We all know to take with a big chunk of salt what presidential candidates say in primary election campaigns. They have to appeal to the party's base to get the nomination, the rhetoric will change once the general election campaign begins, etc. Sure, but ephemeral rhetoric can have lasting results, and not just in the sense of who gets the nomination. Michele Bachmann's comment, in an effort to whack away at Rick Perry's support, about how the HPV vaccine might be associated with mental retardation has caused understandable concern among health professionals that the remark will discourage use of a vaccine that has been proven to reduce disease, including some forms of cancer (and about which there is no evidence of association with autism or other forms of retardation). On foreign policy, a dominant theme in the Republican campaign has been to portray oneself as more militant toward worrisome states than one's opponents. Never mind what policies would or would not advance U.S. interests, seems to be the campaign strategy; just sound more angry and belligerent than anyone else about states we know Americans and especially that base don't especially like.
The states concerned take notice. And even though they have their own pieces of salt to put some of this rhetoric in perspective, there still may be negative effects on relationships and on U.S. interests to which those relationships are pertinent. The overseas edition of China's People's Daily has taken critical note of how Mitt Romney has changed his tune on China since he was governor of Massachusetts, when he talked of how the U.S.-China relationship “should be bridged instead of building a wall.” Now, notes People's Daily, Romney seems to be looking for opportunities to “attack China.” His inconsistent positions “demonstrate the bad trait of U.S. politics.” Of course, we don't need a Chinese newspaper to inform us that Romney is a flip-flopper, but the impression left goes beyond Romney. The Chinese article calls the United States “a country that is constantly looking for an opponent.”
Probably more dangerous is the rhetoric coming out of the Republican campaign about Iran—more dangerous because it propels a vicious circle of mutual hostility and threat perception that already has seen many rounds of escalation. Republican extremists and Iranian hardline extremists feed off each other's militant rhetoric. This is a rhetorical line that is likely to get only worse during the general election campaign. As Trita Parsi notes, “Whatever hawkish line Obama adopts, the Republicans will find a way to 'outhawk' him. As the memory of the Iraq invasion slowly fades away, Republican strategists calculate, the American public will return to rewarding toughness over wisdom at the ballot boxes.”
What I would like to reward at the ballot box is a candidate who demonstrates a sense of responsibility in realizing that campaign rhetoric has consequences that go beyond firing up a base or winning votes generally. Besides, if what a candidate says is all for electoral effect, how do we know he or she won't pursue policies once in office that are just as crazy as the campaign rhetoric?
The fulminations over the attempt by the Palestinian Authority to receive at the United Nations a multilateral affirmation of the principle of Palestinian statehood have been so viscerally unrelenting that one should pause to note just how contrary to logic, to evidence, and even to language these fulminations are. First is the idea that action by the United Nations, which is as non-unilateral as international politics ever gets, is somehow “unilateral.” This is a use of language that is something out of the stories of either Lewis Carroll or George Orwell, in which words mean whatever the user wants them to mean, even if that is the opposite of what they generally mean. Then there is the notion that such action by the United Nations is somehow a threat to, replacement of, or rejection of bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As Abu Mazen has repeatedly pointed out, it is no such thing. Nothing that takes place at the U.N. will draw any boundaries or settle any of the specific issues. All the final settlement issues would still be there to be negotiated bilaterally. Nothing that happens in New York will mean any less (or any more) negotiating work for Israeli and Palestinian diplomats.
All that could possibly result from action by the Security Council or General Assembly this month would be a partial leveling of the diplomatic playing field as Israel and the Palestinians address those issues in dispute and a reaffirmation of what the United Nations, the United States, the other members of the quartet, the Palestinians, and the Israelis—even, grudgingly, Benjamin Netanyahu—have all said should be the product of a peace process: a Palestinian state to live side-by-side in peace with the State of Israel. If, as many indications unfortunately suggest, Netanyahu and his government do not really accept that product or any Palestinian entity worthy of the name state, let him end the charade and say so.
