September 11, 2008


Terrorism Fades as Issue in 2008 Campaign: But Both Obama and McCain Use National Security to Frame Larger Themes (Michael Abramowitz, 9/11/08, Washington Post)

The joint appearance at Ground Zero today by Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will not only commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks but also will mark a rare moment in the campaign when both candidates focus on terrorism, an issue that has lost prominence for American voters as the deadly attacks recede in the public memory. [...]

At this time in 2002 and 2004, about a quarter of all Americans polled by Gallup called terrorism or national security the country's top problem. That dropped to 16 percent in 2006, and now 4 percent of those polled deem those issues the most important the nation must confront.

"The whole issue has not gotten anywhere near the attention most people would have predicted four years ago," said Paul R. Pillar, a leading authority on terrorism and a retired CIA analyst. "It is kind of striking that this set of issues that became such a huge national preoccupation in the years after 9/11 has faded so much."

That is the most obvious indicator of how successful the War on Terrorism has been, that we live our quite productive and unencumbered lives without giving terrorism a thought. It is, of course, likely that we'll be hit again wherever, whenever, by whomsoever, but we better understand now that these are one-offs with no coherent strategy behind them. There are so few attacks each is known by its date: 9-11, March 11th, and 7/7.

Far from being an enemy on the march, the Islamicists are everywhere embattled and reduced to running from hovel to hovel in the historically ungovernable regions off eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, dodging Predators as they go. Because we are too decent to simply irradiate that area, a low level threat may simmer there in perpetuity. Or the local tribes may get tired of the infection in their midst and of our treatment of same and take matters into their own hands, as happened in Sunni Iraq (though we do well to recall, that only followed Shi'ite reprisals). At any rate, the fish are in the barrel, irrespective of how much fire we direct towards it. And this much remains certain, the Qaedists can never assert formal control anywhere because they are so vulnerable to our forces. The reduced interest of the American people in the problem of Salafist terrorist groups is an appropriate response to the real but minimal threat they pose.

Meanwhile, terrorism on the part of nationalist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas has practically disappeared as they've become the governments of virtual states. Formal recognition of Hezbollahstan and a Hamas-led Palestinian state awaits only the inevitable acceptance of political reality and strategic common sense by the polities of Israel and America. But even the limited sovereignty the groups now exercise --and we too easily lose site of the fact that the PLO and Hamas are now political parties contesting elections against each other -- has rendered them extremely vulnerable. Once become statelike and all of a sudden you have responsibility for infrastructure, citizenry, etc, that you'd not been burdened with as guerrillas.

As for the most notorious state sponsors of terrorism: we regime changed Iraq; Qaddafi and his son are changing Libya for us; Iran and North Korea are so boxed in they have to worry about preserving their own regimes; but Syria does remain to be dealt with, the one truly significant failure of the WoT. Assuming George W. Bush leaves office with the Ba'ath Party still in power in Syria it will be the big black mark on his record.

With regard only to the threat against us, were we Realists, rather than Americans, we would have to say that we have been successful beyond anyone's hopes on September 11th, 2001.

But we don't exist simply to secure our own homeland, and never have. We are also a people who seek to remake the world in our own image. There the story is more hit and miss.

Elsewhere in the Islamic World the status of the major Muslim population centers is decidedly mixed. India and Indonesia, with two of the largest such populations in the world, are not just functional democracies but vital new allies in the Axis of Good. When the main problem confronting India's government is that it's seen as too closely allied with America and for Indonesia is that its parliament is too powerful, you know they've come a long way.

Turkey is, likewise, a stable democracy, though its important alliances are more with Europe and Israel and are prickly. Algeria remains problematic but is enjoying an economic boom. Morocco and Saudi Arabia have kings leading their Reformations. The Sa'uds are especially important here, having funded so much of the rise of Salafism/Wahhabism they must now spend just as much to make Sunni Islam protestant again. At the same time, they have to shift their economy away from its dependence on oil and the government away from dependence on oil revenue. Though they seem headed in the right direction, they are certain to dissatisfy both their friends and their enemies by the pace at which they reform.

