In considering a funding cutoff for U.S. troops in Iraq, the liberal leadership in Congress runs the risk of making the United States more vulnerable to future attacks, not just in the Middle East but here at home. To understand this, it’s not enough to revisit the factors that led to the Iraq invasion. We must consider the roots of 9/11 itself. Only by understanding the policies that sowed the seeds of 9/11 can we intelligently decide how best to proceed in fighting the war on terror.
Pundits on the left say that 9/11 was the result of a “blowback” of resistance from the Islamic world against U.S. foreign policy. At first glance, this seems to make no sense. American colonialism in the Middle East? The U.S. has no history of colonialism there. Washington’s support for unelected dictatorial regimes in the region? The Muslims can’t be outraged about this, because there are no other kinds of regimes in the region. U.S. support for Israel and wars against the Muslims? Yes, but the U.S. has frequently fought on the side of the Muslims, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s or in the Persian Gulf War.
But in a sense the liberal pundits are right. The U.S. made two gigantic foreign policy blunders in recent decades that did sow the seeds of 9/11. What the liberals haven’t recognized is that these blunders were the direct result of their policies and actions, and were carried out by Democratic presidents — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
To understand this, we need a little perspective. Radical Islam became a global force in 1979, when it captured its first major state, Iran. Before that, radical organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were fighting losing battles to overthrow their local governments. This changed with the success of the Khomeini regime in Iran. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the first Muslim leader to describe the U.S. as the “Great Satan” and to counsel martyrdom and jihad against it. Iran continues to be a model for radical Muslims.
Khomeini’s ascent to power was aided by Carter’s policies. Carter came into office stressing his support for human rights. His advisors told him that he could not consistently support the shah of Iran, who had secret police and was widely accused of violating human rights. The administration began to withdraw its support and finally pulled the rug out from under the shah, forcing him to step down.
The result was Khomeini, whose regime was vastly more tyrannical than the shah’s. The Khomeini revolution provided state sponsorship for Islamic radicalism and terrorism and paved the way for Osama bin Laden and 9/11.
Clinton’s policies also helped to provoke 9/11. After the Cold War, leading Islamic radicals returned to their home countries. Bin Laden left Afghanistan and went back to Saudi Arabia; Ayman Zawahiri returned to Egypt. They focused on fighting their own rulers — what they termed the “near enemy” — in order to establish states under Islamic law. But in the mid- to late 1990s, these radicals shifted strategy. They decided to stop fighting the near enemy and to attack the “far enemy,” the U.S.
The world’s sole superpower would seem to be much more formidable than local Muslim rulers such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or the Saudi royal family. Bin Laden argued, however, that the far enemy was actually weaker and more vulnerable. He was confident that when kicked in their vital organs, Americans would pack up and run. Just like in Vietnam. Just like in Mogadishu.
Bin Laden saw his theory of American weakness vindicated during the Clinton era. In 1993, Islamic radicals bombed the World Trade Center. The Clinton administration did little. In 1996, Muslim terrorists attacked the Khobar Towers facility on a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia. No response. In 1998, Al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. Clinton responded with a few perfunctory strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan. These did no real harm to Al Qaeda and only strengthened the perception of American ineptitude. In 2000, Islamic radicals bombed the U.S. destroyer Cole. Again, the Clinton team failed to act. By his own admission, Bin Laden concluded that his suspicion of American pusillanimity and weakness was correct. He became emboldened to plot the 9/11 attacks.
Still, the 2001 attacks might have been averted had the Clinton administration launched an effective strike against Bin Laden in the years leading up to them. Clinton has said he made every effort to get Bin Laden during his second term. Yet former CIA agent Michael Scheuer estimates that there were about 10 chances to capture or kill Bin Laden during this period and that the Clinton people failed to capitalize on any of them.
Between 1996 and mid-2000, Bin Laden was not in deep hiding. He gave sermons in Kandahar’s largest mosque. He talked openly on his satellite phone. He also granted a number of media interviews: in 1996, with author Robert Fisk; in 1997, with Peter Arnett of CNN; in 1998, with John Miller of ABC News; in 1999, with a journalist affiliated with Time magazine. Isn’t it strange that all these people could find Bin Laden but the Clinton administration couldn’t?
Two lessons can be drawn from these sorry episodes. The first one, derived from Carter’s actions, is: In getting rid of the bad regime, make sure that you don’t get a worse one. This happened in Iran and could happen again, in Iraq, if leading Democrats in Congress have their way. The second lesson, derived from Clinton’s inaction, is that the perception of weakness emboldens our enemies. If the Muslim insurgents and terrorists believe that the U.S. is divided and squeamish about winning the war on terror, they are likely to escalate their attacks on Americans abroad and at home. In that case, 9/11 will be only the beginning.