September 11 retrospective: From the Twin Towers to Baghdad (1 of 2)
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in The Age of Sacred Terror (2002) reflect on the then much more recent shock of the 9/11 attacks:
There is no objective way to measure surprise. Looking back over the last century, however, it is difficult to think of any events as shocking - as completely unexpected by the overwhelming majority of people - as those of September 11. For six decades, Pearl Harbor was synonymous with the notion of surprise attack for Americans. But, in fact, on December 7, 1941, the public had been expecting a conflict with Japan for months, if not years, and the base was considered a possible target long before it was struck.
And they mention two critical aspects of the framework that both foreign policy experts and the general publics - as well as our already-broken national media - were applying to understanding international relations that opened the country to the awful excesses to which Dick Cheney and the Cheney-Bush Administration took us.
On September 10, ordinary Americans had no conception that one of the bloodiest days in the nation's history would be the work of terrorists, not of another nation. They did not identify Islamist radicals as a group intent on killing thousands. If pushed, they might have named skyscrapers in lower Manhattan as a potential target of attack, but mostly because the Twin Towers had been bombed eight years earlier. They had no inkling that a suicide attack on such a scale was a possibility or that any one on earth had the wherewithal, or, more important, the desire to carry out such a crime. In fact, most Americans, if asked, would have likely said that their nation had never been more secure. More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, it had become a truism that the world had not seen such a demonant power since ancient Rome.
Those two factors, the understanding of military threats as a threat from other states and Cold War triumphalism, were decisive failures in understanding.
The first of them fit in extremely well with the desires of the nationalist-militarist types like Dick Cheney and with the neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith with whom Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld shared so much.
Benjamin and Simon discuss how that concept of terrorism was reinforced for policymakers in the years leading up to 2001 by various experiences including the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 for which Libya was believed to be responsible. Iran's connection to Lebanese Hizbullah had made Iran's sponsorship of terror a prominent concern for American foreign policy. The terrorist attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 American service members were killed was suspected of being sponsored by Iran, but the lack of cooperation from Saudi Arabian authorities in the case prevented full clarification of the case.
The combination of seeing terrorism as a problem of state-sponsored terrorism and American tirumphalism would lead the Cheney-Bush Administration to embrace the concept of preventive war, although they were careful to use the term "pre-emptive war."
Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay in America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (2003) desccribe how President Bush wedded this conception of terrorism as a problem of state-sponsored terrorism into his expansive, unilateralist foreign policy aims:
The full extent of Bush's war on terror became apparent when he delivered his first State of the Union address in January 2002. "A terrorist underworld-including groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-i-Mohammed-operates in remote jungles and deserts, and hides in the centers of large cities," Bush told Congress and the nation. But that was not all. The threat facing the United States extended beyond these terrorist groups to rogue states such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea that were bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil," Bush warned. "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."
Then, using the most dire language heard in any presidential speech since John F. Kennedy's first State of the Union address four decades earlier, Bush declared that the United States could no longer afford to sit and wait until America was struck again. "Time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
The importance of Bush's address lay in clearly identifying a major new threat to the United States - the combination of terrorism, tyrants, and technologies of mass destruction. ...
The key elements of this emerging strategy, which reflected the administration's hegemonist worldview, were American power and leadership, a focus on rogue states, and the need to act preemptively. [my emphasis]
As Daalder and Lindsay explain :
[C]ritics argued that the Bush strategy suffered from considerable conceptual confusion, which had real policy consequences. Most important, it conflated the notion of preemptive and preventive war. Preemptive wars are initiated when another country is clearly about to attack. Israel's decision to go to war in June 1967 against its Arab neighbors is the classic example. Preventive wars are launched by states against others before the state being attacked poses a real or imminent threat. "What made war inevitable," the ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, "was the growth in Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta." The purpose of initiating war in these circumstances is therefore to stop a threat before it can arise. Israel's strike against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 was one example of preventive war. Cheney's argument that Iraq needed to be struck before it acquired nuclear weapons was another. Much of the Bush rhetoric - including the justification for the Iraq War - was consistent with the notion of preventive war, not preemption. Yet, while preemptive wars have had a long-recognized standing in international law as a legitimate form of self-defense, preventive wars did not. Not surprisingly, a resort to preventive war in the case of Iraq would prove highly controversial.