Sept. 11 and wars of the world

Osama and Saddam pose real threats, but the Bush administration may be too incompetent -- and too arrogant -- to stop them.

Published October 11, 2002 11:41PM (EDT)

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last week that those who know about the war plan for Iraq aren't talking, and those who are talking don't know. So I'm grateful to be invited here to deliver this first lecture at the Naval War College tonight. I guess the Secretary was busy. Rumsfeld has more one-liners than David Letterman these days.

A reporter friend of mine who doesn't normally cover the Pentagon beat, but who did cover it in the 1980s and knows something about the military, ended up being parachuted into the assignment after Sept. 11 last year to beef up coverage for his newspaper. Not having paid much attention to the subject matter for more than a decade, he told me how stunned he was at the chumminess and atmosphere of the daily briefing. If you've watched a briefing on C-SPAN, you know that when Rumsfeld is in the room, the place is rocking: the secretary, to his credit, appears more often before a hostile audience than any other secretary in modern memory. Cameras wait for the pithy remarks. Reporters laugh at Rumsfeld's quips and evasions. Hey, the guy is clever, and he clearly has come into his own as Secretary of War.

But it is war we are talking about. It isn't funny. It is not a partisan political issue. And no one in the current administration has the right to claim that Democrats or reporters or plain old vanilla citizens care less about American security that they do. I'm not talking about whether Rumsfeld or Cheney or Bush feels some obligation to divulge the war plan or spill secrets. They don't and it doesn't bother me at all that they don't. But there is something very wrong with the chumminess itself: On the one hand, the news media is captive to a 1,500-pound gorilla who has marked his territory and created his own reign of terror over a leaking ship called the Pentagon. The media tries to get the story to fulfill their mission, but in the presence of the great one, reporters can't be too aggressive or offensive or their access might be taken away. In theory. As another friend of mine in the media said: I don't have access anyhow so it doesn't matter if they punish me. But you understand that there is a certain dependency in the relationship here. So the chumminess is so strange because we are at war. But it is in what Bush and Rumsfeld say that I think makes them terribly wrong-headed and inappropriately arrogant. Before Sept. 11, this arrogance manifested itself in turning the United States' back on its treaty obligations, in pooh-poohing a military presence overseas, in condemning nation-building, even in ignoring terrorism as a priority.

When the attacks on Sept. 11 occurred, the administration didn't think it needed to muster the "evidence" it had about Osama bin Laden for the American public or the rest of the world. Let me be clear: It wasn't as if there wasn't evidence. Any sane person in the public now knows that al-Qaida was responsible and that it seeks to do us great harm. The problem is that the Bush team feels that it doesn't need to convince anyone of what it is doing. Its attitude is that there is such a grave threat to America, and that the threat is so different than any we've face in the past, that they, the custodians of our national security, not only are doing what is right, that only they know the truth, and moreover, that they have no obligation to convince the American public, that no one has a right to question them.

The Bush team's attitude is the same now when it comes to Iraq: The American public is supposed to consent to the use of force but the administration doesn't think it needs to "convince" the public of its certainty about the need for, or the method of, going to war. They seem to think it is enough to just repeat that Saddam Hussein is evil, that he is pursuing weapons of mass destruction, that he supports international terrorism, and therefore he has to go. I suspect that the administration has plenty of "evidence" about the Iraqi regime's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. I suspect if the administration made its case that the American public and the Congress and even most of the world would consent and support military action. I think what we are talking about here the attitude, an atmosphere in which the Bush inner circle believes that it knows what is best, and that it won't be forced into having to deign to make its case, particularly not if pushed by foreigners or the United Nations or the Congress or the evil institution of the liberal media.

Again, let me make my position clear: I believe that Iraq is a danger to its people, to the region, and to the United States. There is probably even tippy-top secret intelligence to connect Iraq to al-Qaida, maybe not specifically with regard to Sept. 11, but certainly over the years. No doubt there are al-Qaida operatives in Iraq today. On the one hand, it would be such a home run to just lay out the case: so why not reveal it? The answer I think is not that the Bush administration fears heading down a slippery slope of answering too many questions or feels like it needs to protect intelligence sources and methods; it is more again the mindset of the administration that it just doesn't have to, and won't, justify its actions.