The Israeli government has talked about “dire consequences” if an initiative at the United Nations goes forward. But the only negative consequences would be any that Israel itself chooses to impose, out of spite, revenge, to make a point or for whatever reason. The only reason Israel would be discomfited by U.N. action is the embarrassment that would come from a demonstration anew of how offensive the Israeli policy of clinging to, and colonizing, captured territory—the action that really is unilateral, and that really does damage the prospects for a negotiated settlement by creating even more facts on the ground—is to the community of nations. And the only reason the United States would veto any such action is that it is considered political poison within the United States for political leaders to go against strong preferences of the Israeli government, however inconsistent those preferences may be with the United States' own best interests.
None of this is about any threat to the security, integrity or legitimacy of the State of Israel. It is about Israel's continued grasp of occupied territories and the embarrassment that comes from Israeli policies toward those territories that are an affront to the sense of most of the peoples and countries of the world about what is right and just.
Although Israel's own policies have made the United Nations an inhospitable place for itself, Israelis would do well to remember that the closest thing to an authorization for the creation of their own state was an action by the United Nations. Any new action this month would effectively merely restate what that action back in the 1940s already stated: that two states should emerge from the mandate of Palestine, one for Jews and one for Arabs. The history and nature of the dispute between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine makes a United Nations role very appropriate, even if the specific issues still have to be settled through bilateral diplomacy. A less narrow-minded and more constructive approach by Israel and the United States would have embraced that role in response to the Palestinian initiative rather than pretending that the initiative is some kind of negotiation-killing rogue act, which it is not.
A U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution affirming Palestinian statehood would add to the harm the United States already has incurred by reflexively covering for whatever are the policies of the Israeli government of the day. It would be a direct, explicit rejection of what the United States has long said it supports: establishment of a Palestinian state. The harm of a vote against sovereignty for the Palestinians would be amplified by coming at a time when the demands for popular sovereignty by other Arabs throughout the Middle East are louder than ever before. A U.S. veto would be both shameful and damaging to U.S. interests.
Political Islam is a vocabulary that embraces a wide range of doctrines and ideology, including the moderate and the extreme. But you would never know it from commentary that lumps all Islamists together in a single pile. Some of the best examples are coming out of Israel, where, especially since the ouster of Israel's pal Hosni Mubarak, some Israelis are quick to see a threat under every Islamist. Other commentary tars the Muslim Brotherhood—either the Egyptian group of that name or the international agglomeration of Brotherhood affiliates—by pointing out radicals who have come out of the group. This is an odd way to implicate a group: to associate it with people who have departed the organization and then went on to commit whatever deeds made them notorious. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's decades-long commitment to nonviolent methods gets overlooked. If a group that has sustained such a commitment for so long is to be refused acceptance as a legitimate player in a newly democratic system, then the refusal indicates simple, crude Islamophobia.
The Arab Spring has produced some Islamists who are worth worrying about. As a front-page piece in Thursday's New York Times discusses, this is especially true in Libya. The fact that such concern is concentrated in Libya reflects the disproportionate role that Libyans have played in transnational terrorism and the near absence of prior moderate opposition leadership that can compete effectively with the radicals for power. Of particular note is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (classified by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization) who is now probably the most powerful military leader in Libya. Belhaj is not just a garden-variety militant who has long opposed the Qaddafi regime; he has lived and operated with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
How soon we forget that when the United States helped to depose Qaddafi, it deposed someone who was opposing radical Islamists of the sort that the United States is most concerned about opposing itself. And by opposing Islamists of any sort, he was effectively on the same side as Islamophobic Israelis. Accordingly it might not be so crazy, as raised by The Economist, for an exiled Qaddafi to find refuge in the Israeli town of Netanya, where many Israeli Jews of Libyan origin have settled. Some of the town folk have talked openly of welcoming the deposed Libyan ruler, and a square has been named Qaddafi Plaza. There also appears to be indication of Qaddafi having some Jewish ancestry, and perhaps of the sort that would make him Jewish under rabbinic law. Saudi Arabia, whose rulers hate Qaddafi's guts—and he theirs—clearly isn't open to Qaddafi as a place of exile. He might want to look into this Netanya possibility.
