It is not hard to understand why the judiciously written and copiously footnoted report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States debuted to widespread acclaim in July 2004. Coming as it did amid the febrile US presidential campaign season, the report rode the quadrennial wave of yearning for the cool solace of “objectivity.” The report was therefore pleasing to pundits who equate partisanship with bias and objectivity with bipartisan consensus. The Washington Post rejoiced that the commissioners, despite the political backgrounds of some, had in the end produced “a single document with no dissents and no additional views.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Tim Russert tried to get the commission’s chair Tom Kean, a Republican, and vice chair Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, to say they would serve jointly as national intelligence directors. Consensus, in this case, evokes the sense of community most Americans felt in the first days after the hijackings and mass murders of September 11, 2001 — while at the same time revealing the inability or unwillingness of political elites to explain fully to Americans why those attacks occurred.

In the preface to the report, Kean and Hamilton write that the ten commission members “endeavored to provide the most complete account…of the events of September 11, what happened and why.” Indeed, much of their work is tremendously valuable: the meticulous outline of how US counterterrorism policy evolved and the documentation of US actions and inactions. Greater transparency in budget appropriations is one suggestion for improving US intelligence agencies that is consistent with what a democracy ought to be about. Strengthening Congressional oversight has the potential to decrease the likelihood of “groupthink,” the reduced inquisitiveness and lapses in moral judgment that often result from collective gravitation toward the conventional wisdom.

The report also illustrates that much of what individuals within two different administrations “knew to be true” was actually false, born of a leftover Cold War mindset, stereotypes and an unwillingness to listen to dissenting voices inside and outside government. Particularly striking in this respect is chapter 11, “Foresight — and Hindsight,” in which commission members argue that “the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities and management.”

Implicitly, the mention of failures in imagination illustrates why the US government ought to pay more attention to the insights from academic institutions, think tanks (especially those outside the Beltway) and other non-governmental entities concerned with US policy in the Middle East and elsewhere than they currently do. For instance, a number of scholars, activists and even military personnel have argued for years that US “national security” involves more than counting the guns and troops available for deployment. As the US throws money at improving “homeland security,” it is worth recalling that former Coast Guard commander Stephen Flynn, political scientist Maryann Cusimano Love and others have long called for the improvements in communication capabilities between first responders proposed in chapter 12, a stronger public health system to make the US less vulnerable to chemical and biological attack, and transnational approaches to human security, broadly defined. Each of these suggestions would make the United States a better and more secure country, regardless of whether or not there is ever another September 11-style attack. There is no downside to these recommendations other than cost (which seems no impediment to the US when it comes to expenditures such as the war in Iraq), yet they received virtually no attention prior to September 11 and even now are given scant financial support, although they are certainly far more deserving of funding than the proliferating pork barrel projects in low-risk parts of the country.

The last two forms of failure mentioned, both of which deal with bureaucratic operations, are almost painstakingly, and damningly, examined throughout the report. It is clear that identifying these types of weaknesses is how the commission members chose to interpret understanding “why” the attacks occurred on September 11. This is unfortunate, for what policymakers — and ordinary citizens — need is a far more comprehensive way of understanding the “why” question than the report’s almost entirely technical approach provides. Here the careful political balance of the commission members conceals the shared belief structures — dare we say, the groupthink — that for many years have undergirded US foreign policy, leaving readers to assume that there is no alternative worldview to the one presented.

So it is also not hard to understand why the report elicited almost audible sighs of relief in Washington upon its release. No high-ranking official, past or present, was really blamed for much of anything. Both presidential campaigns were able to cite the report as an endorsement of their preferred approach to the “war on terrorism.” Neo-conservatives and their allies could read the chapters on the 1990s as an indictment of the Clinton administration’s failure to respond to al-Qaeda bombings with more than the occasional “pinprick” of a Cruise missile raid. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) could crow about how these chapters proved that Democrats prefer to treat terrorism “like jaywalking.” The right could further applaud the commission’s call upon the US to “investigate further” possible links among the hijackers, Iran and Hizballah. Everyone else could focus on the evidence that the Bush administration, in its early days, was not as concerned with al-Qaeda as its predecessor. The foreign policy “realists” who populated the administrations of Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton, and now dispense advice to Democratic nominee John Kerry, view the report’s reception as another sign that they will soon be back in charge. So enamored is the Kerry campaign of the 9/11 commission that several of its recommendations appear almost verbatim in the campaign’s book Our Plan for America: Stronger at Home, Respected in the World. It is worth asking what the realists have in mind.

