Epitaph for the ‘War on Terror’

Twenty years after the U.S. government declared war on terrorism, it consummated its own defeat in Kabul and Washington, in a manner foreseeable, foreseen, and foreshadowed in 9/11’s immediate aftermath. Fixation on itself and unseriousness about war are the twin habits of heart and mind that disposed the ruling class to defeat. The practical explanation for why and how it accepted defeat is found in the overriding interest each part of the ruling class has in doing what it wants to do. 

On the night of September 11, 2001, Muslim governments strictly forbade public celebrations of the carnage. The Palestinian Authority, anticipating that outraged Americans would destroy them to avenge the day’s events, even called the attacks al nachba—“the disaster.” But as the U.S. ruling class made clear that it was accepting defeat, the Muslim world’s media and streets celebrated.

Two decades later, after that defeat’s logic had worked its way through and transformed American life, and as the government’s self-humiliating exit from Afghanistan consummated it, much of mankind followed Muslim crowds in celebrating—including prominent Americans. 

At the “War On Terror’s” end as at its beginning, the same authoritative Americans—including Republican President George W. Bush as well as leading Democrats—blamed fellow Americans at least as much as foreign powers for it. 

Bush’s first post 9/11 act (other than to sequester information about Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s role in terrorism) was to declare Islam the “religion of peace” and to declare illegitimate any American who thought otherwise. Fast forward to September 11, 2021 and Bush said that these Americans, many of whom had gone to war for him, losing life or limb, are “children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.” 

Similarly, in Joe Biden’s view the American people had shown “Fear and resentment of . . . true and faithful followers of a peaceful religion.” He called them “the dark forces of human nature.”

Shirking the Reality of War To Promote Ruling Class Interests

Progressive thought had always looked away from the reality of war as the midwife of nations and the gravedigger of decadences. Kissinger wrote that America should only fight “wars that it could afford to lose”—as if there were such things. Thus it blurred distinctions between war and peace. Intellectually crippled in this way, U.S. military forces therefore have not aimed for victory. 

Instead and because of this, military operations have been planned and executed on the basis of what will fulfill our foreign policy establishment’s personal and institutional interests, as well as its evolving ideological criteria. Contact with reality, having produced results very different from those the ruling class envisions, that class explains defeat in terms of its most fundamental animosities—toward its domestic competitors. 

Thus as the Afghan Taliban celebrated with the armament the ruling class left behind for them, making them the world’s fourth best armed force, our ruling class turned to its next primary objective. 

Treating the American people, especially conservatives, as the main threat results from the growth and clarification of attitudes endemic to Progressivism and already translated into policy and lack thereof by such luminaries as Dean Acheson, William Fulbright, Robert McNamara, Jimmy Carter, Anthony Lake, (Obama’s original mentor on national security,) and even by Henry Kissinger. Many among them identified with William Appleman Williams’s thesis (The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 1959) that America was on the wrong side of the Cold War. America’s defeat by foreigners does not threaten these progressives’ prerogatives and identities as do their domestic rivals. 

Blaming domestic rivals to deflect defeat’s consequences in foreign wars is all too usual. Nevertheless, statements by Joe Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley that “domestic extremists,” whom they functionally define as whomever opposes the ruling class, pose the greatest danger of terrorism—especially if they are white—is egregious in history. The official reorientation of the U.S. armed forces’ focus on fighting what is arguably the American people’s majority, is even more so. A grassroots progressive group called the Democratic Coalition leaves no doubt about the ruling class’s 2021 practical agenda: “we cannot rest until all of Trump’s traitorous, insurrectionist foot soldiers face justice.” Insofar as they are serious, and even if they are not, this augurs civil war.

How did this happen?

Having blurred the distinction between peace and war ab initio, and caring less than they should about national integrity, the ruling class never saw terrorism as war—as anything that should interfere with their agendas. But there is no such thing as a small war, any more than a small pregnancy. All war, all political violence, is about whether a body politic lives or dies. No post-9/11 statement is more mistaken than that these attacks “changed everything” in America. On the contrary. They accelerated the growth of trends deeply rooted in the ruling class. 

The ruling class’ blurring of distinction between peace and war had already disposed it to tolerate what Kamal Nasser and the PLO were doing to Israel and what the Soviet Union was doing all over the world. Were we not doing similar things in the Cold War world? Well, not really. Our national security establishment relished the game, but was neither authorized nor ready to play the indirect-warfare game for blood. They had few if any independently recruited foreign sources. The closest they came to the game was in supporting the likes of Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, neglecting that these had their own agendas. 

Besides, in the 1960s it was all too easy to turn a blind eye to the airplane hijackings, bombings, and bank robberies that Americans in league with Castro and the Soviets were perpetrating in the United States. But as America’s acceptance of defeat in Vietnam loomed, the terrorist threat increased. By the mid-1990s, after the U.S. government had misfired in Iraq, it was becoming hard to ignore.  

Why Should a Little War Interrupt Their Good Time?