So let me get this straight. The Bush team failed to predict the events of Sept. 11. Score one for bin Laden. They weren't competent enough to detect or stop what happened that day. Score two and three. The end result of Osama bin Laden's war is that our economy is in the toilet, that the airline industry is dying -- a pretty good achievement if you head a terrorist cell that wants to put the hurt to America. Score four. We've been at war for almost a year in Afghanistan and around the globe and the Bush administration didn't choose a smart enough strategy to stop bin Laden and the Taliban leadership from either escaping, or at least they can't prove that these dangerous people were killed. Score five and six. It seems today that as many if not more people hate us in those hopeless sectors of the Islamic world where the terrorists originate. Score seven for bin Laden.

The bad guys have arguably done fairly well under this administration, and there are a lot of questions about strategy and ultimate outcomes in Iraq, and we are supposed to accept blindly that the administration knows what it is doing?

Let me also say before the tomatoes start flying and you question my own patriotism or tune out because you think I have my own partisan views that I also believe that the popular and dominant criticism of the war on terror is wrong. We are a year later and for whatever reason, there has not been a terrorist strike against the United States nor a major one against Western interests in the world. You have to give the administration credit for what it has achieved. That is, if it has achieved this. Which is to say that maybe a major terrorist attack on American interests over the past year was not in al-Qaida's calendar. The strikes have always been spaced out by a couple of years. We just don't know. What is more, Rumsfeld and Cheney and others say that though they believe that the war on terror has been successful, they also are certain that there will be a major terrorist attack on the United States in the future. So their assurances aren't very comforting.

I'm going to try to put two hats on now at the same time: the policy wonk know-it-all hat and the typical American citizen hat. Policy wonks, of course, aren't supposed to have emotional or visceral reactions; they are merely supposed to be able to see things through a lens of consequences for American interests. And typical Americans aren't supposed to have policy preferences when it comes to national security. Typical Americans are supposed to pledge allegiance and stand behind their president and elect their representative in Congress and hope that the checks and balances work. Of course it is more complex than that, but you get my point.

So, what I find difficult with both hats on is that I take all of the evidence about Iraq -- the nature of a regime that I've actually had the opportunity to see first-hand and experience in more than eight weeks in country, Iraq's violation of its solemn treaty obligations prior to the invasion of Kuwait in using chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iran, its cynical and evil evasion of its treaty obligations relating to nuclear nonproliferation, its illegal development of grotesque biological weapons, its unprovoked invasion of not one but two neighbors, its shooting missiles during the Gulf War not only at Israel, but also at Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, and Qatar; its record of war crimes and genocide against the Kurds, its own people, and then against the Kuwaitis, whom it claimed were its own people; its signing of yet more cease-fire and disarmament obligations in 1991 with no intention of honoring those agreements, its unmistakable support for international terrorism ...

I look at all of this evidence and history, and the policy wonk in me ponders not just the question of Iraqi evil but also what our obligation is under international law, what the implications for us and the rest of the world are if we carry out our policy of uniliteralism or preemption. I ponder the impact, short- and long-term, of military action on our coalitions and our allies. I think about the strategic position it will put us in the Arab world. I calculate military and civilian casualties, put odds on the likelihood of success, think through the messiness of occupation and democratization.

And I can't help but feel cynical about the fact that we are going to war to enhance the economic interests of the Enron class. The policy wonk position over-analyzes and dispassionately examines sorties and ground divisions and cruise missiles and targets and capabilities and equipment failure rates. It gets muddled in the details and loses all sight of the visceral and the emotional. Yet.

Yet when war skeptics or Bush administration opponents argue that the son is merely atoning for the failures of the father, when they say that the administration hasn't given inspections a "chance" to work, when they condemn the notion of preemption or unilateral action, when they say it is all about oil, my answer to them is this: So are you saying that if the administration did give inspections a chance to work and they didn't work that you would be writing editorials saying: "Now that the administration has given inspections a chance, we support war"? I think the answer is no. Are you saying that if the U.N. crafted some resolution, no matter how vague, consenting to the use of force in order to implement Security Council resolutions, that you would sign up for war? The answer I think for them is still no.