The commissioners fully endorse the idea that the US is in a “war” against radical Islamism, stating bluntly: “But the enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil.… The catastrophic threat at this moment in history…is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.” (362) Like George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives, they use the language of war when prescribing a “global strategy.” Osama bin Laden and his followers, as they mention several times, obey edicts describing the US as the “head of the snake.” Whatever the historical reasons for jihadi hostility to the US, it “is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground — not even respect for life — on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated. ” (362) In Congressional testimony on August 10, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz quoted this passage approvingly as backing for Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” in the “Greater Middle East.”

Like the neo-conservatives, the report’s authors envision a war that could be waged on far-flung battlegrounds. Territory for potential “terrorist sanctuaries,” the report argues, stretches from Southeast Asia northward into Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then dips down into the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa before crossing over to Nigeria and Mali and then inching northward again into European cities with large Muslim populations. What security analysts once called an “arc of crisis” is starting to look like a sine wave. Preventing the emergence of terrorist sanctuaries, the report goes on, should be the first priority after attacking the sanctuaries that currently exist. “Every policy decision we make needs to be seen through this lens. If, for example, Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home.” (367)

Without a doubt, the 9/11 commissioners and the realists in the Kerry camp have a firmer grasp on realities about the “arc of crisis” than the neo-conservatives and their allies. Thankfully, the report does not recycle Bush’s know-nothing nostrum that radical Islamists want to attack the United States because “they hate our way of life.” Rather, the second chapter on “The Foundation of the New Terrorism” correctly locates the origins of al-Qaeda in the modern socio-political crises of the Arab and Islamic worlds, even touching lightly upon the role of the CIA and US allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in funding and arming the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, where the “Afghan Arabs” became fighters. The report does not present the autocratic regimes of the region as necessary bulwarks of secularism against political Islam, but rather shows how the regimes’ grim repression of Islamist dissent and closed political systems have pushed the fringes of political Islam in the direction of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s advocacy of extreme violence against the United States, the report continues, finds an audience because of anger about “issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to America’s support for their countries’ repressive rulers.” (51)

From these premises, the commissioners arrive at the common sense — but often ignored — conclusion that the war effort “should be accompanied by a preventive strategy that is as much, or more, political as it is military.” This is a critically important point. Even today, and certainly immediately after September 11, to acknowledge (however obliquely) the political roots of the attacks is to stand accused of being an apologist for terrorism. In this respect, the 9/11 commission report may have moved the center of gravity in the debate over terrorism away from the nativist hysteria that underpins much of the popular support for the war as the Bush administration has actually fought it. But the report does not follow through on its promise of a political strategy for destroying or utterly isolating al-Qaeda and associated groups. Worse, the few Middle East policy suggestions the report does contain are repackaged placebos or proven failures.

One would think, for example, that the commission’s historical research into the beginnings of al-Qaeda would lead them to reevaluate US alliances with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and South Asia. As they write: “One of the lessons of the Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most brutal and repressive governments were often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America’s stature and interests.” (376) To ignore that lesson, they say, is to risk losing the all-important war with “extremist ideas” in the region. Yet the report does not recommend loosening US ties with a single one of the regimes whose sclerosis it partially blames for the rise of al-Qaeda. The closest it comes to doing so is when it says that “the United States and Saudi Arabia must determine if they can build a relationship that political leaders on both sides are prepared to defend — a relationship based on more than oil.” (374)

Instead, the commissioners hail Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan as an exemplar of “enlightened moderation in a fight for his life and for the life of his country.” Since 1999, Musharraf has overthrown an elected government, quashed demonstrations against US bombing in Afghanistan by force of arms, anointed himself president in a fraudulent referendum, and given himself the prerogative to appoint the Pakistani Supreme Court and prime minister, as well as the power to dissolve the legislature as he sees fit. The 9/11 commissioners are willing to overlook these blemishes in exchange for Musharraf’s pledges of cooperation in preventing Pakistan from becoming a “terrorist sanctuary.” The US-Pakistani partnership, indeed, is a prime example of Cold War-style “alliances of convenience” forged anew in the post-September 11 era. When the realists advising the Kerry campaign talk about being “respected in the world,” this is what they mean.