It is extraordinary that the makers of the Iraq War in the George W. Bush administration got so many people to go along with such an ill-conceived project of such a small number of zealous proponents (a “cabal,” in Lawrence Wilkerson's phrase). Being able to exploit the national anguish and anger over 9/11 was a critical ingredient, of course. But the success of the war-selling campaign was testimony to what a determined use of the opinion-molding capabilities of the government of the day, including the bully pulpit of the presidency, can accomplish. The dragging of even many Democrats and liberals into going along with the project was less a matter of instilling any specific mistaken belief than of instilling a mood and momentum. It was a matter of sending a war train hurtling down the track and daring anyone to get in the way.
The manufactured issue of an “alliance” between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda demonstrated the manipulative potential involved. Unlike the sales campaign's companion issue of weapons of mass destruction, there was no logical or historical basis for believing that such an alliance existed. The postulation of such an alliance also contradicted judgments of the U.S. intelligence community and other experts inside and outside government. Getting many members of the public to believe that such an alliance nonetheless existed was partly a matter of touting phony evidence such as a nonexistent meeting in Prague and of making highly tendentious interpretations of other reporting. But promoting this belief was at least as much a matter of rhetorical themes as of manipulated evidence. The belief was cultivated by repeatedly uttering “Iraq,” “9/11” and “war on terror” in the same breath. The cultivation was so successful that by the peak of the war-promoters’ sales campaign in late 2002 a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein not only was allied with al-Qaeda but also had been directly involved in the 9/11 attack.
Now there is evidence of how long-lasting such assiduously promoted falsehoods can be. Majorities may no longer believe in such untruths, but large minorities still do. In a new poll directed by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, 38 percent of Americans polled said that the United States had “found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.” In a somewhat differently formulated question, 15 percent said that “Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11th attacks” and another 31 percent—for a total of 46 percent—believed that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 but had given “substantial support” to al-Qaeda. Perhaps in an age when major presidential candidates doubt that natural life on earth has evolved or that human activities affect the climate, we should not be surprised at such officially instigated ignorance. But with nearly a decade having passed, with all that has been brought to light about the war-makers' sales campaign, and with all the costs and agonies of the Iraq War itself (and even allowing for some dissonance-reduction along those who supported the war and want to believe they did so for a good reason), these poll results are still remarkable.
A couple of implications follow about the present. One is that when an administration sets out to manipulate truth and falsehood as shamelessly as the promoters of the Iraq War did, the damage is not limited only to adoption of whatever policies the manipulators are promoting. The substantial lingering misconceptions among the public make for broader damage. The persistent mistaken beliefs among more than a third of Americans about Iraq and al-Qaeda greatly inhibit public understanding about terrorism, about the Middle East, and about how their own government has operated.
The second implication is that the government of the day, if applying enough single-minded determination, has tremendous power to sway the populace and generate support for new initiatives. This power could be used for good and not only for ill. Just imagine, for example, if the kind of concerted sales campaign that made it possible to do something as extraordinary as launching a major offensive war were to be applied to an all-out U.S. effort to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an effort still would run up against resistance from a strong lobby, but unlike with the Iraq War, selling the effort would not require manufacturing any issues or manipulating any falsehoods. Lack of resolution of the conflict really does hurt U.S. interests, and one could explain that while sticking totally to the truth.
Image by Deutsche Fotothek
Despite the enormous attention to Iran's nuclear program and the routine description of it as an enormous problem, measures intended to deal with this problem have an enormous gap. There has been no exploration jointly with the Iranians, and almost none unilaterally in U.S. policy discourse, of possible safeguards of an Iranian program that would include the enrichment of uranium. There are all manner of inspections, on-site monitoring, and other procedural arrangements that could be explored to determine if they might form the basis of an agreement that would meet the minimum needs of both sides. But the exploration has never occurred. All we have on the U.S. side are some mutterings by the secretary of state about how maybe, possibly, someday Iran could be entrusted with an enrichment program. The western stance of no enrichment, coupled with a political environment in the United States in which Iran is demonized and anything that could be interpreted as a favorable gesture toward the Islamic Republic is politically dangerous, has so far preempted any moves to fill the gap.
