By Paul Woodward, War in Context, August 20, 2007
Iraq Study Group ReportThe lie embedded in the conception of the “war on terrorism” was that it embodied the expression of American strength. On the contrary, what it did was capitalize on American fear by fostering the illusion that we could find safety through the might of the Bush administration. Anything that expanded that might would supposedly make us safer, while anything that diminished it would place us in jeopardy.
The goal of terrorism is and always will be to maximize the political scope and impact of isolated events. “Success” derives not from the act of violence itself but from the response that this triggers.
When Mariane Pearl was asked how the murder of her husband, Daniel Pearl, had changed her life’s purpose, her response was simple and resolute:
I think the point is that it hasn’t changed. That is my main achievement. Things like that happen to you, and the people that hurt you expect it to change your purpose. Part of my “revenge” was that my purpose wouldn’t change–not how I live, the work that I do or my approach to the world.
Historically, this is what “standing up to terrorism” has always meant and it is the reason politicians would insist, “we will not give in to terrorism.” But this is precisely what the Bush administration did — al Qaeda hoped to provoke a massive reaction; it was given exactly what it wanted.
Suppose the administration’s response had been low-key, bureaucratic, diplomatic, and political: air traffic halted for 24 hours; a comprehensive review and rapid improvement of airport and airline security procedures; likewise an overhaul of intelligence operations; a diplomatic initiative to lead an internationally coordinated response to terrorist threats; a regional political initiative drawing in support from Iran and Pakistan to apply pressure on the Taliban to shut down al Qaeda — not a shot fired. What rational person can dispute that had the administration adopted such a strategy the Middle East and the rest of the world would now be in much better shape and America would now be much less vulnerable to another major terrorist attack?
But that didn’t happen. Instead, President Bush declared a “war” and rather than performing an act of bold leadership, he capitulated to al Qaeda. A small organization that would never have the capacity to wage war was handed the greatest possible reward: it was elevated to the status of being an awesome global entity and absurdly treated as though it paralleled Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. Al Qaeda’s limited organizational reach was transcended by its being provided with unlimited ideological reach.
The iconic power and political significance of September 11 was a product not simply of the events themselves, but derived from the reaction that those events elicited from the American government and the media. That response elevated and sustained a level of public fear sufficient to short-circuit reason, marginalize dissent, and subvert the democratic process. Six years later, the political damage persists and continues to shape American politics.
For this reason, the challenge for the next president goes beyond the need to reengage the world (a goal whose importance I would not diminish in the slightest way); it is nothing short of attempting to restore democracy within what — even before Bush and Cheney entered the picture — was already an enfeebled political system.