrorism. “What is at stake today is nothing less than the survival of civilization,' wrote former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country had previously suffered many terrorist attacks. The Bush Administration, however, took 9/11 not as an attack against civilization, but rather as an assault exclusively against America and the American people. President Bush’s demand, nine days later, that the world choose between “us” and the terrorists was superfluous. “Today, we are all Americans,” declared the French daily Le Monde on September 12. Its invincibility violated, America allowed itself to be blinded by righteous rage, ignoring the hand of help that the whole world extended to her. Squandering the opportunity to emerge as a leader of a world united in a common cause, this country instead chose the torturous path of world domination.

There is a glaring difference between domination and leadership: since 9/11, America has been in command, but rarely exercised real leadership. From Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October 2001 to Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, America chose to ignore what the rest of the world thought and, instead, pursued what it thought was best for the world. In Iraq, this strategy backfired. Many of our traditional and most capable allies refused to help bear the financial or military burden of reconstruction unless America started sharing political authority in Iraq—something this Administration has been steadfastly refusing to do ever since President Bush announced the end of major hostilities on May 1, 2003.

Americans Deserve to Hear the Truth about 9/11 and Iraq:

Truth #1:

The events of 9/11 robbed us of our sense of security. Forceful actions, while they demonstrate our might, do not always make us more secure. The Iraq war, for instance, has not made America safer. One of the rarely mentioned justifications given for the war was the need to open a new front in the “war on terror” in Iraq, in order to deflect terrorist attacks from the U.S. homeland. When speaking to the troops during his surprise Thanksgiving visit to Iraq on November 27, 2003, President Bush said: “You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don't have to face them in our own country.” If Americans are to judge the war by this standard, then we are certainly no more secure today than we were before March 2003. Just consider the record.

On December 21, 2003, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, announced that the national terror threat alert was being raised from “elevated” (yellow) to “high” (orange). He said: “The strategic indicators, including al-Qaida's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11th, 2001.” That the war in Iraq has not made Americans more secure could also be witnessed over the weekend of January 31 and February 1 when five flights from England and France were cancelled due to fears that terrorists can again attack the United States using hijacked planes.

Truth #2:

As our experience in Iraq teaches us, acting with arrogance diminishes the prospects of cooperation with the rest of the world. In the short term, no doubt, we can say that we do not care. We are strong enough to conduct foreign policy how we choose—alone or with a coalition of committed allies. However, this is unsustainable strategically because in order to defeat terrorism, a unified response from the international community is required.

Truth #3

Only if the U.S. begins to whole-heartedly cooperate with the international community, when confronting the threat of terrorism and other challenges, such as proliferation of deadly weapons, can the American people hope to regain at least a fraction of the pre-9/11 feeling of security.

A national conversation about America’s post-9/11 world role is long overdue. It is a conversation that every American family should have because we asall Americans have the biggest stake in our country’s future.

The author is an international affairs analyst in Washington, D.C. He writes and lectures on U.S. foreign policy, terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation.