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Exclusive to the Trib: The immutable lessons of 9/11

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, September 10, 2016 9:00 p.m

Al-Qaida’s barbaric attacks on the United States 15 years ago caused a profound change in the way most Americans think about terrorism. Before Sept. 11, 2001, they saw apparently random suicide bombings and murders of innocent civilians perpetrated by obscure groups of fanatics based in distant lands. Afterward, for the first time, most Americans understood that a hostile ideology had declared war against America and the West generally.

The long parade of pre-9/11 terrorist atrocities was not random but was actually the opening salvo of the war to come. Whatever people thought previously, the war itself became all-too real in the World Trade Center’s devastation; the partially successful assault on the Pentagon; and the unknown objective of those who hijacked United Flight 93, scene of the first American counterattack by heroic passengers.

Without doubt, we had not experienced a minor deviation from civilized society’s legal norms. Instead, 9/11 was a direct assault on civilization itself: These fanatics actually had declared war on us. Correspondingly, we needed the right counterpunch, not responding as though faced with a strange new crime wave, merely pursuing and arresting the perpetrators and prosecuting them as lawbreakers.

The radical Islamicist ideology motivating al-Qaida and their Taliban allies seems bizarre and nearly incomprehensible to most Americans, then and now. That the ideology comes in many variations — from the dark and twisted delusions of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to today’s malignant Islamic State rampaging through the Middle East and North Africa — doesn’t make it easier to grasp. Unfortunately, precisely because the ideology is not monolithic, it is more difficult to counter in sustained, effective ways.

Nonetheless, on that September day 15 years ago, Americans knew that unlike prior provocations that often went unanswered, these attacks could not be ignored or brushed aside. And they were not, certainly not by President George W. Bush. Taliban and al-Qaida were driven from power in Afghanistan in a brilliant military campaign. No due process rights were afforded on the Afghan battlefield, nor should they have been, any more than enemy combatants received U.S. constitutional protections in any other war we have fought. It was war, not law-enforcement, we were conducting, and rightly so.

Beyond Afghanistan, America’s efforts were profound and far-reaching: increasing our efforts to uncover terrorists before they struck; striving to counter their ideology; and increasing our international efforts against the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. These counter-proliferation policies were sorely needed after years of inattention. But they assumed an even greater sense of urgency under the risk that a state sponsor of terrorism like Iran, Iraq or North Korea might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

The 9/11 attacks, devastating as they were, could have been followed by attacks incomparably greater in their human costs. And strategic rivals around the world, such as China and Russia, sensing the possibility of American weakness and withdrawal, readied themselves to take advantage of any sign of U.S. hesitancy.

The Bush administration made mistakes after 9/11, but they were mistakes of implementation, not an inability to perceive the threat clearly. When Bush left office, neither his successes nor failures could reasonably justify a conclusion that the fight was over, let alone victorious. After all, we never wanted the war in the first place. We were the victims of aggression, and the aggressors were (and are) still in the field.

Today, however, after nearly eight years of President Barack Obama and his media allies, it feels as though we have returned to Sept. 10, 2001. Obama refuses to talk about the ideology of radical Islam, even though more Muslims have been victimized by this theocratic nightmare than non-Muslims. Obama refuses to acknowledge the war being waged against us, even though his own senior intelligence officials have repeatedly testified to Congress that the global terrorist threat is equal to or greater than it was before 9/11. And even when he authorizes the use of military force, Obama refuses to deploy it effectively and swiftly, fearing what he believes is the American propensity to “overreact,” thus igniting more violence. Only he is apparently immune from this national character flaw.

But while Obama continues to live in a parallel universe, the evidence that his policies have failed continues to mount.

Four years ago today, in Benghazi, Libya, we saw one of only many such failures, one which he and his secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have repeatedly tried to cover up. Obama’s policies are Clinton’s policies. If she prevails in November, her presidency will doubtless be Obama’s third term in national-security affairs.

Do you feel “on alert” today to the global terrorist threat? Will you also be “on alert” tomorrow, when the anniversary has passed? Will you be “on alert” this Nov. 8? The last is the most important question of all.

John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.

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