Ten years ago, in the shadow of the crater at Ground Zero, the smoldering
Pentagon and a field of honor in Pennsylvania, America found itself at
Today, a decade on, America is still at war.
Ten years after
the September 11, 2001, attacks, the time has come to assess the progress of
America’s war. But to assess its progress, we must first understand the
What war has the US been fighting since September 11? President
George W. Bush called the war the War on Terror. The War on Terror is a broad
tactical campaign to prevent Islamic terrorists from targeting
The War on Terror has achieved some notable successes. These
include Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan which denied al-Qaida free
rein in Afghanistan by overthrowing the Taliban.
They also include the
overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his fascist regime in Iraq, which played a role
– albeit far less significant than the Taliban regime and others – in supporting
Islamic terrorism against the US.
Moreover, the US has successfully
prevented multiple attempts by Islamic terrorists to carry out additional mass
terror attacks on US territory.
This achievement, however, is at least
partially a function of luck. On two occasions – the Shoe Bomber in 2001 and the
Underwear Bomber in 2009 – Islamic terrorists with bombs were able to board
airplanes en route to the US and attempt to detonate those bombs in
The fact that their attacks were foiled by their fellow
passengers is a tribute to the passengers, not to the success of the US war
The US’s success in killing Osama bin Laden and other senior
al-Qaida members is another clear achievement of this war.
But 10 years
on, the fact that Islamic terrorism directed against the US remains a salient
threat to US national security shows that the War on Terror is far from
And this makes sense. Despite its significant successes, the War on
Terror suffers from three inherent problems that make it impossible for the US
The first problem is that the US has unevenly applied its tactic
of denying terrorists free rein in territory of their choosing. In his historic
speech before the Joint Houses of Congress on September 20, 2001, Bush pledged,
“We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to
Every nation in every region now has a decision to make:
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward,
any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the
United States as a hostile regime.”
And yet, while the US applied this
principle in Afghanistan and Iraq, it applied it only partially in Pakistan, and
failed to apply it all in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. By
essentially ending its application of the counterterror tactic of denying
terrorists free rein of territory and punishing regimes that provide them
shelter, the options left to the US in fighting its war on terror have been
reduced to catch-as-catchcan killing and capturing of terrorists, and reactive
actions such as arresting or detaining terrorists when they are caught on US
On the positive side, these limited tactics can keep terrorists off
balance if they are applied consistently and over the long term. Taken together,
the tactics of targeted killing and financial strangulation comprise a strategy
of longterm containment not unlike the US’s strategy in the Cold War. US
containment then caused the Soviet Union to exhaust itself and collapse after 45
years of superpower competition.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE US’s containment
strategy in its War on Terror is undermined by the second and third problems
inherent to its policies.
The second problem is that since September 11,
2001, the US has steadfastly refused to admit the identity of the enemy it seeks
US leaders have called that enemy al-Qaida, they have called
it extremism or extremists, fringe elements of Islam and radicals. But of course
the enemy is jihadist Islam which seeks global leadership and the destruction of
Western civilization. Al-Qaida is simply an organization that fights on the
enemy’s side. As long as the enemy is left unaddressed, organizations like al-
Qaida will continue to proliferate.
It isn’t that US authorities do not
acknowledge among themselves whom the enemy is. They do track Islamic leaders,
and in general prosecute jihadists when they can build cases against
But their refusal to acknowledge the nature of the enemy has
paralyzed their ability to confront and defeat threats as they arise. For
instance, US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was not removed from service or
investigated, despite his known support for jihad and his communication with
leading jihadists. Rather, he was promoted and placed in a position where he was
capable of massacring 12 soldiers and one civilian at Fort Hood,
Had the US not been in denial about the identity of its enemy,
Hasan’s victims would likely be alive today.
So too, the US’s refusal to
identify its enemy has made it impossible for US officials to understand and
contend with the mounting threat from Turkey. Because the US refuses to
recognize radical Islam as its enemy, it fails to connect Turkey’s erratic and
increasingly hostile behavior to the fact that the country is ruled by an
In the face of the rising political instability and
uncertainty in the Arab world, the US’s refusal to reckon with the fact that
radical Islam is the enemy fighting it bodes ill for the future. Quite simply,
America is willfully blinding itself to emerging dangers. These dangers are
particularly acute in Egypt where the US has completely failed to recognize the
threat the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes to its core regional interests and its
The last problem intrinsic to the US’s War on Terror
is the persistent and powerful strain of appeasement that guides so much of US
policy towards the Muslim world.
