Heightened public interest in the workings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission, is a welcome expression of public engagement.
But the scope of that interest has been severely constricted by the Commission’s limited focus on a partisan blame game. For two days of Commission hearings in late March, the public heard a parade of experts, staff aides and ex-officials talk about the failures of intelligence and policymaking that allowed the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The highlight of the hearing was the dramatic testimony of former counterterrorism director Richard Clarke, who charged that the Bush administration failed to prevent the attacks. Clarke’s testimony and recently published book, Against All Enemies, make a compelling case that the Bush administration downplayed al Qaeda-related intelligence compiled during the Clinton administration to push its own policy priorities and argues that the Bushites’ dismissive attitude allowed terrorists to penetrate the nation’s defenses. Clarke’s truth-telling has endeared him to many progressives, but this career bureaucrat, who served in counterintelligence posts under four presidents, also is a symptom of the problem and is only of provisional value to the left.
The stunted context that frames Clarke as a progressive is what limits the scope of the 9/11 probe. If blame were to be justly apportioned, it would have to extend into the distant past of American foreign policy formation.
Some Islamist radicals have declared war, or jihad, against the United States because past actions have convinced them that we are fighting against Islam. They have chosen asymmetrical warfare as their military method, what we call terrorism.
Faith-based suicide killing is an affront to civilization in its savage disregard for human innocence. But, in fact, it is not much different than indiscriminate death caused by impersonal Daisy Cutter bombs or Tomahawk missiles. We’ve killed many more innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq in our war on terrorism than the terrorists did on 9/11.
Where are the roots of their jihad? And does the United States bear any responsibility for nourishing those roots? To be truly effective in lessening the possibilities of future terrorism, the 9/11 Commission should seek answers to those questions as well.
But to do that we would have to expand the Commission’s mandate to look at how the United States advocated and funded Islamist opposition to the “godless Communists” in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the ’80s and to the Serbs in Yugoslavia a decade later. These groups evolved into both the Taliban and al Qaeda.
We would even have to look back to 1953, when the United States overthrew Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadeg and inserted Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah. The Shah’s repressive regime fertilized the field for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979, the first national triumph of Islamist doctrine.
The West, particularly Britain, has had its colonial hands in the Middle East for centuries, and in the 20th Century the United States got its chance. We’ve joined the fray in a bipartisan frenzy, intervening, either militarily or through covert action, in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Libya and Iran — and that’s just a partial list. (See William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.)
We’ve vetoed virtually every U.N. resolution condemning Israel for its barbarous treatment of indigenous Palestinians, and yet the United States subsidizes Israel in its expansionist policies and generously provides weapons systems that facilitate continued abuse of the Palestinian people.
What’s more, the United States provides protection and aid for oil-rich regimes that stifle all attempts at democratic expression, even as our rhetoric drips with pieties of democracy. Much of that U.S. history helped fuel the cause of the 9/11 terrorists.
“Bring it on,” we might say in response. If they are wishing for a martyr’s death, we will fulfill it. But that’s just macho talk. A hot conflict between America and radical elements of the world’s 2 billion Muslims would mean an end to global stability. Peaceful coexistence is the only option.
Thus, we at least should examine the source of their grievances — many of which derive from the sordid history of colonialism. Most anti-colonial forces in the West sympathize with those grievances, and today Europe is taking steps to amend for its colonial past.
But the United States is in denial. The refusal to own up to its dreadful history makes the world less secure and is one source of the growing tension between the United States and “old Europe.”
If the 9/11 Commission is seriously seeking to prevent future terrorism, it should focus on ending that deadly denial. Partisan blame games are just diversions.