The three big problem spots in the Sunni world are: Egypt, where the Mubarak's have been overly afraid to Reform, for fear of losing power; Pakistan, where Reform is slowed by politicians' fears of being killed; and Bangladesh, one of those rare places where a military coup represented democratic progress. With so much else on our plate, we in the West have been willing to accept "stability" in these three countries rather than pushing their regimes to clean up internal corruption and make government more transparent and participatory. This bodes ill for the futures of all three and they'll likely end up consuming much of our attention as we go forward.

In Egypt, what Lawrence Wright calls the Great Prison Debates provide an opportunity to divide the Qaedists, provided that those who are renouncing violence and turning to political solutions are allowed to participate more freely in politics. After a flirtation with allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to compete in elections, the Mubaraks backslid this time around. It is a mistake on our part to allow them to delay the inevitable and we should bring all possible pressure--which is considerable thanks to the economic and military aid they receive--to bear on the regime to get it to share power with parties that more accurately reflect the will of the Egyptian people, even if those parties aren't as secular and pro-Western as we'd prefer.

Finally there is that most curious creature, Iran. To the extent that the main beneficiaries of the WoT have been Shi'ites, Iran and the U.S. have been implicit allies. Al Qaeda states what leaders of our two countries have had to deny, that Iran and America are partners in the liberation and rise of the Shi'a Crescent. But the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad--after Reformers boycotted the presidential election with our encouragement--has left them with a head of state who can't acknowledge that, nor reform their frail economy in the manner their Grand Ayatollah has begged him to, nor reach a rapproachement with America as its citizens wish him to. Happily, the Republic is sufficiently democratic that voters will soon have the opportunity to rectify their mistake. But the next government will face tremendous challenges trying to liberalize against the resistance of clerics, the intelligence services, military factions, etc.. It is always difficult to purge in order to democratize and we tend to by shy about supporting such efforts (recall how we shabbily we treated Augusto Pinochet). And if Ayatollah Khamenei does not act to make sure that the elections offer real alternatives to the radicals then we will need to treat the entire regime as the enemy, beginning by striking its nuclear program.

On balance there is much reason to be hopeful seven years after 9-11, but ample room for improvement. Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism is that--with the exception of the havoc that must be wreaked in Waziristan--most of the things we could improve are just matters of being truer to our own ideals. Thus, from Uighurstan to Chechnya to Kurdistan to Palestine to Hezbollahstan we need merely stand up more forthrightly for the right of distinct peoples to assume their own separate and equal status as nations of the world. From the Sudan to Syria to Turkmenistan we must insist on the principal that people are entitled to participate in governing themselves. We must combat Salafism with the idea of protestantism (small "p"), that while there is only one God there are various legitimate ways of worshiping Him and doctrinal differences that must be tolerated precisely because He is God, but we are just eminently fallible Man. And we must help alleviate the poverty that blights so much of the region by advocating for economic liberalization and freer trade. This trifecta that makes up the End of History--democracy, protestantism, and capitalism--is what we have defended and extended over the course of the Long War. If we consider the struggle to Reform the Islamic world as just the final chapter in that epic, and recognize how successful our formula has been everywhere else, we will find that even the most intractable seeming problems in the region are not unlikely to be manageable in the longer run.

One final thing we ought to consider--in keeping with the bipartisan spirit of the day--is just how little strategic difference exists between out two political parties as regards this War, though the tactical differences excite our passions. While one party might withdraw from Iraq more quickly or one bomb Iran more hastily, the broader reality is that either/both parties will work towards globalizing/liberalizing/Americanizing the Islamic World and either/both will ultimately succeed to some considerable degree.

Here's the link to the Brothers Judd collection of links from 9-11 and the days that followed. Some will inevitably be inactive by now, but you can probably find the original by entering the URL in the Wayback Machine. This still seems the best moment from the aftermath--President's Remarks at National Day of Prayer and Remembrance (The National Cathedral, 9/14/01, Washington, D.C.)--this the best instant essay, The Queen’s Tears (Mark Steyn, September 17, 2001, National Review)--and this the most evocative follow-up, The Falling Man (Tom Junod, September 2003, Esquire).

Please also let us know in the Comments if any of the ones you read are particularly good--we'll try to separate them out and post them separately, or if you see other stuff elsewhere today that should be added. Thanks

-The September 11 Digital Archive
-9/11/2001: Major Speeches and Interviews (Authentic History Center)

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2008 7:36 AM
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