The ruling class’ first and enduring reaction to 9/11 was to safeguard its relationships with the “Third World” operatives in whom it had invested so many hopes, and in whose support and management its members were spending billions of dollars and and reaping millions. That is why when the American people demanded the heads of everybody and anybody who had a hand in terrorism, it was essential for CIA director George Tenet officially to identify the terrorist problem with one man, one organization, and with non-political religious zeal. The point was: don’t even think of fighting against anyone else. 

And, within the ruling class, all rejected even considering “Why have we Americans been targeted more and more by all manner of terrorists? What must we do to put a stop to that?” “Whoever suggests that we hold foreign governments responsible for inciting violence against Americans wants war with the world. Can’t have that.” That is why, in the aftermath of a defeat that indicts the whole class’ conception and execution of policy for two decades, the lead editorials of the leading establishment publications, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal pleaded: “We don’t recall good alternatives being offered over the last 20 years.” Correct! Groupthink stood guard lest reality intrude. 

Calling what happened next “strategy” does violence to the English language and to whomever cares to peruse the newspapers circa 2001-3, which reported who in the government’s various parts and among their supporters wanted to do or not to do, plus what labels they might use and what information should be withheld to manage public opinion. But you will search in vain for any discussion of why so many people in so many places were finding it attractive to kill Americans, and how we might make it unattractive. 

Instead, the U.S. government/ruling class wanted to get closer to foreign countries to improve them and their attitudes, and it wanted to impose restrictions on Americans. Because that is what it always wanted and did whenever it could. Avenging 9/11 and preventing its recurrence served as justification for putting enormous effort and money into unrelated or even counterproductive activities the ruling class sold to Americans as antiterrorism. 

The force behind these absurd-on-their-face, focus-grouped sales pitches came from the unanimity and lack of discussion with which the ruling class media pushed them. Twenty years later, the same media repeated the same tropes as if events had confirmed them. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan had “largely succeeded” in keeping the terrorists “on defense so they found it harder to attack us at home.” A few days earlier Condoleezza Rice, as responsible for these occupations as anyone, had written that “We took the fight to the terrorists so that they could never again bring it home to us.” 

On what planet? Afghanistan and Iraq were awash in ethnic militias intent on oppressing or killing one another. Few of the combatants had ever heard of the United States. But our ruling class wants us to believe that hatred for America had so crazed them that, instead of slipping across our porous borders and feasting on undefended civilians, they threw themselves at the U.S armed forces in their country. They really think we are stupid. 

Cui Bono?

Estimates of the “War on Terror’s” cost in money start at $8-10 trillion. Cui bono? To whom did that money go? Yes, millions, maybe even billions, went to rent the cooperation of Iraqis, Afghans, etc. But the trillions went chiefly to Americans—to the national security establishment; the armed forces and intelligence community, for enhanced careers and operations, and to their contractors; plus to the horde of civilian specialists employed to improve health, education, welfare, and social practices in foreign lands; our transportation network; and all manner of manufacturing and servicing. The consultant class also took it to the bank, and the people who run the conferences. 

Think of all the reputations, careers, retirements on the golf course, second homes, fancy cars and vacations all this made possible. 

Think also of how fast and far the “War on Terror” advanced the ruling class’ perennial objective to limit the freedoms of Americans outside its orbit, and perhaps shut down domestic opposition. 

When leftist Americans (alumni of Americans for a Democratic Society, a covert CIA subsidiary) hijacked airliners to Cuba, the ruling class would not hear of ending the problem by forcing Castro to give them up. Instead, they made it a crime for ordinary air travelers to defend themselves. After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security set about establishing a new way of life in America, based on badges and regulations about what clearance would be needed to go where. The ruling class cares nothing of their effect (or, overwhelmingly, the lack thereof) on terrorism, just as it does not care what effect its shifting, contradictory mandates concerning COVID have on public health. And it does not even try to explain how adding minuscule amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere adversely affects the planet’s climate. No. The ruling class takes any and all occasions to advance its overriding objective in its own domination. 

Terrorism, however, is especially useful. The premise that since we cannot know who is most likely to pose threats, that hence we must refrain from focusing on (profiling) Muslims and assume that the folks next door are as capable of mayhem as anyone shouting Allahu Akbar, has done much to make America what it is today. Especially because it is an in-your-face lie. The lie serves to free the ruling class to absolve or indict for terrorism whomever it chooses. 

Surprise, surprise! Turns out that not everyone is as likely a source of terrorism as anyone else. The real, congenital, terrorists are conservative white folks. U.S intelligence properly profiles them to prevent the worst of them from taking part in society. And if anyone suggests that this relates to the fact that these white folks don’t vote for the Democratic Party, the Wall Street Journal tells us that the U.S. justice system is fair and competent: “The privacy of Americans hasn’t been threatened, while the Patriot Act has provided the feds with tools to break up domestic terror cells.” You must believe that, or else! 

That is why the New York Times formulated the “War on Terror’s” official epitaph: “A War on Terror Accounting Since 9/11. The fall of Kabul shouldn’t obscure the successes over 20 years. Experts say it is the success of a multilateral effort that extends to as many as 85 countries.”

Who are you to disagree, white man?

About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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