Did We Really Overreact to 9/11?

Fareed Zakaria has written a very strange piece for Newsweek, asserting, amongst other things, that the United States overreacted to the 9/11 attacks. Zakaria’s usually way off -- read his views on Iran -- but these new and particularly bizarre claims deserve a response. His article begins:

Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat? Since that gruesome day in 2001, once governments everywhere began serious countermeasures, Osama bin Laden’s terror network has been unable to launch a single major attack on high-value targets in the United States and Europe. While it has inspired a few much smaller attacks by local jihadis, it has been unable to execute a single one itself. Today, Al Qaeda’s best hope is to find a troubled young man who has been radicalized over the Internet, and teach him to stuff his underwear with explosives.

Notice the sleight of hand. Zakaria whitewashes radical Islam and its international network spawn, and reduces al-Qaeda to a few hundred cave-hoppers bowing around Waziristan. The reality is more multifaceted: “al-Qaeda” is the head of the jihadi snake, the epicenter of the global Islamist insurrection. It has offshoots in Algeria, Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines –– and perhaps forty other countries. And that’s just “al-Qaeda.” There are many terror groups.

No attacks in Europe? The Madrid attacks and London bombings immediately come to mind. In the United States, there was the Long Island convert who tried to blow up Penn Station. An al-Qaedist in Arkansas attacked a military recruitment center in Little Rock, killing an American soldier. An Islamist in Illinois tried to take down a federal building in Springfield. A jihadi from Chicago set his sights on a Danish newspaper and assisted the gunmen in the Mumbai attacks. An Afghan national targeted Manhattan landmarks. A Jordanian national tried to topple a Dallas skyscraper. There was the massacre at Fort Hood. And this was just last year.

The “troubled young man” that tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day was trained in an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen. He would have killed nearly 300 people had it not been for passenger heroics. In May, a Pakistani-trained al-Qaedist tried to set off a bomb in Times Square, the most densely packed area in Manhattan. He failed, but had he succeeded the carnage would have trumped the Oklahoma City bombing. I was in Times Square that afternoon. Had the detonation gone off properly, giant shards of glass from the surrounding buildings -- dozens and dozens of stories worth -- would have plummeted to the streets, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands.

And around the world? Last week alone, there were more than 300 casualties in Lahore, Pakistan; there were more than 200 in Quetta. In Sudan, al-Qaeda-linked Islamists murdered 74 people. Sixteen people were killed in Baghdad, four in Mosul, three in Yemen, two in Tajikistan, and one apiece in Thailand and Azerbaijan. Next week beckons.

Zakaria would retort that not all of these attacks were the work of “al-Qaeda.” But then what is he trying to say? Is he suggesting we shouldn’t consider Salafist-inspired terrorism to be part and parcel of the same struggle? Is he implying Osama bin Laden himself hasn’t successfully sat down and mapped out a specific attack -- and therefore al Qaeda’s “simply not that deadly a threat”?

Zakaria goes on:

I do not minimize Al Qaeda’s intentions, which are barbaric. I question its capabilities. In every recent conflict, the United States has been right about the evil intentions of its adversaries but massively exaggerated their strength.  In the 1980s, we thought the Soviet Union was expanding its power and influence when it was on the verge of economic and political bankruptcy.  In the 1990s, we were certain that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear arsenal. In fact, his factories could barely make soap.

First of all, the claim that the United States routinely exaggerates the strength of its enemies couldn’t be further from the truth.  Did the United States “exaggerate” al-Qaeda’s capabilities during the 1990s? Our embassies, our warships, our hotels, our allies, even the World Trade Center itself -- al-Qaeda launched attacks on all of these targets throughout the 1990s, and what did we do? We drafted letters of indictment. As the 9/11 Commission Report explains, they were at war with us; we weren’t at war with them. On national security issue after issue, the United States -- particularly our intelligence community -- has a long history of being behind the ball. We did not foresee or anticipate the rise of al-Qaeda, the Iranian Revolution, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the Pakistani/Indian nuclear tests, or the Libyan, North Korean, and A.Q. Khan nuclear programs.

Secondly, nobody believed Saddam had a “nuclear arsenal” in the 1990s. That’s because after we defeated him in 1991, we discovered he was but six months to a year away from developing an atomic bomb. So we ended it with inspections. He was close to getting the bomb ten years prior to the Gulf War as well, but the Israelis took out the Osirak reactor in 1981. The fear was that Saddam would perpetually pursue and eventually obtain a nuclear device, a fear substantiated by the Iraq Survey Group’s findings: Saddam was hell-bent on reconstituting his NBC programs (nuclear/bio/chem) the moment international sanctions were lifted. Free from sanctions, Saddam would have likely gotten his hands on the bomb -- or at least an Uday/Qusay successor regime would have.

As for the Soviets, there is no use in rearguing Cold War history with a man of Zakaria’s views on foreign affairs. Soviet expansionism was real: Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Angola, Romania, martial law in Poland. Communist insurgencies had sprung up around the world. Eastern Europe was under the Politburo’s dominion. Dissidents were kidnapped and thrown in gulags. Hell, if it weren’t for a disobedient colonel in 1983 they would have nuked us!

And in regards to the American penchant for exaggerating the threat from Moscow, I would refer Zakaria to the infamous National Intelligence Estimate 85-3-62 presented to President Kennedy on September 19, 1962: “The USSR could derive considerable military advantage from the establishment of Soviet medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba. … [This] development, however, would be incompatible with Soviet practice to date and with Soviet policy as we presently estimate.”  The Cuban Missile Crisis was three weeks later.

The rest of Zakaria’s article is a mishmash of grievances with the federal government. He talks of needless bureaucracy (“created … 263 organizations,” “thirty-three new building complexes”); needless waste (“money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent”); and needless incompetence (not catching Maj. Hassan before Fort Hood or the underwear bomber before Christmas).  And then to end it, Zakaria quotes James Madison to give us the contemporary libertarian view of needless Big Brother.

There’s some truth to these last points. Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security could have been put in the FBI. Perhaps the director of national intelligence could have been put in the CIA. Perhaps the federal government could be fighting this war far more effectively -- and cost-effectively. But all this speaks to government incompetence, mismanagement, and red tape. It says nothing of our “overreaction” to 9/11. We did not put Muslim-Americans in internment camps as Roosevelt had done to Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, or as Bruce Willis does in The Siege after a mere bus bombing. Hollywood and the puppeteers of pop culture do not understand the American character or the American psyche. After 9/11, we did not “go Roman” on the Middle East as previous global powers would have done.

The water-boarding debate was always controlled by demagogues. To this date President Obama won’t declassify the blacked-out documents that describe the efficacy of the interrogative practice (which was performed on just three terrorists). Obama knows water-boarding worked and saved American lives, and he knows Americans would be supportive of the practice in such a case, so he would therefore rather keep this issue in the dark than vindicate the worldview of Dick Cheney and the Weekly Standard.  Obama also retained the right to employ water-boarding whenever he wishes. As for the supposed evils of Gitmo, Predator drones, rendition, military tribunals, wiretaps, etc. -- Obama continues all of it to this day, and under a Democratic administration the issues have ceased to be used for domestic grandstanding and ahistorical slander.

Nine years after 9/11, our policymakers have responded in measured and levelheaded though sometimes inadequate ways. Our citizens have been patient and tolerant, though sometimes blissfully ignorant; our diplomats and intelligence officers have been dauntless. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have been valiant.