As for the other two Arab and Muslim grievances capitalized upon by bin Laden, the 9/11 commission offers only pabulum about public diplomacy: “America’s policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world. That does not mean that US policy choices have been wrong. It means those choices must be integrated with America’s message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world.” (376) The clear implication is that if Arabs and Muslims object to unstinting US support for Israel or to the invasion of Iraq, they do so because US diplomats have not explained these policies well enough. Within the report, the authors do not entertain the notion that such objections might be legitimate — and hence the objections are coded as irrational. Strangely, the commissioners felt uncompelled even to summarize the history of US policy toward Israel-Palestine and Iraq, undoubtedly leaving much of their anxious audience in the United States wondering what all the fuss is about. Do US policy choices have consequences outside the realm of Arab and Muslim perception? One would never know from reading the 9/11 commission’s tome. The report dwells in detail on the Clinton administration’s decision to bomb the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, but does not mention that the US blocked a proposed UN Security Council investigation into the dubious justification for the raid. In interviews before the commission, Clinton officials stuck by their insistence that CIA soil samples showed the factory was making EMPTA, a possible nerve gas component. “No independent evidence has emerged to corroborate the CIA assessment,” (118) the report admits, although it omits reference to the private investigation (paid for by the factory’s owner, Salah Idris) that found no trace of EMPTA at the site. The report says that the Bush administration “deserves praise” for its action to topple the Taliban, but does not cite even a conservative estimate of civilian casualties of US bombing in Afghanistan. Nor is there any examination of the human rights records of the “Northern Alliance” warlords empowered by the Bush administration’s first regime-changing war.

Regarding Attorney General John Ashcroft’s post-September 11 “anti-terrorist” dragnet, the report pronounces that “the detainees were lawfully held on immigration charges” and refers only in passing to the “significant problems” in detainee treatment found by the Department of Justice’s inspector general. Only token attention is paid to the general challenge of protecting civil liberties. The commissioners cannot be unaware of the inadequacy of their summary remarks: “We must find ways of reconciling security with liberty, since the success of one helps protect the other.… Our history has shown us that insecurity threatens liberty. Yet, if our liberties are curtailed, we lose the values that we are struggling to defend.” (395)

Most glaringly of all, again, the report does not address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the ongoing occupation of Iraq, except to caution that Iraq might become a “terrorist sanctuary,” presumably if the US does not stay the course. Bush bashers made much of the fact that the commissioners found no evidence that lead hijacker Muhammad Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague nor that the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein aided bin Laden’s anti-American jihad in any way. Yet overall, the report reinforces the conventional wisdom of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment: Before the US invaded, Iraq was not a front in the war on terrorism — now it is.

If the 9/11 commission’s report represents the resurgence of realism in foreign policy thinking, then its anemic conclusions underscore the fact that realism is a doctrine of crisis management, not change. Perhaps this explains why the Kerry campaign, which eagerly trumpets the commission’s recommendations on overhauling the intelligence agencies and strengthening US air defense systems, says even less of substance than the commission about the structural crisis in US policy toward the Arab and Islamic worlds. The neo-conservatives, with their moral certitude, offer a full-throated defense of these policies’ virtues. Realists are not so sure — some of them think they might even disagree on a few points — but they are loath to expend any energy to move Middle East policy in a progressive direction. As the report shows, moreover, the disastrous choices of the Bush administration have remade the world in which future realist policymakers will act and, perhaps more importantly, reshaped the public discourse in which realist policies will have to be defended. So far their ideas do not seem so threatening to the post-September 11 hegemony of the hawkish worldview. Even if he had known that Saddam Hussein posed no danger to the United States, John Kerry tells us, he would have voted for war, anyway.

How to cite this article:

The Editors, Deborah J. Gerner, Chris Toensing "From the Editors (Fall 2004)," Middle East Report 232 (Fall 2004).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This