Last week the head of Iran's atomic energy agency offered in a speech to allow international inspectors “full supervision” of all of Iran's nuclear activities for five years if sanctions on Iran are lifted. The offer was vaguely worded, and issues of timing and sequencing regarding the sanctions part of the formula might be difficult to work out. But it would be a mistake to respond as Americans have too often responded, which is to assume the worst about the intentions on the other side and to act in a way that would make sense only if that assumption were true, even though we don't know it to be true. It would make far more sense to act with the realization that as far as we know the Iranian statement could be anything from a major breakthrough to a phony bit of rhetoric. The only way to find out is to explore the unexplored road and talk with the Iranians about it. If the favorable possibility turns out to be true, talking could be the first step toward a comprehensive safeguards agreement. If the unfavorable possibility turns out to be true, little or nothing is lost; in fact the Western case for pressuring Iran would be strengthened by demonstrating that the West is willing to go the extra mile.
The only way in which this approach would not make sense is if talk about peacefully resolving the impasse over the Iranian nuclear issue is preparation for later making a case for launching a war against Iran. Unfortunately, some in the United States (and in Israel) who comment a lot on this matter seem to be doing exactly that. And when those people come to say that war is necessary because peaceful means have been tried and failed, that statement—if the unexplored road stays unexplored—will be false.
My friend Mike O'Hanlon has provided in these spaces an accurate summary of recent security and political trends in Iraq. O'Hanlon has long been one of the best sources of good data on Iraq, presented in a form making it easy for the public to chew on. The first point O'Hanlon makes is that Iraq remains much less violent than a few years ago, notwithstanding some recent bloody attacks that have gotten what he regards as undue emphasis partly because of “sloppy journalists.” He seems to be anxious to counter any argument to the effect that if security in Iraq is going downhill than the military intervention there is a failure and ought to end. The implications of any trend in violence, up or down, for the advisability of continuing the U.S. military mission there, however, have never been self-evident. If the security situation is good, does that mean what we are doing must be working and we should continue, or does it mean the mission has been accomplished and we should leave? If the security situation is bad, does that mean we have more work to do in Iraq and should stay, or does it mean the mission is a failure and the sooner it ends the better? One can find versions of each of these arguments, which says more about the predispositions of people advancing the arguments than about implications of a security trend considered by itself. So one needs to look at other trends as well.
That gets to O'Hanlon's second point, which is that Iraq's politics, unlike the security situation, are going “backwards,” with plenty of discord and an inability of the sectarian and confessional communities to reach agreements. Accurate again. Sunnis greatly distrust Shiites, Kurdish ambitions are incompatible with Arab ones and so on. O'Hanlon rightly observes that Iraq's civil war “cannot yet be considered definitively over.”
So the externally assisted imposition of increased security doesn't correlate positively at all with movement toward resolution of Iraq's internal conflicts and toward a more stable political order. Insofar as the political situation is moving backward, the correlation is negative. It is most glaringly negative with regard to aspects of the current conflict that are not just a delayed playing out of contests that the Baathist dictatorship had forcibly suspended but are direct consequences of the U.S.-initiated war. This is especially true of one of the indicators of instability that O'Hanlon mentions: a significant presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda, which wasn't there at all before 2003.
Put these observations about current trends in Iraq together and the conclusion should be clear: because the U.S.-assisted security effort is not bringing Iraq any closer to political reconciliation and stability, the end-of-year deadline for extracting U.S. troops from Iraq should be observed, save perhaps for the approximately 3,000 personnel that the Obama administration envisions keeping there in a mostly training role. And yet, O'Hanlon's concluding point is much different: "Three thousand U.S. troops in Iraq is too few.”
