America’s Foreign Policy Self-Deception
On the anniversary of 9/11, the nation grieves for the almost 3,000 innocent people killed on that day in heinous attacks by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Most people alive and old enough to remember can tell you where they were around the time the strikes occurred (hours before the attack, I had walked down a corridor at the Pentagon that one of the planes ripped through) and can recall the ensuing horrifying images and America’s national trauma.
If you would ask those same Americans, however, why Osama bin Laden attacked the United States so brutally, most people would not be able to tell you. Those that could muster up any response might repeat what President George W. Bush told the nation at the time: Bin Laden and Al Qaeda hated our freedoms. The problem with that line of reasoning is that bin Laden, at the time, was incensed that Bush even made the assertion, because it showed that the United States and its president were not listening to his grievances against the U.S. government. Any surprise attack by one party on another is usually regarded as treachery, but such strikes rarely occur without a point of contention with the target of the attack.
At home, Americans are suspicious of their government—as recent grousing about wearing masks and taking vaccines during a pandemic vividly demonstrates—but they usually unquestioningly rally to the government’s side when U.S. forces are attacked. The public rarely investigates the underlying causes of the conflict, but instead assumes with nationalist fervor that their government is blameless in disputes with foreign entities.
For example, in 1846, President James Polk sent U.S. military forces into disputed territory on the U.S.-Mexico border—up until this time, the United States did not care much about the border issue and Mexico had the better case on where the border should be—to successfully provoke a Mexican attack to conquer the half of Mexico that is now California and the American Southwest. Because of the initial Mexican attack, it was much easier for Americans to support such blatant U.S. government aggrandizement.
Likewise, although Abraham Lincoln has been practically canonized in American history, he knew very well that resupplying federal Fort Sumter, off the South Carolina coast, would trigger a war with the seceded Southern states. The people of the Union were not excited about a war with the South until the Southern attack on the clearly indefensible harbor fort spiked a rage for war in the North.
When international tensions and hostilities flared in the late 1930s and early 1940s but the American public wanted to stay out of them, Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed with his generals and the British that when the United States entered World War II, it would run a “Germany First” strategy—defeating Germany before dealing with the relatively less threatening Japan. The woefully unprepared U.S. military was attempting to avoid, as do most militaries, fighting two capable adversaries simultaneously. Yet, the enemy had a vote, and on December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a nearly simultaneous bolt-out-of-the-blue attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the American colonial possession of the Philippines. (Since earlier that year, the United States had been unsuccessfully trying to provoke a naval war in the Atlantic with German U-boats to start a more general war with Nazi Germany.)
Each year on December 7, we unfailingly remember that “day of infamy,” but as with the 9/11 attacks, how many people could put their finger on why exactly the Japanese launched their “surprise” attack? In the case of the Japanese, Roosevelt and the U.S. military believed war with Japan was imminent, but most historians believe they simply did not know where it would occur. FDR and his generals expected war, because Roosevelt chose not to overrule his State Department, which tried to strangle the Japanese military and economy by a full embargo on oil and scrap metal. FDR knew that this aggressive action would cause the desperate Japanese to make war on the United States, but he needed the other side to attack first to get the reluctant American people to support the war. It worked.
And in 1964, the U.S. Navy began supporting South Vietnamese commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast. When North Vietnamese patrol boats launched at least one retaliatory attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin supporting the South Vietnamese attacks (the second alleged North Vietnamese attack likely never happened), President Lyndon B. Johnson, without mentioning the initial provocative U.S. naval activities, got Congress to overwhelmingly pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution gave him a blank check to escalate the Vietnam War.
So, today, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is appropriate to grieve for the innocent victims, but enough time has now elapsed that we should ask why bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group traveled halfway across the world to attack the United States. Bin Laden angrily replied to George W. Bush, saying that if he had been attacking “freedoms,” he could have just as easily attacked Sweden. (After all it was a lot closer and had far less capable defenses.) Bin Laden then reiterated, yet again, that he attacked the United States because of its interventionism in the Middle East.
Not only did Bush divert Americans’ attention from this glaring fact, he doubled down on what had caused Muslim ire for centuries: non-Muslim intervention in and occupation of Islamic lands. Stratospheric American public anger compelled Bush to decimate Al Qaeda and its enablers in Afghanistan; but Bush converted that war into a nation-building counterinsurgency and occupation, and then used 9/11 as an excuse to attack and occupy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for no good security reason. Not only did both Iraq and Afghanistan turn into long quagmires, but they spiked terrorism worldwide and created even more virulent Islamist terrorist groups than Al Qaeda—the affiliates of the Islamic State.
Because the U.S. government never admitted that U.S. interventionism in the Middle East motivated bin Laden to attack the United States on 9/11, America still continues to inflame Islamist groups around the world with its attempts to suppress them. Interventionists in the U.S. foreign policy establishment claim that it is naïve to think that radical Islamists will not attack U.S. targets if the American government is not battling them all over the world. What is naïve is believing that you can get rid of terrorism through endless war instead of dealing with the root causes of it.
Because most of these Islamist groups have primarily local concerns, attacks on U.S. targets are driven by American suppression efforts in foreign civil wars. In the 1980s, the very capable Hezbollah Islamist group attacked U.S. targets because of U.S. military intervention in Lebanon; once the U.S. withdrew its forces, Hezbollah attacks on U.S. targets gradually dissipated. This outcome is likely to happen again with other Islamist groups if the U.S. stays out of brushfire wars in Islamic countries. Yet, with the fall of Afghanistan, the interventionists are already decrying the erosion of American intelligence and strike capabilities against terrorists in South and Southwest Asia.
A more introspective approach to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 might allow us to see that it is not “unpatriotic” to examine our government’s own past aggressive posture as perhaps being part of the problem.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and author of War and the Rogue Presidency.