The Legacy of September 11th


This week mark’s the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a dark day that changed our world forever. If you’re old enough to remember the immediate aftermath, you’ll readily recall that aggressive nationalism swiftly squashed any potential introspection. “Why do they hate us?,” Bush asked the country. Then he answered his own question: it’s because we love freedom so much. Additionally, everyone should go shopping to help the economy.

The president’s September 14th speech from the rubble of NYC was immortalized via ad-lib. “We can’t hear you!,” yelled a rescue worker. “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you,” Bush responded. “And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” A chant of “USA!” broke out.

The mainstream media didn’t provide much analysis beyond this at the time. Dan Rather (who is viewed as some sort of liberal hero nowadays) went on The Late Show and explained his function: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions and, just as one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

This stuff was pretty brutal to witness at the time, twenty years later it’s a lot more depressing. The memory of 3,000 lives profaned. What has the “War on Terror” wrought? Domestically it’s the enhancement of our surveillance state, the formation of organizations like ICE, and a further erosion of our civil liberties. Internationally it’s even more grim. Millions dead, thousands displaced, trillions in taxpayer money wasted, and policies that have produced groups like ISIS. After twenty years of death, destruction, and torture one wonders how many Americans have contemplated Bush’s rhetorical inquiry from those fateful days and reached different conclusions.

Bush’s assertion about certain people hearing from us soon was effectively correct, but that was never the war’s actual goal. Patrick Cockburn sums this up succinctly in his latest column:

A curious fact is that the US had won the war by the early months of 2002, at which time the US-backed forces had overthrown the Taliban and al-Qaeda had left the country for Pakistan. But the White House continued the “war on terror” even in the absence of terrorists because of its strong appeal as a slogan and a policy to a US public badly bruised by the shock of 9/11. US forces brought back and supported old warlords, whose blood-soaked banditry between 1992 and 1996 had given birth to the Taliban by way of reaction. Big and small-time Afghan-style mafiosi used American support to win power and money, often denouncing their rivals as secret Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters.

For the last few weeks people who have been wrong about virtually everything for two decades got trotted out to make the case for perpetual war yet again. However, I’ve been struck that one name hasn’t come up more: Osama bin Laden. Maybe it’s because bringing up the Al-Qaeda co-founder would remind everyone that he’s been dead for a decade, something of a hitch when you’re making the case for further intervention in the region.

As the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan again, it’s probably worth contemplating whether bin Laden’s plans can be viewed as successful. In some ways he failed spectacularly. His vision of inspiring Muslims across the world to take up arms against The West didn’t materialize and he certainly didn’t get the United States to leave the Middle East, as their presence was deeply expanded.

However, it’s difficult to say his wider plan was ineffective. At a certain point during the last two decades antiwar voices began saying that bin Laden had wanted to propel the United States into a disastrous war across the world. That’s not actually true because he didn’t see any of this coming. After the Soviet Union was pushed out of Afghanistan, bin Laden began to view the United States as “paper tiger.” If rebel groups could help deal a nearby superpower its coup de grâce, then ejecting their American backers would surely be a piece of cake. It wasn’t. At least not at first.

Bin Laden said he wanted “to destroy the myth of American invincibility” by setting a trap. It became much larger and more destructive than he ever imagined, but it worked. Here’s Matthew Warshauer at Responsible Statecraft earlier this month:

The original component of that conflict is now over. Kabul has fallen. The Taliban are once again in control of Afghanistan. Many Americans, especially veterans, wonder why we went to the Middle East in the first place. The answer is because bin Laden set a trap that the Bush administration and neoconservatives couldn’t resist. They made 9/11 Pearl Harbor to achieve other foreign policy goals and foolishly believed it would be easy. The bearded cleric of terror may be dead, but his larger strategy was brilliant. The American century is over, and we did it to ourselves.

You can find similar sentiments from Omer Aziz in New York Magazine:

Osama bin Laden had laid a trap, even if that wasn’t his original intention. Only by getting the West drawn into endless wars abroad, and into plots against enemies at home, could he bankrupt the American behemoth…

Here lay the great tragedy of the 9/11 era: that something much worse than terror wounded our society over the last two decades. An essential faith in the future was lost. Perhaps this is true for the end of all empires, and despair always precedes the fall. But if younger generations are to emerge from the darkness of the 9/11 era — and it remains my naïve hope that they will — we must first acknowledge the damage we wrought on ourselves. That was the deepest cut of all.

The title of Aziz’s op-ed? Bin Laden Won.

Dr. Nelly Lahoud has a long piece about bin Laden’s “catastrophic success” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Her research has focused on the evolution of al-Qa’ida and the “Islamic State.” Some of the internal documents found at bin Laden’s compound have been declassified and she explains their scope at the beginning of the article:

With the help of two research assistants, I pored over 96,000 of those files, including nearly 6,000 pages of Arabic text that form a record of al Qaeda’s internal communications between 2000 and 2011, which I have spent the past three years analyzing. These documents consist of bin Laden’s notes, his correspondence with associates, letters written by members of his family, and a particularly revealing 220-page handwritten notebook containing transcripts of discussions between members of bin Laden’s immediate family that took place in the compound during the last two months of his life. The documents provide an unparalleled glimpse into bin Laden’s mind and offer a portrait of the U.S. “war on terror” as it was seen through the eyes of its chief target.

