Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 September 2011

The Lessons of 9/11, Ten Years Later

Now we can relax, think a bit and indulge our hindsight. There was no recurrence, despite reports of credible and specific threats.

Our defenses are working. So is our offense: our superb but secret counterintelligence, our ninjas, and our drones. If the best defense is a good offense, we have finally hit our stride, under a president who understands foreign cultures and how to deal with them [end of post].

As it turns out, an effective response didn’t require declaring war on Iraq or any of the sixty countries that, knowingly or not, harbor terrorists or their sympathizers. We didn’t have to take on the Taliban either. All we had to do was go after the tiny band of extremists who are threatening us.

That we are now doing, after ten years of flailing about with grossly disproportionate and therefore ineffective military responses.

Al Qaeda was once our worst enemy. But now it’s on the run. Bin Laden is dead, executed by our modern ninjas, of which we have a whole regiment. So are most of Al Qaeda Central’s leadership.

The terrorists can’t use modern telecommunications against us because we can hear them. They can’t use air power because we can see them and shoot them down. They can’t use plague bioterror weapons because they’d kill themselves and theirs first. They have trouble moving among us because they throw off clues the way a sneezing flu patient throws off viruses.

They can only use stealth, as they did on 9/11. But now we are ready. The element of surprise is gone. And now the whole civilized world is with us, sharing intelligence and cooperating to shut Al Qaeda down.

Most of all, the Arab Spring has made Al Qaeda irrelevant. Its self-professed goal was to free Muslims from the rule of Western-dominated tyrants, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. That’s why Bin Laden and nearly all the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and Al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second in command (still at large) was Egyptian.

But now the Arab Spring is doing that, with far less bloodshed and far more success than Al Qaeda ever enjoyed. The Saudi Princes likely will be the last tyrants to fall, but their days, too, are numbered.

And it won’t be explosions in Western democracies that defeat them, but ordinary Arabs and Muslims seeking the same opportunities that people elsewhere, including the BRIC nations, now have. As many already have done, Arabian and Muslim martyrs will risk their lives not to kill Americans and other Westerners, but to secure their freedom. They will do so just the same way every other people has throughout history: by struggling, fighting and, where necessary, dying for it.

So now, with the aid of hindsight and a growing degree of confidence, we can see more clearly the lessons of 9/11. Most of them are negative, as follows:

1. It’s not a good idea to threaten sixty foreign nations with war, simply because they may harbor inimical non-state actors.

2. It’s not a good idea to make war on an already war-ravaged nation (Afghanistan) just because its current leaders won’t turn over a terrorist. Even Teddy Roosevelt, when he famously said "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!" had a specific country, person and location in mind and means to carry out his threat quickly and with minimal cost.

3. It’s equally not a good idea to start a war in an irrelevant third country (Iraq), using the pretext of a terrorist attack by people from and hiding elsewhere.

4. When first responders have to enter a hellish environment in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, it’s best not to do “photo ops” that encourage them to doff their protective gear, lest thoughtless bravado injure or kill them as terrorists could not. And it’s a good idea to give them radios that work, so they can hear orders to evacuate. Get it, Rudy?

5. It’s generally not a good idea to make war on a nation simply because small bands of terrorists are hiding there. Doing so incurs the enmity of that nation’s leaders (legitimate or not), its people, and its casualties and survivors from “collateral damage,” who otherwise might be on your side.

6. It’s best not to elect “deciders,” whether presidents or mayors, who are stupid enough not only to do the things noted in points 1 through 5, but to brag about their blunders and call them “patriotism.”

7. Dwelling morbidly on losses from an attack can promote fear and trembling, which nearly always leads to overreaction and poor decisions in the face of danger.

8. As FDR so well put it, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Our continual obsession with 9/11, including incessant replays of the Twin Towers falling, only aids and abets our native enemies within. Fear and overreaction have done us more harm than any terrorist attack we ever suffered, including 9/11.

Although these negative lessons are by far the most important, 9/11 also taught us some positive things, to wit:

1. A nation of 300 million people, with the strongest and most innovative economy in human history, can be incredibly resilient, as long as it retains confidence in itself and does not succumb to fear.

2. Responding effectively to attacks and the threat of encores requires both defense and offense. Cowering behind the TSA at home is not our best policy. But neither is making war on people who had nothing directly to do with the attacks, as we have done and are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

3. Innovation and imagination are the best responses to new threats. What better way to counter terrorists bent on killing innocent civilians than sending ninjas out to kill them [end of post]?

4. Use of force proportionate to a threat is not only right and moral. It’s also more effective because it creates less unnecessary opposition and fewer unintended consequences.

5. A nation that acts boldly, quickly, proportionately and cleverly need not fear, just as fear will not help a nation with stupid, unimaginative leaders.

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  • At Mon Sep 12, 09:40:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Agreed. At was unnecessary to spend hundreds of billions and maybe even unnecessary trillions of dollars the past 10 years to invade entire countries when all that was needed was stealth/surgical strikes by the FBI, CIA and other special ops to hunt down a small band of extreme radicals. The other two "wars" unnecessarily cost more American lives and provided a new recruiting tool to the extreme terrorist as well as a place for them to practice their terror tactics on real Americans.

    Maybe more importantly, this enormous spending of hundreds/trillions? of dollars to fight two unnecessary wars is likely a significant factor to our current economic situation. With the current need to cut spending/balance the national budge, I propose to SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the our military spending. As you have mentioned in an earlier diatribe, our nukes have prevented any major war for the past 70 years so our massive military is really not needed. I'm guessing our military funding could be 50% or half of what it currently is and with all of our very advanced weapons our military would still be 95% or more as effective and deadly even if its funding is reduced by 50% of what it is today.