How can a conclusion so contrary to the implications of the premises be offered? Partly it is the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel syndrome. O'Hanlon talks about “buying time” for Iraq—time for “wounds to heal,” “trust to be built” and so forth. But the required time would be, in terms of what is politically meaningful for Americans, essentially infinite. The wounds to be healed and the distrust to be overcome go back centuries in the case of Sunni-Shia relations.
We are also witnessing another example of the tendency to view most peoples as harmonious by nature if immediate points of friction could be overcome, fears could be assuaged and appropriate legal formulas could be devised. Contain immediate threats to safety and security, the thinking goes, and people will find ways to resolve their differences. This was the premise underlying the surge in Iraq, and subsequent experience clearly showed the premise to be invalid. Similarly invalid thinking has been involved in peacekeeping missions in some other countries. The flaw in the thinking is that sometimes a conflict of interests is so substantial that no amount of reassurance or friction-reducing measures will resolve it. Sometimes the only thing that would resolve it is a test of strength in a civil war—a war that is allowed to be fought to a finish and not interrupted by outsiders, which only delays the inevitable. Edward Luttwak made similar observations more than a decade ago, arguing that sometimes the best thing for outsiders to do is to “give war a chance.”
Iraqis gotta do what they gotta do, even if that means waging more civil war. It ultimately does them no good, and it certainly does the United States no good, to keep intervening in their affairs with the vain hope of avoiding the unavoidable.
The attack by an Egyptian mob on the Israeli embassy in Cairo Friday night is a very bad development. The military rulers of Egypt have said and done a few of the right things (including eventually, though belatedly, sending commandos to rescue besieged Israeli diplomats), but they need to say more. The audience is primarily the Egyptian public, but also Israelis and the outside world. An appropriate statement might go something like this:
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces strongly condemns the violence at the embassy of the State of Israel. The perpetrators of this action will be punished. Anything approaching a repetition of this incident will not be tolerated. Members of the security forces are expected to perform vigorously all of their duties, including the protection of diplomatic properties. Those failing to do so will be severely disciplined. The inviolability of foreign diplomats and their premises is one of the most important principles of relations among states; it is just as important for Egypt as it is for other nations.
The council acknowledges the strong sentiments and concerns of the Egyptian people regarding some of the policies of Israel. Indeed, the council, like most people in the region, shares those concerns, which center on the continued colonization of occupied land and the denial of the right of Palestinians to their own state. But actions such as this violence will not bring realization of that right any closer; instead, it will only make it more distant. No one, Israelis included, can be expected to trust their neighbors to live up to agreements when embassies are being invaded and ransacked.
Egypt took a historic and leading role in trying to move relations between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors to a new and more peaceful level. Egypt made peace with Israel partly because such a peace is essential to any broader peace between Israelis and Arabs, including Palestinians. It is not the fault of Egyptians that our own efforts did not lead to a solution of the Palestinian problem. But peace between Egypt and Israel is just as important for a broader regional peace as it was before. Egyptian-Israeli peace also has been highly beneficial to Egypt and is certainly better than the costly wars of the past.
The council acknowledges the strong and understandable feelings regarding recent violence along our border with Israel. But no such feelings can ever justify actions such as took place at the Israeli embassy. In the incident by the border, both innocent Egyptians and innocent Israelis were victims. The two governments need to work together to prevent recurrence of such incidents. Any disruption in the relationship makes it harder to perform that task.
In recent months Egyptians have once again been a leading example for the people of the Middle East. Egyptians have been admired in our region and beyond for how they have combined vigorous assertion of their views with a responsible, constructive approach toward building a new order in their country. Destructive actions such as those Friday night are an embarrassment to our people.
Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform Amid the crescendo of stock-taking retrospective assessments marking the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, I suggested earlier this week that the most important retrospective reflection is to consider why the world’s superpower should have become so preoccupied with this one incident that ten years later there are still so many retrospective reflections about it. But I'm going to indulge in offering one more retrospective assessment. Consider it a corrective to much of the national self-assurance we have been hearing about how measures taken since 9/11 have made us all safer. In fact, some of those measures have not made us safer but instead have served the psychologically satisfying function of letting us pretend that we are fixing a problem. I focus on one particular measure—reorganization of the intelligence community—because I happen to be especially familiar with it and because it was one of the most prominent of the supposed fixes.
Americans, being denizens of a historically successful country, tend to think that with enough ingenuity and determination any problem they face can be fixed. The trauma of 9/11 elicited this attitude in spades. If something horrible like that happened, went the thinking, it must have been because some part of the government was broken; fix that problem and there would not be a recurrence of the horrible happening. Attention was especially focused on intelligence for several reasons: that it has traditionally been a focus of attention in this way, the unpopularity of the agencies concerned, an unrealistic view of what is knowable, and a belief that if the public were surprised by something than that part of the government must have been surprised as well.
The body known as the 9/11 Commission became the vehicle for fulfilling the public's yearnings in this regard and for achieving a kind of national catharsis after the tragedy of 9/11. The commission performed that role masterfully, hitting all the expected notes about making Americans safe by fixing a broken intelligence community. It did not matter that the intelligence community had actually provided strong strategic warning about the threat that would materialize on 9/11. The commission staff dealt with that inconvenient fact by producing a highly politicized report that conveyed a different impression, mostly by simply not mentioning a large portion of the relevant and accurate work that the intelligence community had done. It also did not matter that there was a lack of good new ideas about how to do such work better. The favorite Washington response when lacking better ideas for fixing something is to reorganize. So reorganization it was. The commission dusted off an old idea to separate the position of Director of Central Intelligence into two jobs. It added another proposal, also based on pre-9/11 ideas, for an additional counterterrorist center alongside the existing centers devoted to the topic. The net result of this rearrangement of the intelligence community's wiring diagram was more, and more complicated, bureaucracy. In a move pitched as addressing a problem of coordinating work of several agencies, it added a couple of new agencies whose work needs to be coordinated. In touting what supposedly was a fix to a problem of information flowing across bureaucratic lines, it added still more bureaucratic lines across which information must flow.
The commission did such a skillful job of providing the catharsis the public wanted, and its output was accepted so uncritically and automatically, that the description I just presented is jarringly at odds with the prevailing public perception of what both the commission and the intelligence community had done. I don't expect anyone to accept this description on the basis of these brief remarks here. A full appreciation of what took place requires a more detailed look at this subject, including a detailed examination of the commission's handling of the subject—an examination that has been almost entirely missing in the unquestioning acceptance of what the commission said and did. I invite the reader to consult my own attempt at such an examination in the relevant portions of a just-released book and to reach his or her own judgments on the matter.
The defects of a reorganization scheme that serves more as catharsis than as a better way to combat terrorism have been all too apparent in the six years that the scheme has been in effect. And yet the uncritical acceptance of what the commission said and did has meant a refusal—most conspicuously, of course, by people associated with the commission itself—to recognize those defects. Instead, the problems get blamed on something else. A recently issued “Report Card” by the National Security Preparedness Group, which is co-chaired by the 9/11 Commission's leaders and describes itself as a “follow-on” to the commission, expresses two laments about how the position of Director of National Intelligence, one of the new jobs the created, has turned out. First, the DNI has failed to be “the driving force for intelligence community integration that we had envisioned.” The report card talks about a possible need for giving the DNI more authority over budgets and personnel. But the inherent limitation in all this—the fundamental flaw in looking to such an official to be this kind of “driving force”—is that the intelligence community is a community, not a unitary organization, for good reason, and always will be. Most of the components of the community are in other departments because they serve those departments' intelligence needs, and the secretaries of those departments will rightly insist that it stay that way. The second lament is to note the rapid turnover in the DNI job, with four directors in six years. The report card doesn't mention the main reason for this: the severe and unavoidable frustrations and frictions stemming from the reorganization scheme itself, with unclear lines of responsibility and a disconnect between power and responsibility.
