On September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. In response, the United States declared war on Bin Laden. This week, after ten long years: We got ’em. Al-Qaeda’s top terrorist is dead, the nation rejoices, and the families of the victims of 9/11 are finally getting some much needed closure.
So, hopefully, is America. For the last decade, virtually our entire Middle Eastern policy revolved around 9/11. This was true for both critics and champions of American foreign policy. If war opponents dared to ask what the Iraq War had to do with Osama or Al-Qaeda, war proponents would simply reply, “Do you remember 9/11?” In the same year we invaded Iraq, country singer Darryl Worley’s 2003 hit song “Have You Forgotten” expressed this sentiment: “Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight, well, after 9/11 man I’d have to say that’s right… You say we shouldn’t worry ’bout bin Laden… Have you forgotten?”
Though few Americans were saying they weren’t worried “’bout bin Laden” after 9/11, the extent to which US foreign policy was actually in pursuit of Al-Qaeda and its leader was hotly contested. The decision to invade Afghanistan in 2001 to rout the Taliban, for example, was popular with Americans because it seemed logical, and not surprisingly, it also received international support. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was initially popular with Americans but received very little international support, primarily because it was not logical precisely because it didn’t seem related to 9/11. A decade later, the US occupation in both countries is not popular internationally, is opposed by both countries’ governments and citizens, and both wars are unpopular with the American people precisely because they no longer make any sense.
What does any of this have to do, today, with 9/11? Are these wars unpopular because America has forgotten 9/11—or because Americans fail to see what they have to do with 9/11?
Government officials now say there are less than 100 Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan where we have 100,000 troops. We now know Saddam Hussein had nothing to with Bin Laden and yet 50,000 troops remain in Iraq. Prominent hawks like Sen. John McCain are calling for more intervention in Libya and relatively new hawks like Sen. Marco Rubio want to see stronger U.S. action in Syria. Both senators also believe we should stay in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely. None of this has anything to do with fighting Al-Qaeda.
Have McCain, Rubio and their Republican ilk forgotten 9/11? Have the Democratic hawks who agree with them forgotten 9/11? Republicans said “Bush kept us safe.” This week did Obama “keep us safe?” Does this partisan assertion even make sense?
The intentionally vague rhetoric of the War on Terror has often contradicted the logistical realities of any practical war we might wage against actual terrorists. For example, after 9/11 Texas Congressman Ron Paul introduced legislation resurrecting the constitutionally-based policy of “Marque and Reprisal” in which Congress could authorize small, covert forces to go after Al-Qaeda leaders and members directly. Paul argued that full scale wars of invasion and occupation would not and could not be effective against a group like Al-Qaeda and would only incite greater hatred against the US. Paul’s critics said he was being naïve in his suggestion and in his opposition to larger military action.
Yet bin Laden was killed using precisely the sort of small military contingency Paul said would be most effective in the wake of 9/11. Ironically, government officials now admit they fear Al-Qaeda might retaliate over bin Laden’s death. But what has inspired more terrorists to take up arms against the U.S.—thousands of civilian casualties and enduring resentment due to two long wars of occupation? Or the recent death of bin Laden? Should we be more worried about retaliation from the relatively small Al-Qaeda, or an entire region of Muslims who’ve become more sympathetic to radical jihad due mostly to our constant military involvement in their countries?
In 2002, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg approved of using 9/11 as an excuse for an open-ended and ill-defined foreign policy: “The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense.”
We now know it made virtually no sense.
The death of bin Laden is not the end of any and all terrorist threats, but it should be the end of the so-called War on Terror—an intellectually bankrupt and dangerous narrative that has only served to justify detrimental military actions by invoking America’s worst terrorist attack. In 2003 country singer Worley asked of war critics, “Have You Forgotten?” Sunday night, Milwaukee Bucks basketball player Chris Douglas-Roberts asked on Twitter if we’ve forgotten that: “It took 919,967 deaths to kill that one guy. … It took 10 years & 2 Wars to kill that…guy. It cost us (USA) roughly $1,188,263,000,000 to kill that guy.”
It didn’t have to cost that many lives or dollars to kill Osama Bin Laden. To the extent that it did reminds us just how much we lost focus on the actual enemy.
Most Americans will never forget 9/11. Yet their government seems to have forgotten a long time ago.