The 9/11 attacks were a horrific crime. So too was our response to it. Trillions of dollars were lost and hundreds of thousands of innocent lives destroyed. Decisions were made that damaged the US and will do so for years to come.
Bin Laden was a monster. But our response played directly into his hands. It weakened America & inflamed support for extremists around the world. Today there are more terrorists active in more countries than there were on that date despite our costly, ill-conceived War on Terror.
It began with lies that justified the unjustifiable attack on Saddam Hussein. It was marked by the strategic blunders of our leaders as it was by the heroism of the men and women asked to implement their deeply flawed plans. It alienated our allies and diminished our standing. It also produced backlash–an America that has retreated ever since from its leadership role worldwide. Often, we have failed to do what was right or necessary since because of what we did in the years immediately after 9/11 that was so very wrong.
While Bin Laden and most of his immediate lieutenants were killed or captured, our actions ensured new terrorist leaders would emerge in their place. Guantanamo and rendition and torture did that. Destroying Iraq and remaining inert in our response in Syria did that. Fighting without strategic clarity or understanding of what was possible in Afghanistan did that. Launching drone strikes on sovereign nations and killing innocents did that. Suspending our values and looking the other way when we committed our own crimes did that.
The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath and the misconduct of the War on Terror was the greatest international blunder made by the U.S. in the modern era not just because of all these things, either. It was also because of the huge opportunity costs associated with it.
Those trillions spent on wars that achieved few of their long-term goals could have strengthened us at home or abroad. Naming the War on Terror as our top national security priority left us ill-prepared for the real great power challenges of the 21st Century.
Allowing ourselves to be distracted and divided by our conduct of that war enabled China and Russia and other rivals to advance their goals worldwide while we drained our resources and strained our vital alliances.
While any president would have responded post 9/11, for example Al Gore, the man who actually won the 2000 popular vote, the intervention would have likely been targeted at Al Qaeda and the Taliban and would have been a very contained mission.
Iraq and the greater War on Terror were the self-defeating bridge too far. Today, almost two decades later, our president is planning to hand the keys in Afghanistan back to the Taliban and to exit with more extremist cells in more countries posing more risk than ever before and with all the other issues created by our actions have festered into greater challenges worldwide. This was Bin Laden’s dream. And if we don’t realize that we have given it to him, that we handed him the victory he sought even though he did not live to see it then we are not honoring the memory of the attacks of 9/11 or learning their lessons. Strength in the face of extremism requires resolve but also vision, maintaining our values rather than selling them out, building rather than breaking alliances.
We can still learn these lessons better than we have over the past two decades. We can still repair the damage we have done. We can still honor the memory of those lost. But only if we are as honest with ourselves and committed to our values as we are resolute and courageous.