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Op-Ed: What Should America Have Done After 9/11?

A recent book sheds light on the process of decision-making after 9/11.
Published: Sunday, October 28, 2012 10:33 PM


The liberal left were very critical of Pres Bush, Rumsfield and the neocons for getting the US into war with Iraq and sometimes even with Afghanistan.

When such criticism was voiced to me, I would always ask: What should the US have done as a result of 9/11 and never got a satisfactory answer.

Douglas Feith’s recent book War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the dawn of the war on terrorism, is a fascinating account of the days immediately following 9/11 and the intellectual debate which underscored the decision-making process.

Feith was the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy from the beginning of the George Bush presidency and as such was in the thick of things, enabling him to write this first-hand account.

In the beginning of the book, he lays out his career trajectory, which is worth noting. His father escaped from the Nazi killing machine and came to America just after Pearl Harbor. His grand-parents, three aunts, and three brothers were not so lucky and died in the Holocaust.

Feith took an interest in diplomacy at an early age and was particularly interested in studying how Britain attempted to manage the rise of Adolf Hitler through diplomacy. He writes “It was also obvious to me, with hindsight, that nothing short of war could have stopped, let alone reversed, Nazi aggression”. He, was at the time, a liberal, like all “good” Jews.

Feith studied international relations at Harvard College in the early seventies. A big issue at the time was how to promote peace through diplomacy between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He came “to distrust conventional wisdom and its optimistic assumption that negotiations and treaty relations could produce peace and stability between deadly enemies.” Smart man.

Other memorable quotes included:

  1. “But the ‘peace process’, I recognized suffered from the same lack of mutuality that impaired detente [with the USSR]. The Israelis and the Arabs were playing the game with incompatable motives. The Israelis intended to purchase peace and security; their Arab interlocutors were seeking territorial concessions without recognizing Israel –let alone urging their people to accept – Israel’s right to Exist.”
  1. “Diplomacy, it occured to me, was unlikely to produce good results if one party saw the talks as a continuation of war by other means.”
  1. “I believed that history and common sense, both warned against relying on international legal agreements to moderate the behaviour of totalitarian rulers who were unconstrained by even their own domestic laws.”

Before being appointed by Bush at the beginning of his Administration to the position of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, he obtained a law degree at George Washington U,, served in the Reagan administration for five and a half years with Richard Allen and practiced law for 15 years. As such, he was Donald Rumsfield’s right hand man.

At the outset of the book he takes pains to debunk the narrative of the main stream media about the “war mongering, pro democracy neo-cons”, of which he was one, who populated the Bush Pentagon. Contrary to popular belief, the neocons, he writes, urged Bush to tone down his democracy rhetoric and stressed the downsides of going to war more so than did the CIA or the State Department.

He was in Russia with other Pentagon military and civilian personnel on Sep 11, 2001 when he received word of the attack. In order to return to the US as quickly as possible, he and his entourage had to take a commercial flight to Germany the next day where a US military plane was waiting to take them, together with other high ranking personnel, to Washington.

The flight time was not wasted, as those on board took the opportunity to consider the terrorist challenge and how to deal with it. They understood that they had to deal with a terrorist network and a host of countries that were aiding and abetting them. But the problem was that there were at least a dozen such countries and the US couldn’t declare war on all of them.

They arrived in Washington at 5:00 PM on September 12th and Feith had to sprint to arrive at a meeting at 6:00 PM chaired by President Bush. Bush, he tells us, had a reputation for locking the doors promptly at the appointed time thereby denying entrance to late comers.

Bush set the stage by saying: “We believe we are at war and we will fight it as such. I want us to have the mindset of fighting and winning a war.” and “We won’t just pound sand”.

The next day, the President met with the National Security Council and other important players, including Feith, to give more definition of the task at hand. It had to be determined if the war was just against those culpable for the attack, namely al Qaeda, or against a wider target, namely, the jihadist network globally. The latter option was favoured by Rumsfield.

Powell put in his two cents by advising that we should make it clear to the UN and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) that “we are after terrorists, not Arabs and Muslims.” Feith also noted that Powell advised that the US should get Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy going “so we can show we remain engaged”. Evidently the OIC had been applying pressure on Bush to pick up where Clinton had left off.

Ultimately this “engagement” took the form of the Roadmap which was released one week after the invasion of Iraq. This was the price the Saudis were demanding for “cooperation”. (See Perfecting the Unifying Theory)

Sadaam Hussein, who had been a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration for eight years, was also discussed. Was he in any way involved? Should the US attack Iraq also? The problem with al Qaeda and Afghanistan was that there were few if any targets to destroy, so it was hard for the US to make a statement.

