Saturday, September 17, 2011

What We Got Right in the War on Terror

I was hoping to do some big analysis of Abe Greenwald's masterful essay, at Commentary, but never got around to it. This is simply the best piece I've read on the war on terror:

Abe Greenwald at Commentary

Over the course of the 10 years, American authorities foiled more than two dozen al-Qaeda plots. Those averted tragedies were not foremost on the minds of revelers who gathered to celebrate Bin Laden’s demise on May 1 at Ground Zero, Times Square, and in front of the White House. But if a mere few of the plots had materialized, those spaces might not even have been open to public assembly.

Not only have U.S. authorities managed to keep America safe from al-Qaeda for a decade; by the time he was killed, Osama bin Laden was barely a leader. Among the items recovered at his compound in Abbottabad were some recent writings, in which the former icon lamented al-Qaeda’s dramatically sinking stock and pondered organizational rebranding as a possible antidote.

His growing insignificance as a global player was not the product of chance. The marginalization of the world’s principal jihadist was the result of audacious American policy—indeed, the most controversial and hotly debated policy undertaken in the wake of 9/11. In the words of Reuel Marc Gerecht writing in the Wall Street Journal, “the war in Iraq was Bin Laden’s great moral undoing.” In his desperate attempt to drive American fighting forces out of Mesopotamia, Bin Laden sanctioned a bloody civil war in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. The carnage failed to repel the United States, but in the end, the countrywide slaughter of Muslims proved too much to bear for al-Qaeda’s own one-time and would-be supporters. The “Sunni awakening” that helped transform Iraq was an awakening out of al-Qaeda jihadism, and the blow it delivered to Bin Laden’s ambitions was stunning.

After the turnaround in Iraq, the landscape of the Muslim world suffered even greater changes—with ordinary Muslims rising to revolt against Persian and Arab tyranny, not against American hegemony. As Fouad Ajami has written: “The Arab Spring has simply overwhelmed the world of the jihadists. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, younger people—hurled into politics by the economic and political failures all around them—are attempting to create a new political framework, to see if a way could be found out of the wreckage that the authoritarian states have bequeathed them.”

It was the Freedom Agenda of the George W. Bush administration—delineated and formulated as a conscious alternative to jihadism—that showed the way. Indeed, the costly American nation-building in Iraq has now led to the creation of the world’s first and only functioning democratic Arab state. One popular indictment of Bush maintains that he settled on the Freedom Agenda as justification for war after U.S. forces and inspectors found no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The record shows otherwise. “A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East,” he said before the invasion, in February 2003. “Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both.”

And something of the kind has come to pass. “One despot fell in 2003,” Ajami has said. “We decapitated him. Two despots, in Tunisia and Egypt, fell, and there is absolutely a direct connection between what happened in Iraq in 2003 and what’s happening today throughout the rest of the Arab world.”

Thus, there are three intertwined achievements that have proved to be the dispositive features of American success in the war on terror: formulating the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East, reversing the course of the war in Iraq, and establishing a national-security apparatus to foil multiple terrorist attacks. It is no coincidence that they are also the most controversial foreign policies America has implemented since the Vietnam War.

September 11 was a hinge moment in American history. The attacks plunged the nation into a full-scale war against non-state entities. Any adequate American response had to break with previous approaches in previous conflicts. War could not be waged on parties inside states in the same way it had been waged on states themselves. Prisoners captured on a battlefield in a country not their own and with no interest in following the rules of conventional war could not be handled as they had been. Getting the edge on Islamist terror would mean fundamentally rethinking our approach to both the blunting of deadly threats and the shuttering of the political hothouses of the Middle East in which such threats thrive.

The adoption of these unprecedented and uncompromising means of war inspired animated debate in the United States. In fighting the war on terror, we have been told, America has become—depending on the accuser—either too dismissive or too enamored of democracy. Some on the left think our national-security apparatus undermines our defining ideals. On the right, outraged voices condemn our naive enthusiasm for helping to secure liberty for Muslims abroad, calling it a form of multicultural self-sabotage. After civil war seized post-invasion Iraq, critics from across the ideological spectrum denounced our misguided effort. The fits and starts and frustrations of the war decade have this one thing in common: we have done battle in an age when spectacular setbacks appear to provide irrefutable evidence of our own baseness and incompetence—a few years before drab good news arrives to refute both expert opinion and common knowledge.

The arguments that we have prosecuted the war on terror immorally and ineffectually are important, and deserve the respectful hearing they have received, even if many of those arguing these points have resorted to launching the most abject slanders and accusations toward those who believe the war on terror is just and has been fought honorably. To be sure, not everything the United States has done in the war on terror has been correct. Far from it. As Winston Churchill said, “War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” In the fight against Islamist terrorism, American blunders have come in all shapes and sizes, and in truth there are few small wartime miscalculations. This is especially so in an age of instant global headlines.

We continue to suffer for our biggest mistakes. Concerning the failure to catch Bin Laden and make serious efforts to nation-build early in the Afghanistan war, inaccurate intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons, and the Pentagon’s ill-preparedness for the Iraqi insurgency, there can be no absolution. These errors have cost the country tragic sums in money, credibility, and life. They also set our efforts back precious years.

But these blunders, great as they are, have not undone America’s outstanding accomplishments. Ten years ago, the most delusional optimist among us would not have predicted the irrelevancy of Osama bin Laden or a decade without another al-Qaeda attack, let alone a democratic Iraq and a transformative explosion of antiauthoritarianism in the Middle East.

Nor do American achievements in this war mean we are in a position to quit the fight. The notion that America achieved closure with Bin Laden’s killing suggests to some, perhaps even the occupant of the White House, that the war on terror has had its decade and the United States can now move on. “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” said Barack Obama this summer as he announced a sizable drawdown of troops in Afghanistan for the fall of 2012. The suggestion that our work is done has traction only because resolute American action at home and abroad have provided a sense of security so pervasive it now goes unquestioned.

The United States has fallen prey to false comfort in the past. So before we submit to the siren song of closure, we would do well to recall that that is exactly where this war began—and our retaining some genuine measure of security has been the result of thinking and acting more boldly than we have in generations.
Now go read the whole thing.