One of the big takeaways from her work is that bin Laden helped spawn something that ended up passing him by, as things took turns he never imagined. “During the last year of his life, bin Laden lamented that his ‘brothers”’ had become a ‘liability’ for global jihad,” she writes. “Some of their attacks, he bemoaned, resulted in ‘unnecessary civilian casualties.’ Worse yet, ‘the Muslim public was repulsed’ by such attacks. The new generation of jihadis, he concluded, had lost their way.”

Americans might have flooded the streets to celebrate his death, but in the scheme of things it didn’t have much of an impact. More from Lahoud:

Back in Washington, the Obama administration had dropped Bush’s “war on terror” moniker. But Obama maintained his predecessor’s excessive focus on al Qaeda, and his team failed to discern divisions within jihadism that proved consequential. In choosing to go to war in Iraq, the Bush administration had exaggerated al Qaeda’s connections to the country and overestimated the counterterrorism benefits of toppling Saddam’s regime. The Obama administration, for its part, overestimated the positive effects that bin Laden’s death and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would have on the fight against jihadism. “The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership, including Osama bin Laden,” Obama claimed in October 2011. At that very moment, however, the ISI, al Qaeda’s erstwhile ally in Iraq, was being energized by a new generation of leaders…

After 9/11 U.S. lawmakers frequently said that bin Laden had underestimated America. That ended up being very true, just not in the way they thought.

Ben & Jerry’s

Noam Chomsky often says that the business press is the only media that tells the truth because they have to. How is Ben & Jerry’s recent decision to pull its business out of illegal settlements viewed by the financial sector? We get some insight from a recent Financial Times piece. The article cites other recent BDS victories: the UK’s Methodist Church severing their relationship with Caterpillar Inc, SodaStream closing its West Bank site,  Norway’s largest pension ending business with companies connected to Israeli settlements.

“Some European investors have been calling for companies to restrict their operations in Israeli settlements, regarded as illegal by the United Nations and the EU, over concerns about human rights violations,” reads the article. “The focus on human rights comes as demand for sustainable investing has boomed.”

In other words, business in the settlements is becoming a liability. The article quotes Essex University lecturer Tara Van Ho: “If I were advising businesses on what to do, it would be to follow Ben & Jerry’s lead.”

It will be interesting to see what happens when this kind of prevailing wisdom begins clashing with the standard anti-BDS narrative of U.S. politicians. For instance, Arizona State Treasurer Kimberly Yee just announced she is selling off the state’s notes it holds in loans to Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company. Turns out pro-Israel lawmakers aren’t opposed to divestment after all.

Odds & Ends

🇮🇱 Israeli officials have cautioned the Biden administration about criticizing the Saudi and Egyptian governments. From the Times of Israel:

Biden entered office vowing to place a premium on human rights in the crafting of his foreign policy, warning that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt would need to reform if they wanted to maintain their longstanding relationships with the US.

But that approach has worried Jerusalem, which believes it could alienate Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, leading them to look elsewhere for support and alliances — namely from Iran, but also from US adversaries China and Russia. Those concerns have been passed along to administration officials on multiple occasions, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

🗑️ A strange and cynical PR move from the ADL. They’ve apologized for opposing the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero over a decade ago. “We can’t change the past,” wrote CEO Jonathan Greenblat in a piece on CNN’s website. “But we accept responsibility for our unwise stance on Cordoba House, apologize without caveat and commit to doing our utmost going forward to use our expertise to fight anti-Muslim bias as allies.” Amazing.

🇺🇸 At The Nation Robert Borosage acknowledges that Biden deserves praise for pulling troops out of Afghanistan but points out that the “War on Terror” certainly isn’t ending anytime soon:

Maintaining the forces, weapons, and material of a global “war on terror” as well as contending with what both Trump and Biden now denote as the central threat posed by great-power competition with China and Russia requires an enormous, permanent military-industrial-academic complex. The US military budget now constitutes nearly 40 percent of global military spending, yet Republicans and hawkish Democrats have just announced that that is not enough, pushing to add another $25 billion to the budget this year.

That vote came after defense contractors spent $57 million lobbying members of Congress in the first half of 2021 alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. OpenSecrets reports that the top five weapons firms spent over $1.1 billion on lobbying between 2001 and 2021, as well as $120 million in federal campaign contributions, and bankrolling hawkish think tanks. During the same period, they pocketed $2.2 trillion in military contracts, an obscene return on their investment.

🇮🇱 In June Senators Rubio, Cantwell, Blackburn, and Jacky Rosen introduced bipartisan legislation “to create a U.S.-Israel Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research and Development Center to further bilateral cooperation in AI and contribute to the advancement of this critical field.”

“The Center will serve as a hub for robust research and development in AI across the public, private and education sectors in the two nations,” the press release explained.

Now there’s a companion bill in the House, introduced by Massachusetts Dem Jake Auchincloss. Cosponsors so far are Reps. Gonzalez, Phillips, Waltz, and Meng.

🇵🇸 The Nation has hired Mohammed el-Kurd as their first ever Palestine Correspondent.

Stay safe out there,


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