Not only are these arguments disingenuous, but they are also lacking in any knowledge of history. This is the same crowd who argues that we should avoid or shrink away from war because of long-ago disproved arguments: that weapons won't work, that the Iraqis are some efficient killing machine, that too many civilians die in war. There are some who will never support war. Those I respect. But there is also a huge segment of the American elite who don't support war because it is Republican war, and that is twisted.

In the past decade, the world has experienced at least two more major modern wars: in Yugoslavia and now Afghanistan. These, like the Gulf War, were war dominated by a new form of military power, air power. Despite the changes in war that have been demonstrated now in three wars, the orthodoxy, including evidently that of the Bush administration and of Gen. Tommy Franks' Central Command, is that magnificent armies with stunning maneuvers won the Gulf War. Many even in the national security community remain convinced that air power alone could not achieve NATO's goals in Yugoslavia, that it was only the "threat" of a ground war that finally convinced Milosevic. The official line these days is that air power facilitated the success of a combined special operations and proxy ground war in Afghanistan. As Gen. Franks said recently about Afghanistan: "The sure way to do work against the enemy is to put people on the ground." In short, our way of modern war is just not war.

Peoples and nations have been fighting wars -- we don't even need to say ground wars -- as long as peoples and nations have existed. To most people, "real" war is ground war, so much so that we don't even use the term ground power. The "field" commander is automatically assumed to be a ground officer. Modern air power defeated the Iraqi army before the front lines were ever crossed by coalition armored and mechanized divisions in 1991, Yugoslavia was exhausted by repeated bombing in 1999, the Taliban were toppled and al-Qaida routed from their caves by bombs. Sure it is true that airplanes can't occupy a country, that not as many things are ever destroyed as pilots and analysts claim, that intelligence isn't good enough to find biological and chemical weapons or Scuds, that the bad guys got away from Kandahar and Tora Bora.

Yet something profound has happened in the last decade of war. Nothing really went as predicted by most who were doing the predicting: The costs to the American public in 1991 weren't bank-breaking, the environment survived, chemical and biological weapons weren't used, no significant terrorist attacks occurred, Israel was not dragged in, there were not tens of thousands of coalition body bags. Those who stated that the value of air power was exaggerated and that the war would drag on Vietnam style were proven wrong. High-tech weapons worked, and the U.S. military performed brilliantly. Air power won in a magical display. The hyper-professionalism of the U.S. military was repeated again in Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan.

Yet despite the U.S. military's performance, Saddam Hussein also won by losing. He could say to himself and to the Arab world that he survived the best that the entire world could throw at him. We may have followed a brilliant choreography, accumulating impressive statistics, flying invisible airplanes, but we completely failed to understand our opponent. We ended up with an incomplete victory that left U.S. forces cemented into the Saudi desert, where radicals and fundamentalists like bin Laden were spawned because we were "defiling" the holy places. We maintained a sanctions regime for more than a decade, doing no perceptible harm to Saddam Hussein or his regime, and allowing the evil ones the opportunity to manipulate their isolation to kill the most vulnerable of Iraqi society in order to make a point. We have been bombing the country under the mini-wars of 1993, 1996, and Desert Fox in 1998.

There was, and is, some fiendish Iraqi prestige in being the victim and in defeat by a form of warfare that they portray as both distant and inhumane. Yours is a society that cannot accept 10,000 casualties, Saddam bragged before the Gulf War, baiting the United States to fight the Iraqi version of some ancient grotesque grinding land battle. Saddam was right. And it's not a bad thing. But I think we are also a society that really can't stomach preemption. The very reason that the World Trade Center was so outrageous, like Pearl Harbor, is that it is just not the American way.

The Bush administration in the past year thought it had a free ride on Iraq after Sept. 11 and it has learned a lesson about its own citizenry and this country anew. I think that despite the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, this administration now realizes that they cannot just act because they want to.

Of course we need to win in the immediate sense and we need to win in the long term. Would an Iraq war be complicated in terms of our allies and coalition partners? Sure. Is there a possibility of a quagmire once we defeat Iraq on the battlefield? There is. Will there be loss of life: American lives, Iraq civilian lives, and Iraqi military lives in what will transpire? There will be. Could it be some spark for a broader war in the Arab world or even for World War III? It could be.