    Fox news and the "patriotic republicans" would likely call me a traitor for suggesting this even though I have given 4 years of my life to America as a U.S. Naval Officer.

    Best, Rod H.

  • At Wed Sep 14, 11:49:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Rod,

    Thanks much for your comment and your service, which gives the comment special weight.

    I agree with virtually every word. The only thing I can add is a link to my post on nuclear deterrence of war to which you referred, for readers who haven’t yet seen it.



  • At Sat Jan 12, 03:27:00 AM EST, Blogger Warren Kim said…

    I am torn on this subject, because I believe the Islamist are a modern day fascism ideology. I do not, however, agree with the war in Iraq. Afghanistan, as taught to us by Russia, can be a nightmare. I do believe that their theocracy is a threat to modern Middle East. Their positions on women, and simple freedom are worrisome. Their visualization of death is 72 virgins at the kingdom of Allah. I, myself, is more of an atheist, but I believe we need more than a knee-jerk liberal reaction to Islamo Fascism.

  • At Fri Jan 18, 10:48:00 AM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Warren,

    I’m afraid I disagree with you here. In fact, I disagree with the very term “Islamo-Fascism.”

    It’s not a descriptive term but an oxymoron. Islam is a religion. Fascism is a secular form of authoritarian government— one ruled harshly by a military and corporate elite in their own interest. What Islamic extremists want is not fascism, but theocracy.

    So the term makes no rational sense. But it does make emotional sense. It reflects a partially successful attempt by right-wing demagogues to associate militant Islam in the public mind with Nazi Germany.

    The message is simple: if we don’t pick a fight early, let alone appease, we’ll have another World War II. It’s a second invitation to the sort of “pre-emptive” war that worked so well for us in Iraq.

    That message, in my view, is dead wrong. There are so many differences between Islamists today and Nazi Germany in the 1930s that it’s difficult to count them. So I’ll just stick to the main ones.

    First and foremost, Nazi Germany was a psychotic break in the otherwise admirable history of a clever and resourceful people subjected to extraordinary stress, namely, the post-World-War I economic isolation and reparations and the subsequent Weimar Inflation (the worst in developed-world history). Islam is no such thing: it’s a religion, not a nation or government. It’s practiced by one-fifth of the human race. Its “people” and their cultures are as diverse as humanity, and the overwhelming majority are peaceful and rational.

    I’ve been lucky enough to verify this point first hand. In 1995, I spent two weeks working with the Indonesian government, at a high level, on IP law. I’ve spent a bit more than a week in Turkey as a tourist. And I’ve visited and traveled extensively in Malaysia, my wife’s country of birth, for a total of several months. People in these three countries, in my first-hand estimation, are no more a threat to world civilization, or to the West, than are the devout Catholics of France, Ireland and Spain.

    The second biggest difference is popularity. Hitler was hugely popular in Nazi Germany, in large measure due to the economic disaster Germany had just suffered. In contrast, Islamists encounter political opposition throughout the Islamic world. You can see it in Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, among others.

    The Islamic world is anything but united against the West, as Nazi Germany was against the rest of Europe. (That’s why, among other things, Hitler reached as far away as Japan to find an ally for his “Axis.”) Much of the Islamic world wants to join the West and its successful capitalist system.

    The third biggest difference is arms. Germany started re-arming shortly after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. The few outsiders who observered the re-arming process were astounded by its single-mindedness, scope, ambition, and advanced technology (for the time). They tried to warn what later would become the Allies, but no one listened.

    It’s important to emphasize that all of German society participated, directly or indirectly, in this re-arming. Germany then had the greatest military-industrial complex in human history.

    Comment continues below . . .

  • At Fri Jan 18, 10:57:00 AM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Reply continues . . .

    There is nothing remotely similar in the Islamic world today. Even Iran, which presents the greatest danger, is apparently ambivalent about nuclear weapons. It is hardly devoting its entire industrial and financial resources to arming, as Nazi Germany did.

    I agree with you about the way the Taliban and some other militant Islamists treat women and educate (or don’t educate) their youth. To western understanding, it’s simply abhorrent.

    But you cannot change culture by war. We should have learned that in Vietnam. We learned it again (and are still learning it) in Iraq and Afghanistan. And most of all, we should have learned it in our own Civil War, which we are still fighting politically, even in our last election, 147 years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox. Changing culture takes time (centuries, not decades), patience, and a light touch, not tanks and bombs.

    The bottom line for me is the third point: numbers. Among the vast population of Muslims on our planet, dangerous extremists constitute no more than a few thousand, maybe ten thousand at most. That’s 10,000 out of 1.3 billion, or less than 0.00001 percent! The rest are peaceful people, practicing their religion day-by-day as others do around the world, because it gives them comfort and solace in a harsh world.

    Even among the terrorists, most focus on local struggles, not on us. The Syrians, for example, are fighting and dying to oust one of the world’s worst butchers, Assad. These struggles don’t directly threaten our interests. In the long run, they may consign terrorism to the dustbin of history.

    But even if a few threaten our interests, we can deal with them as a police problem, with good intelligence, counterintelligence, and selective use of ninjas and drones. We don’t need to prepare for war. We don’t need to beef up an already bloated military-industrial complex. And we certainly don’t need more expensive, world destroying nuclear weapons or Cold-War weaponry systems. Those systems won’t even do any good in a struggle that is essentially political and often clandestine.

    So in my view, the whole concept of “Islamo-Fascism” is at best fuzzy thinking. At worst, its an attempt to control a docile society by fear, while our bankers steal the substance of our economy and neuter what, until now, has been the greatesst engine of innovation in human history.

    If there’s any real threat we face, besides global warming, it’s bankers’ unrestrained gambling destroying a global capitalist system that promises an end to war and a prosperous global peace for the first time in human history.




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