The Remains of the Day

Ten years after the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, the United States is in bad shape, but our problems have little to do with what al-Qaeda did to us. America's troubles stem from what the country has done to itself—or rather, from what our political leaders have done with the nation's power and resources.

Many people talk about the impact of September 11 on the United States as if the country had no choice in its response. But we had alternatives, and much of what happened in the aftermath was the result of the choices that the Bush administration made in turning the attack into a pretext for war in Iraq and an assault on our liberties and traditional values regarding torture and the rule of law. The immediate "hot pursuit" of al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan was necessary and just (as we said in these pages at the time). With the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan already fighting the Taliban government, the United States was able to quickly remove al-Qaeda's protectors from power. Under different leadership, American forces might have finished the job of knocking out al-Qaeda and killing or capturing Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora instead of shifting military resources to Iraq.

During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush didn't show any interest in the threat of terrorism, nor did his administration initially pay any attention to al-Qaeda despite warnings from Richard Clarke and other Clinton administration national-security officials. As the 9/11 Commission later wrote, "During the spring and summer of 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al-Qaeda planned, as one report put it, 'something very, very, very big.'" The Bush administration did nothing in response to these warnings.

But Bush went from indifference to overreaction in a flash. Until September 11, his presidency had no clear aims in foreign policy. His national-security advisers—the "Vulcans," as they were known—sought to build up American military power and talked darkly about the danger of a rising China. The 9/11 attacks, however, provided the direction that Bush had previously lacked and gave his presidency a seemingly high purpose and grounds for re-creating the domestic political conditions of the Cold War—an atmosphere of fear and insecurity that underwrote foreign military intervention and the expansion of the national-security state.

The patriotism that swept America after September 11 could have helped forge a genuine moment of national unity and common purpose. Instead, the Bush administration and other Republicans used it as an opportunity to vilify liberals who opposed the push for war in Iraq or the need for wider government surveillance, "black" site prisons, and waterboarding and other forms of torture that the United States had previously condemned as inhumane even in war.

Much as the Cold War energized the Republican right, put Democratic liberals on the defensive, and sidetracked the Roosevelt-Truman domestic agenda, the national-security state of the Bush era has been the gift that keeps on giving for Republican conservatives. The permanent "war on terrorism" is a permanent distraction from domestic issues that would play to the strength of liberals and Democrats.

From the beginning, the Bush administration exploited a tendency among many Americans to blur together far-off Islamic countries and to endorse military action without thinking through the consequences. What many critics of the Iraq War believed at the time Bush ordered the invasion soon became indisputable: Saddam Hussein did not have the nuclear-weapons program that was the false basis for the attack and occupation. The legacy of Bush's deceptions and mistakes should never be forgotten: the heavy toll of lives lost, the staggering cost to the Treasury, and the perverse geopolitical outcome—a shift in regional power to Iran, which then became a more serious nuclear threat than Iraq had been. Yet as foolhardy and disastrous as it was, the Iraq War allowed Bush to simulate a successful presidency and defeat John Kerry in 2004.

Domestically, the war departed from precedent in two key respects. The standard historical pattern has been to raise taxes to pay for war, but Bush cut taxes and plunged the country into a structural deficit from which it has yet to recover. In earlier wars, the government also abridged civil liberties, but the end of those wars typically resulted in a relaxation of state power. Not so this time, at least so far.

Those who defend the policies of torture, rendition, and unchecked surveillance argue that such measures have saved us from another attack like that of September 11—by which logic, the United States should persist in these policies forever. We can't say for certain, however, that these policies deterred further attacks. Indeed, we can't even say for certain what all of these policies are, since many remain secret. What we can say with certainty is that the sadism at Abu Ghraib and the waterboarding at Guantanamo have helped spawn a furious anti-Americanism in many Muslim nations. Torture may or may not deter our enemies; it surely creates them.

Bush left behind facts on the ground and myths in the air, neither of which his successor could easily undo. Barack Obama's election has changed our policy in Iraq, and at least we are on our way out of that entanglement. But Obama has been unable or unwilling to dismantle the Bush legacy in all its ugly dimensions.

In his presidential campaign, Obama vowed to bring a successful conclusion to what Bush had left unfinished in Afghanistan, a posture that made sense only as a commitment to destroy al-Qaeda, not as the broader counterinsurgency and nation-building effort that it has become. Like other countries that have ventured into Afghanistan, the United States has been unable to overcome that nation's tribal political culture or endemic corruption, and the prospects of solidifying a capable, democratic government in Kabul seem as dim as ever.

Although there is a rationale for continuing to pursue al-Qaeda, the network now has more operatives in other countries than it does in Afghanistan. We can't afford to put troops in all such places, and the effort would only stir up more anti-Americanism. Obama's recent decision to accelerate the withdrawal of American forces is a welcome step, but his timetable will still leave combat troops in Afghanistan until 2014. We need to bring them home faster.

If anything, the domestic legacies of Bush's response to 9/11 are proving even more difficult to end. Obama's efforts to close Guantanamo were foiled in Congress, and his administration has not shut down the expanded surveillance that Bush introduced. The deficit created by the combination of tax cuts and war, now exacerbated by a prolonged economic slump, has fostered the astonishing fiction that as a nation, we are too poor to provide for Americans in sickness and old age. At the beginning of his presidency, Obama missed the opportunity to follow through on his campaign promise to end the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000—and then ended up agreeing to extend those cuts in the lame-duck session late last year. Bush's dual legacies of a fiscal deficit and a financial crisis, combined with congressional Republicans' fanatical opposition to restoring taxes, could wipe out decades of progress on social legislation.

The financial collapse, augmented by austerity economics, has led some to predict a Japan-style lost decade of economic performance in the U.S. But the response to 9/11 has already cost us a decade of squandered wealth and unrealized opportunities to address such long-term problems as global warming and rising inequality. Obama's inability to bring about a more decisive shift in national policy—though not entirely his fault, given the deep institutional and partisan obstacles to change—has left the country treading water.

At least in regard to foreign policy, the president now has more political capital to exploit than when he first came into office and faced doubts about his abilities as commander in chief. That capital comes from the successful military assault on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, which has drastically altered the national debate about Afghanistan. The American public is ready for a rapid drawdown of troops there and ambitious nation-building at home. In a larger sense, bin Laden's death can provide closure to the 9/11 decade. We never should have lost a decade—and we must not lose the next one—because of 9/11.

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