Boy, if you try to cover all of the bases of what could happen, and only take action when we can control the outcome, it seems like there would never be action. The wonk in me says that smart people in uniform and in the intelligence community are thinking through these issues, that they are doing the best that they can do to cover all of the possibilities, to try to create the best outcome. But the American in me also says that they have failed so many times in recent memory and have so many strikes against them that I don't trust them.

And here's where I come back to Rumsfeld and his arrogance and that of the administration: I'm sure that there are brilliant insiders with great insights and ideas. I am not in the least bit confident that they are being heard, any more than I think the administration hears the debate in the news media or hears Al Gore or cares about the roots of terrorism or has a vision or a plan to not just eradicate the current generation of terrorists, but also to create the conditions under which future generations will have reasons not to pursue this line of business.

As a "normal" American, an American who likes to win, who is as competitive as the next guy, as an American who likes to believe that we are on a global mission and have a superior system of government and life, what I think viscerally is that we should kick their butts. But the bottom line is we should not go to war merely because the President or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld says we should. Nor should we go to war with Iraq merely because the regime is evil and they are developing weapons of mass destruction. Nor should we even go to war with Iraq because Baghdad is connected to bin Laden.

Yet to put my two hats back on --policy wonk and American -- let me say that I also don't want to have my life or the lives of my children in the hands of a bunch of flunkies in security guard uniforms at airports. I don't trust them one bit and I believe that terrorists will always seek to go after our weakest points, not the places in our defenses that we've beefed up. I also don't trust my government. I don't blindly believe that they know what is best. I won't pledge allegiance like some Stepford citizen. I firmly believe that the public doesn't know enough and doesn't pay enough attention to war because the military has become so good at what it does that the price of using it is virtually free for most Americans.

As a patriot, as a supporter of the military, as an air power advocate, as a human rights professional, I believe that the war against terrorism is overstated. It is not the core United States national security interest today. If we hope to secure our pride and economy, and our way of life, if we hope for physical security that comes not merely in projecting power but also in making those around us feel secure in their lives, we have a lot of other work to do in the world, work that is pushed aside because we are at war. After Sept. 11, it should be clear that some people are just plain evil. Some hate us for good reason. Some are just confused. Most have hopeless lives and think rightly or wrongly that it is our fault. But we are not doing very well at convincing them or the world that we are good friends and good neighbors and that we are not the root of the evil in their lives.

What makes me uncomfortable about a war with Iraq on the one hand is war, an eye for an eye; it is the oldest story that there is. I worry that we are taunting tomorrow's warrior to find the next World Trade Center equivalent because of our arrogance, because of our military superiority, because of our seeming indifference to the views of others. On the other hand, what makes me uncomfortable specifically about Iraq is the question: Why now? What compelling evidence is there that we must take action now, that Saddam is an immediate threat, that he is not adequately stuck in a box? Why isn't the policy of "containment until regime change" adequate enough as a way of avoiding war? If there is evidence, we certainly haven't seen it.

One year ago, like you, I remember exactly where I was on the morning of Sept. 11, and I remember exactly how I felt. Though I grew up in New York City, I didn't know anyone who worked in the World Trade Center. And though there was great tragedy that day, and no one could help being inspired by the human stories and the enormous bravery and sacrifice of the firefighters and rescue workers who rose to the challenge that day, both as a professional who works in a world of death and destruction and as a citizen, I wasn't immobilized by fear or sadness, and I didn't feel overwhelmed by emotions.

Maybe just because of my own cynicism, I'll admit that my first instinct was not to wrap myself up in an American flag. Frankly, I felt angry -- angry with my government, angry with those who make careers of and who are supposed to be in charge of protecting American lives. I felt angry on Sept. 11 and still feel that way because people died because of personal and institutional failures perpetuated by arrogant politicians and career professionals who it seems to me have a history of weak decisions and poor visions and arrogant attitudes and comfortable routines.