Iraq, on the other hand, had much to lose and attacking them would send a big message to other countries to desist from supporting terrorism. It was assumed at the time that Iraq had WMD’s. No one questioned this assumption. Bush insisted that the US go beyond just making a statement in Iraq and insisted on bringing about a change of government.

Bush challenged those in attendance to define the mission. It should not be a “photo-op war” he said. He stressed that time was of the essence.

In the decades preceeding 9/11, the US had suffered many attacks in which hundreds had been killed but none of them, individually or collectively, was enough to be considered an act of war instead of a terrorist attack. The US treated the latter as a criminal act requiring prosecution in the courts. This was different. This was war. But what did that mean

Feith writes:

  1. “Administration officials continued to use law enforcement terms like ‘punishment’, ‘justice’ and ‘perpetrators’ publically and in National Security Council discussions. In the interagency debates about the way ahead, the National Security Council Principals would test the President’s willingness to break with the standard law enforcement frame of mind.
  2. Americans and others instinctively understood that 9/11 was not an ordinary event in the decades-long history of terrorism and counterterrorism.. Bush got broad, bipartisan support when he announced that 9/11 meant war. But fighting terrorism strategically was little more than a notion. Having coined the term ‘war on terror’, the President now had to flesh out the idea that international terrorism was more than a conspiracy of provably guilty individuals.”

Because Iraq had been a center of terrorism for many years, there was no need to link it to al Qaeda or 9/11.

Secretary Rice presented three options: 1) attack al Qaeda only, 2) attack al Qaeda and the Taliban and 3) also attack Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz was against all three and insisted that “The chief purpose of the military action was not punishing those behind 9/11, but attacking those who might launch the next 9/11. Gen Myers, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, counseled caution; “Many of our NATO allies were beginning to move backwards demanding evidence before they would support military operations”.

The next day, Rumsfield announced that there was pressure on the president to “go soon”, but this created a danger that we might do “something hollow, inefficient or embarrassing”. He wanted the US to plan for a “sustained broad campaign” that would surprise people and include “economic, political and other moves, not just military action”. Rumsfield wanted to determine “[h]ow we should think about this?” before deciding “[w]hat do we do?”.

Feith was in agreement. It fell to Feith and Rodman to prepare a memo for the Sept 15th meeting of the NSC at Camp David. He writes, “The US had more than an al Qaeda problem, it had a terrorism problem. It was incumbent on the US to determine what action – military or otherwise – to take against which targets and on what timetable.”

And again: “we considered identifying the enemy as an ideology and using a term like 'radical Islam' or 'Islamist extremism'. “But we were reluctant to do so before the origins of the 9/11 attack were certain, and in any event we did not want to suggest that we were at war with Islam”.

Nevertheless he believed that all terrorists and their enablers must be confronted because “the US cannot tolerate continued state support for terrorism.” “The objective is not punishment but prevention and self-defense.”

But when you think about it, what right did the US have to invoke preemption against a network of terrorists, not all of whom were targeting the US?

Rumsfield explored the idea that the war on terrorism was in part a civil war within the world of Islam.

  1. “The Al-Qaeda terrorists are extremists whose views are antithetical to those of most Muslims. Their actions threaten the interests of the world’s Muslims and are aimed in part at preventing Muslim people from engaging the rest of the world. There are millions of Muslims around the world who we expect to become allies in this struggle.”

Rumsfield was proven wrong on both counts. Muslims remained loyal to Islam and did not become true allies.

Bush added to this when he said al-Qaeda members were practitioners of “a fringe form of Islamic extremism”. That being the case, what is mainstream Islamic extremism?

What the Bush administration was attempting to do was to attack the practitioners and the countries that supported them without taking on the ideology that motivated and informed them. But if they were to declare war on Islam, just as previous administrations had declared war on Communism or Fascism, what exactly would that mean?

In the latter case, America had set out prove and demonstrate that her capitalistic system and “we the people” form of government was better. In the former case, the US would have to utterly reject that part of Islam that imposes sharia and Jihad preferring instead the Judeo-Christian value system. This was a war Bush was not prepared to wage.

In hindsight, nothing permanent was accomplished, but the cost in American lives and treasure exceeded many times the costs of 9/11. Afghanistan is returning to the Taliban. Pakistan is destabilized. Iraq is heavily influenced by Iran and Russia. The Islamists have gone from strength to strength and have infiltrated the US government.