Ten years ought to be enough time for Americans to get over their overwhelming post-9/11 need for catharsis and reassurance and to look more critically at what was done for that purpose, including measures that pretend to be fixing something but really aren't.
The raft of retrospectives and stock-taking assessments as the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches is hardly surprising, given the impact that single event had on the national consciousness. But the enormous, and enormously narrow, preoccupation that the retrospectives reflect ought itself to be a subject of reflection. How could the most powerful nation on earth have tied itself in knots for so long over a single act of a band of hijackers? At an emotional level the response was understandable. If one can set aside the emotion, however, and soberly consider the interests of the nation, the forces shaping the contemporary world, and the ways in which those forces affect the national interests, then the national response to 9/11 has been a huge overreaction.
One would think from the response that as of September 11, 2001, there was suddenly a huge threat to the nation that had not been there before. But eight years earlier some terrorists of similar ilk had attacked the World Trade Center. Their technique did not prove as effective as the later attack, but their objective was at least as ambitious. The difference in physical results came down to technical matters such as the effects of burning jet fuel on steel girders. The national reaction to the attack in 2001 had much less to do with substantial new dangers in the outside world than with how we ourselves react to highly salient, highly distressing events. And yet, discourse about U.S. national security in the ensuing ten years has revolved around the notion that the world had changed so fundamentally that the nation's strategy, policy and priorities had to change as well in a way that centered them all on a single perceived danger centering on transnational terrorists.
Guided by that notion, the United States over the past decade has expended immense resources, significantly compromised some of its most basic values, and diverted attention from other serious problems to a degree that could never be justified by any well-reasoned assessment of the threat in question and what it can and cannot do to the nation. This observation is valid even without counting the single most self-destructive thing the United States has done over the past ten years: the Iraq War. That expedition was so far removed from any connection to 9/11 that to consider it part of the response is only to play into the war makers' propaganda about it being part of a “war on terror.” The Iraq War, which requires its own separate balance sheet of damage to U.S. political and economic interests, was instead a callous exploitation by the war makers of national anger and grief to build political support for their project.
Among the redirections over the past decade that have been more genuinely linked to 9/11, some have been disturbingly counterproductive. This has been true of some of the application of military force overseas, with all of its consequences and implications regarding the nurturing of negative images of (and hostility toward) the United States. Also counterproductive in a similar way has been some of the compromise to American values involving civil and human rights—and being a compromise of American values is reason enough for regret. The compromises have included unchecked assertion of executive power in ways that intrude on individual privacy, and they reached an extreme with the resort to torture. Changes in the political winds during the course of a decade have resulted in backing away from the worst excesses, but it is scandalous that the excesses ever went as far as they did.
The overwhelming priority given to the single issue of counterterrorism has distorted America's relationships with countries around the world in ways that have worked to the detriment of many other U.S. interests. Every country, even a superpower, has only a limited number of chits to use in getting other countries to act in ways conducive to the first country's interests. The more chits that are burned on behalf of any one objective, the fewer are left to be used on behalf of other objectives. Similarly, as Anne Applebaum notes in a perceptive column, the narrow, peremptory focus on counterterrorism has burned up a disproportionate amount of one of the nation's most scarce resources, which is the time and attention of its leaders. A result has been insufficient attention to some leading developments overseas as well as neglect and missed opportunities with a host of other important issues both home and abroad.
This all happened not only because of an amygdala-driven response of shock, fear and anger that policy elites might associate mainly with the unwashed masses. It also is due to something even more prevalent among the policy elites than the masses: a yearning for simplifying, all-encompassing themes that define eras and provide the basis for grand strategies. 9/11 had been preceded by ten years of the “post-Cold War era,” an unsatisfying concept that left politicians and the intelligentsia itching for something defined in terms more distinctive than merely that it had followed some other era. Along came 9/11, and they finally had the defining characteristic they were looking for, expressed most frequently as the “war on terror.” Such yearnings are not new, and neither are the dangers and detriments associated with them. The Cold War long served as such an era-defining and strategy-driving theme. Among the detriments of preoccupation with that overarching theme was entry into the Vietnam War.