Three thousand Americans died not just because of Osama bin Laden but because our national security leaders, in and out of uniform, couldn't see the world clearly, couldn't predict what our enemies would do, made frighteningly bad decisions, and had terrible judgment. They are why people went to work in New York City and the Pentagon that morning without a care in the world. And why wasn't there warning? We are told that the government couldn't have known. The bureaucracies and its leaders insist that the attacks couldn't have been predicted. We are told that the act was so diabolical and genius in its simplicity that it couldn't have been stopped. We are insulted in being told that we should accept for the sake of not playing the blame, for the sake of patriotism, because there is a "war" on, that there was simply a breakdown in procedures at all levels that day. We are asked to excuse those who we entrust with our security that the odds of 19 out of 20 hijackers, of three out of four airliners, succeeding was so great, how could anyone really be held responsible?

More than 30 billion of our tax dollars each year go towards government generated intelligence information. We had, and have, a CIA and an intelligence community that has a fantastic history of failure, that is mostly blind to what is going on in the world, that seems to know nothing and at the same time is so bombarded and overwhelmed with stimuli from its millions of receptors it can hardly sense what is happening, and even if it could, it can't read, it can't see the signs, it can't talk to other agencies. Hell, the FBI didn't even talk to itself. And worst of all, most insulting for us as Americans, is the theme that developed after Sept. 11, that it is our fault: That we, the American people, had grown too soft. It is somehow our fault that we were so naive about our safety. I want my money back, and I want some accountability.

On Sept. 11, a new administration was pursuing a foreign policy that was ABC - Anything but Clinton. Its vision of the future military and national security needs for America was literally in the stars and space and not on earth. On September 10th, our national security leaders were going through Mr. Magoo motions of foreign policy, traveling overseas in five different directions, riding in their limos, reading the newspapers feet up on desks, getting their phantasmagorical top secret briefings. No one was secretly monitoring something going on in some Hollywood-ike vision of government omniscience. Our government failed on Sept. 11, and I was sure a year ago, as I am now, that no one of any consequence will ever lose his or her jobs, and no one of any integrity will ever stand up and take responsibility for the failure.

What did I feel on Sept. 11? Angry. And the American people should be angry. Instead they are cowed by talk of war. They are made to remove their shoes and turn out their belt buckles and leave their nail clippers at home. That is a surrogate for security and it is fighting the last war.

You know the expression, "War is too important to be left to the generals"? These days, it is too important to be left to the national security professionals. Speaking at the West Point commencement this summer, President Bush told the graduating cadets that, like their predecessors before them who had helped to defeat Japan and Germany, like those who "saw the rise of a deadly new challenge -- the challenge of imperial communism" -- like those who fought and died from Korea to Vietnam or during the Cold War, again America was at war. "History has also issued its call to your generation," the president said. "In your last year, America was attacked by a ruthless and resourceful enemy. You graduate from this academy in a time of war, taking your place in an American military that is powerful and is honorable." Is this really a war that is equivalent to World War II or the Cold War? To the naval officers in this room, to their international counterparts, even to the good citizens of the Newport area, I say: I hope you are not so young and gung-ho and wet behind the ears that you accept this characterization. I hope you are old enough to remember the Cold War, and not so old that you forget that there was a time when our national survival was at stake, there was a time when there were enemies out there who could have destroyed our country and our way of life. I hope you remember the tens of thousands who perished in Vietnam and Korea and the hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of other who died in the Second World War. I hope you are alive and unsentimental enough to look honestly at yourselves as American citizens and say that it is insulting to you and your relatives and your fellow citizens to let Osama bin Laden so dazzle and possess our president and our government and our society that he and his war can so disrupt our economy and our way of life. The war against terrorism, if it is a war at all, is not World War II or the Cold War, and it is grasping at empty patriotism to claim that it is.

So, you may ask: Isn't my anger and criticism directed at the wrong party? Aren't I just another leftist, self-hating American? Isn't it easy for me to criticize when I don't have to face the responsibilities and complexity of governing? You know, last Sept. 11, what I knew about Osama bin Laden or the Taliban or Afghanistan for that matter, I could fit into a thimble. But I know my Constitution. I know the responsibility of the government to provide for the common defense. I know the military and the intelligence community inside and out. I'm angry because not only did they fail in their fundamental task, but they use fear and their personal declaration of war and their arrogance about being above it all to avoid and deflect any sort of accountability for their actions.

