From a policy perspective, there will never be just one legacy for the September 11th terrorist attacks. As that day's 14th anniversary came and went this past Friday, it was hard not to see how the fissures of its aftermath continue to color our political discourse.
To the neoconservatives in power at the time, the attacks necessitated a massive expansion of domestic surveillance powers, the adoption of "enhanced" interrogation techniques for intelligence gathering, and a policy of regime change for noncooperative states with links to violent Islamic extremism. Tax cuts, a massive expansion of government (notably the mess that is the Department of Homeland Security), and our country's two longest wars were, in their view, justified by the magnitude of the tragedy.
Until sectarian violence started to choke the dream of a small footprint in Iraq, the Democrats played the role of quiet passengers along for the ride. After awakening to the looming economic and political calamity, their narrative has been that Republicans ignored the necessary war (Afghanistan) while bungling a needless one (Iraq); all the while overstepping their constitutional bounds in Guantanamo and in CIA detention centers around the world—all of which Democratic leaders had been thoroughly supportive of, or at least unquestioning of, while it seemed to be working.
The chaos we confront today—the rise of ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the general rise in violent jihadism throughout the Middle East and Africa—is, depending on who you ask, either the result of a failure to followthrough on a just mission or the inevitable consequence of a flawed mission. While this debate will play out, again, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, the origin of the policies that led us to this point are more clear.
On September 16th 2001, just five days after the World Trade Center fell, US Vice President Dick Cheney sat down for an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. With the debris still smoldering, Cheney foreshadowed almost the entirety of what would become "The War on Terror".
See the video below for part 1 of 4 of the interview:
"Things have changed since last Tuesday. The World has shifted..."
Al Qaeda and Afghanistan
Within hours of the attack, Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda outfit had been publicly identified as the perpetrators. In the interview, Cheney described Al Qaeda as "like an internet chatroom" and declared that we must prepare for a protracted war, not simply against Bin Laden, but against terrorism itself.
Cheney: "His objective is to try to influence our behavior. To try to have us withdraw from that part of the world.... We are not going to allow him to change our fundamental beliefs."
It has been argued that Al Qaeda's goal was not to have the US immediately withdraw from the Middle East, but rather, to draw the US into a series of costly and calamitous ground wars that would eventually lead to a full withdrawal— a strategy the US had used vis-a-vis the Soviets in the 1980s. Rather than take the time to weigh the longterm interests of the United States alongside a justifiable desire for retribution, after only five days the Bush Administration had made up its mind to execute a fundamental shift in policy.
Cheney: "If you provide sanctuary to terrorists you face the full wrath of the United States of America. And that we will in fact aggressively go after these nations to ensure that they cease and desist from providing support for these kinds of organizations."
New US policy—while in actuality, only selectively enforced—would mandate a declaration of war against any country harboring international terrorists, starting with Afghanistan. Cheney goes on to express his belief in the legality of an ultimatum—that the Afghans turnover Bin Laden or face invasion—while simultaneously acknowledging that Bin Laden may no longer be in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, questioned as to the existence of a law preventing the targeted killing of Bin Laden, Cheney stated "not in my estimation".
21 days later, the US would invade Afghanistan and enter into (the ongoing) war— not against Al Qaeda, whose leadership had largely fled into neighboring Pakistan—against the Taliban. As of December 2014, the war in Afghanistan had cost more than $1 trillion with no end in sight and little meaningful progress toward stability—an amount that is more than the inflation adjusted cost of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
In the interview, Cheney presaged both this elongated state-building quagmire and the targeted assassination program that would define it—although the Bush Administration would fail to locate Bin Laden, Mullah Omar (Leader of the Taliban), or al-Zawahiri (Al Qaeda's #2).
Prior to 9/11, Pakistan had been the subject of US sanctions stemming from the 1998 detonation of its first nuclear weapon. Never a bastion of stability or sanity, Pakistan's government had deep ties with international terrorism and was a proud sponsor of a destabilized Afghanistan—to prevent a potential Indian ally at its backdoor. But as a nuclear power, its sponsorship of terrorism—like North Korea's and Iran's—would not be the subject of an unevenly-applied Bush Administration intervention policy. Instead, Cheney during the interview declared that Pakistan would have its sanctions lifted and become the recipient of increased foreign aid. Cheney also had this to say:
Russert: "Are we concerned about destabilizing a nuclear Pakistan?"
Beyond allowing military kit to flow through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, Pakistan was never onboard to defeat the Taliban. It was not until 2009, when thoroughly destabilized and with the Taliban 60 miles from their capital, that Pakistan got semi-serious about eliminating Taliban sanctuaries.
Russert was right to weigh the destabilization of Pakistan as a risk—the US couldn't invade or apply too much pressure without creating a worse problem—that would prevent the United States from ever defeating the Taliban or destroying all of Al Qaeda's senior leadership. Cheney, on the other hand, seriously misjudged Pakistan's resolve to meaningfully cooperate against what it had long viewed as its strategic asset (the Taliban) and failed to account for the frightfully destabilizing effect US policy in Afghanistan would have on a nuclear Pakistan.
Iraq and the Arabs
After Russert asks about popular support for Al Qaeda in the Middle East, Cheney (rightfully) responds that the United States would be wrong to conduct "a war against Islam." However, confronting a reality where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, Cheney declares that Saudi Arabia, rather than succumb to anti-American sentiment, is actually the principal target of regional jihadist violence and likely to be a willing partner—as will Jordan and Egypt.
Iraq is a different matter.
Russert: "Saddam Hussein, your old friend, his government had this to say, 'The American cowboy is rearing the fruits of crimes against humanity.' If we determine that Saddam Hussein is also harboring terrorists, and there is a track record there, would we have any reluctance of going after Saddam Hussein?"
The wry smile on Cheney's face as he provides this one word response is eerily foreboding of what has clearly been an itch for a long time—to topple Hussein's regime. The fact that Cheney already had Iraq in mind and could be so cavalier in promoting a tertiary war is deeply troubling. Apparently, he had forgot his own wisdom of seven years earlier:
What had changed Cheney's mind from the time of this interview—where, like a clairvoyant, he predicts the sectarian fracturing of Iraq, the ostracism resulting from an American-occupied Baghdad, and the ensuing regional chaos—will probably be lost to history. Instead, we are left with a $2 trillion dollar bill for a war that has destabilized the region, cost upwards of 200,000 lives, and positioned what is left of Iraq in alliance with Iran.
Intelligence and Security
To conduct the kind of dark world war against terrorism that Cheney envisioned, there would have to be a serious rethinking of US intelligence policy.
Cheney: "That is the world these folks operate in. It is going to be vital for us that we use any means at our disposal basically to achieve our objectives."
As he said they would be, so the hands were expeditiously untied. Indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping, and waterboarding became the policy of the United States government—despite their highly dubious constitutionality.
With such a broad security realignment planned (not to mention two military occupations), Russert relayed to Cheney the Democrats' concern of financially overextending; and that further investment in the ballistic missile defense and the proposed Bush tax cut be curtailed to pay for it.
Russert: So we can afford this ballistic missile system and a war on terrorism?
In two soundbites, Cheney summed up the Bush Administration's strategy for reelection—American taxpayers would not need to finance the war and opponents of their plan were either irresponsible or unconcerned about the security of America. Rather than make difficult choices, Cheney proposed, and so it came to be, having his cake and eating it too.
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