After ten years, it is well past time to get over the oversimplifying, self-limiting posture into which America has put itself because of the preoccupation with 9/11. A single theme doesn’t make for wise national policy. There are many other things, both dangers and opportunities, that deserve more thought and priority than they have gotten during the past ten years—and that are worth more thought and priority than a band of hijackers.
Representative democracies—successful, stable ones—are fragile things. They require a set of attitudes and habits, which are not found in sufficient degree in most of the world's polities, that combine the concepts of majority rule and loyal opposition with an acceptance of the need to compromise. These attitudes and habits are even more important to successful representative democracies than are formal institutions, as suggested by the written constitutions of many authoritarian states that on paper look just as democratic as those in Western countries that are widely regarded as successful democracies. It is also suggested by the example of Britain, which makes do with no written constitution at all and whose government is, if stripped of those essential attitudes and habits, nothing more than a party dictatorship.
The political culture underlying successful democracies takes a very long time to develop. And although a long-established democratic culture has inertia, it can be seriously damaged in less time than it took to develop. A stable democratic system depends on trust and on the belief that others are observing the same restraints and the same unwritten rules as oneself. Any reason to discard that belief is thus a threat to the entire system. The dynamic is similar to patterns of urban crime, in which even small indications, such as graffiti, of an erosion of law and order encourage larger damage.
This is part of why the extremist methods taken up by Republicans in Congress, as practiced particularly by House Republican leader Eric Cantor, are dangerous. Significant economic damage has already been inflicted by the Republicans' recent taking as a hostage the nation's credit worthiness. Ben Bernanke was using restrained central-banker's language but could not ignore what had happened when he said last week that the debt-ceiling caper “disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well.” Over the long term, the political damage to the working of American democracy may be even greater than the economic damage.
The act of extortion involving the debt ceiling was not a one-off. Now Cantor has taken victims of Hurricane Irene hostage by insisting they should get no aid unless there are offsetting cuts in the domestic programs that he and his colleagues on his side of the aisle don't happen to like. Republicans in the Senate are getting in on the act as well, particularly through manipulation of the confirmation function. They are refusing to confirm even well-qualified nominees to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a way of trying to negate the legislation creating the bureau, which they also don't happen to like. As Representative Barney Frank, ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and a coauthor of that legislation, correctly described what is happening, the Republicans are “blatantly distorting the Constitution, substituting a refusal to allow the constitutionally mandated nomination process for the legislative process in which they simply do not have the votes to accomplish what they want.”
Paul Krugman's column in Friday's New York Times cuts to the heart of this attack on America's democratic culture. He points out how fraudulent is Cantor's posturing in the name of deficit reduction, especially given how Cantor and his colleagues had no problem with the huge unfunded expenditures of the Bush administration, most notably the Iraq War (which has cost about $800 billion directly, with the meter still running and not counting the ultimately greater indirect costs). As Krugman comments, however, this hypocrisy isn't even the biggest problem. Here's the biggest problem:
Not long ago, a political party seeking to change U.S. policy would try to achieve that goal by building popular support for its ideas, then implementing those ideas through legislation. That, after all, is how our political system was designed to work. But today’s G.O.P. has decided to bypass all that and go for a quicker route. Never mind getting enough votes to pass legislation; it gets what it wants by threatening to hurt America if its demands aren’t met.
This is the way any number of unstable, undemocratic Third World countries work, in which political outcomes are determined by whoever is best able to inflict or threaten to inflict harm on his countrymen if he does not get his way. We may still be a long way from having Somalia-on-the-Potomac, but the extremists in Congress have taken a step in that direction. The appropriate response by anyone who cares deeply about American democracy is to call the extremists to account, loudly and often, for how their methods are undemocratic and un-American.