For most Americans, the truth is that the war on terrorism hardly touches their lives. For the few that have friends or relatives in the armed services, there may be some personal connection. But it isn't like there is a draft or the prospect of significant American military casualties, even in a full-fledged war with Iraq. The economy may be in the toilet, but it is not because of war shortages or changes in industrial production driven by war needs. It is not like there is going to be rationing. Travel has been inconvenienced and tourism disrupted. But in no way are these the dark days of either World War II or the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, when the survival of America was at stake.

So on the one hand, the warfare label is appropriate because wars come in more than one flavor and the debate over whether this is or isn't war seems so, well, academic. But on the other, the label leads the administration to think that it doesn't have to explain, and that it can take enormous liberties with American freedoms. As a war in Iraq looms, it appears that the Bush team is caught between an old-fashioned concept of warfare and a response that is appropriate both to the threat and to our day.

On the one hand, it mounts a multi-dimensional civilian effort in response to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida that favors law enforcement methods, financial warfare and worldwide CIA covert actions. On the other, it has thousands of Army and Marine Corps troops stuck in Afghanistan, spending more time feeding and guarding themselves than "fighting." On the one hand, Rumsfeld and company employs U.S. special forces in modern quick strikes, while at the same time they construct a network of bases and military support installations in the Middle East and Central Asia, a network that does more to sustain itself and create diplomatic headaches and animosities and future threats for America that it does to kill a single terrorist.

Meanwhile, the Bush team postures that it understands al-Qaida and the difference between old and new war by saying that bin Laden and his followers are engaged in a new era of "asymmetrical" warfare, that they have found some inhumane super weapon and could deliver a knockout blow if we fail to be vigilant enough or martial enough in our response to hatred and fundamentalism. If we go to war against Iraq, we will win. No question about it.

But shouldn't we also ponder the implications of the lopsided military victories that the United States has achieved when it has employed force in the last 12 years? I am not arguing that we need to place ourselves in a position to die in the name of an image of chivalry that comes from the Middle ages. We need, however, to recognize that our use of the remote instrument of air power and modern warfare, our magnificent ability to largely remain above the battlefield and the enemy, now coupled with our seeming arrogance towards the rest of the world, and our tendency to fall back upon secrecy and government control, all feeds a distrust and contempt in our adversaries and potential adversaries.

The next generation of terrorist is being spawned today because of these attributes. The asymmetric strikes of terrorists are spawned at Khobar Towers and USS Coles and World Trade Centers because of the very fact that no terrorist organization or military or state can hope to successfully confront us on our battlefield, a battlefield which is modern and networked and decentralized and chaotic and in space and in the air. Instead they have to use our modernity, our networked society, our media, our openness and exposure, to hurt us.

In our superiority, there is thus a special burden, one that challenges our values and our humanity. If we doggedly hue to the position that we will "win," that we always win, that we are doing what is right, that we are pursuing our interests, that we will act unilaterally regardless of what the rest of the world thinks, we also are missing the fact that there is intrinsically some spiritual damage done in our action, and by our very greatness, and by the very mode of warfare we engage in. Pursuing interests and pursuing values are two different things.

When we cozied up to Iraq during the 1980s we sacrificed our values and pursued our interests. When we tolerate the Gulf kingdoms and the oil autocracies, we do the same thing. When we look the other way about human rights or treaty obligations or two-faced double dealings, we not only compromise ourselves in the process, but we convey the wrong message, which is that we have no values, that we are for sale, even in the minds of many in the Arab world that we work on behalf of others.

Finally, with regards to our friends, there is real reason for alarm that we are just merely creating a world of permanent confrontation. Bush and company call the war on terror open ended. Such a characterization reveals a lack of ability to foresee an outcome and betrays a muddled sense of strategy, strategy that is based on American values and our aesthetic and our way of life. It is for that reason that they need help in seeing what they are doing. They hardly have all of the answers.

By William M. Arkin

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Fbi George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden Terrorism