This appeasement is multifaceted and
pervades nearly every aspect of the US’s relations with the Islamic
The urge to appeasement caused the US to divorce the Islamic jihad
against the US from the Islamic jihad against Israel from the
Appeasement has been the chief motivating factor informing the
US’s intense support for Palestinian statehood and its refusal to reassess this
policy in the face of Palestinian terrorism, jihadism and close ties with
Appeasement provoked the US to embrace radical Islamic religious
leaders and terror operatives such as Sami Arian and Abdurahman Alamoudi as
credible leaders in the US Muslim community. It stood behind the decisions of
both the Bush and Obama administrations to embrace US affiliates of the Muslim
Brotherhood as legitimate leaders of the American Muslim community and to court
the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to the detriment of US ally former president
Appeasement stood behind the US’s bid to try to entice
Iran to end its nuclear weapons programs with grand bargains.
motivated US’s decision not to confront Syria on its known support for al-Qaida
and Hezbollah as well as Palestinian terror groups; its proliferation of weapons
of mass destruction; or its involvement in facilitating the insurgency in
It is what has compelled the US not to seek the dismantlement of
Hezbollah in Lebanon and indeed to fund and arm the Hezbollah-controlled
government and army of Lebanon.
The urge to appease has motivated the
US’s decision to take no action to stem the advance of Iran and its terror
allies and proxies in al-Qaida and Hezbollah in Latin America.
nation engages in appeasement at the same time it wages war, its appeasement
efforts always undermine its war efforts. This is particularly the case,
however, in long-term wars of containment such as the one the US is fighting
against Islamic terrorism.
The logic guiding a containment strategy is
that an enemy force will eventually collapse if kept off balance for long
enough. Given that militarily the forces of Islamic jihad are weaker than the
US, it is reasonable to assume that if applied consistently for long enough, a
policy of containment can indeed cause the forces of global jihad to
The chronic instability of the Iranian regime and the current
unrest in Syria demonstrate the structural weakness of these regimes. The
dependence of terror groups such as Hezbollah, al-Qaida and Hamas on the support
of governments make clear that containment could potentially defeat them as well
by drying out their support structure at its roots.
The problem is that
the US’s moves to appease its enemies empower them to keep
Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are far stronger militarily today
than they were on September 11, 2001. Hamas controls Gaza and would likely win
any Palestinian elections.
Hezbollah controls Lebanon.
Iran is on
the verge of nuclear weapons and is poised to become the predominant power in
Iraq. Its Egyptian nemesis Hosni Mubarak is gone.
Ten years ago Iran and
its terror allies and proxies could have only dreamed of having the presence on
the Western Hemisphere they enjoy today.
In Europe the threat of domestic
terrorism is more salient than ever because the jihadist forces and leaders on
the continent have been appeased rather than combated by both the governments of
Europe and the US.
The US was able to win the Cold War through its policy
of containment because throughout the long conflict there was strong majority
support in the US for continuing to pursue the war effort. Despite the
widespread nature of Soviet efforts at political subversion, US public opinion
remained firmly anti-Soviet until the Berlin Wall was finally
The US government’s moves to appease its Islamic enemies
undermine the domestic consensus supporting the War on Terror. And without such
domestic solidarity around the necessity of combating jihadist terrorists, there
is little chance that the US will be able to continue to enact its containment
strategy for long enough to facilitate victory.
Even as it has continued
to prosecute the War on Terror, since it came to power in January 2009 the Obama
administration has worked intensively to confuse the American people about its
nature, necessity and goals. President Barack Obama dropped the name “War on
Terror” for the nebulous “overseas contingency operation.” He has rejected the
term “terrorism,” and expunged the term “jihad” from the official lexicon. In so
doing, he made it impermissible for US government officials to hold coherent
discussions about the war they are charged with waging. Meanwhile, the public
has been invited to question whether the US has the right to fight at
Today the events of September 11 are still vivid enough in the
American memory for America to continue the fight despite the administration’s
efforts to discredit the war
in the national discourse and imagination. But how long
will that memory be strong enough to serve as the primary legitimating force
behind a war that even in its limited form is far from won?