Marking the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we cannot fail to remember another day of treacherous attack.
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As we would say today, the economic sanctions and the political demands amounted to a program for regime change.
WHICH HAS BEEN THE THEME of U.S. foreign policy ever since. The driving idea of the containment doctrine was that Soviet Communism would eventually mellow and desist from aggressive designs, eventually change entirely. The driving idea of American policy in the lands of Islam, at least in their core territories, is that they will respond to various enticements and accept coexistence, eventually friendship, with Western civilization as we still know it.
The enticements we have come up with range from the very friendly, such as allowing oil-producing states in the region to set the terms for the hydrocarbons extraction industry to the very hostile, such as invading Iraq (justified as a pre-emptive strike to deter attacks on ourselves or our allies). What is remarkable is that since 1943, when President Roosevelt met with the tribal leader Abdulaziz Ibn-Saud and got this carrots and sticks game going, we seem to have learned awfully little. There is no other way to explain the utterly befuddled reaction of Western public officials and observers to this past year’s wave of unrest in the Arabo-Islamic world and our nearly perfect cluelessness in the Pashtun lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the first days of September 2001, most Americans thought we had a reasonably secure situation in relation to the rest of the world. We had fought a war with Iraq ten years earlier to restore international order, a position so clear that we had partners in the enterprise from amongst Iraq’s own neighbors as well as our traditional allies. The position now seemed more or less stable, with a containment policy, complete with sanctions, embargos, and no-fly-zones to keep the surviving outlaw Iraqi regime in its place. At the same time we maintained tense, but evidently sustainable, relations with neighboring Iran, which regularly threatened us (and others) with destruction.
On the morning of September 11, as President Bush visited an elementary school, a commando of mainly Saudi terror operatives received the go-ahead from their commander, a man named Osama bin Laden, to launch a long-planned attack on two vital, as well as highly symbolic, centers of American power, the complex in lower Manhattan called the World Trade Center, and the Defense Department headquarters at the Pentagon in Arlington. The plan, like the Japanese one 60 years earlier based on a misreading of the likely American reaction, was that the shock would lead to a deal centered around the end of U.S. influence in the Muslim world.
Why weren’t we prepared?
The short answer is that security measures in civil aviation were inadequate, enabling commercial planes to be hijacked by pirates and used in the attacks. This was despite 30 or more years of experience with airline terrorism. The long answer is that we saw no reasons why Saudis should want to kill us, but to elaborate on this would take us some distance from the memory of Pearl Harbor.
On December 7, 1941 — a Sunday – when the undetected Japanese task force was only 200 miles from Oahu, regular air patrols were not out over the ocean. On the ground, ammunition was lacking for anti-aircraft batteries which were not manned, and the idea of a surprise attack simply was not taken seriously, even if military planners discussed it as a hypothetical possibility. In a painful illustration of this mind-set, an alert forward radio operator in fact spotted the arriving Japanese attack, only to be told that these were American planes that were expected that day.
The first wave, 181 dive bombers and fighters, struck at 8 a.m., exactly on schedule, hitting the great battleships and Wheeler and Bellows air bases where Gen. Short had massed his planes. The second wave struck less than an hour later. The attack was over by 10 a.m. Two thousand four hundred Americans were killed, including over 50 civilians, most of these due to misfired anti-aircraft shells. The worst blow was the hit on the battleship Arizona, with 1,100 crewmen killed when its munitions magazine blew up.
In Washington, Ambassador Nomura was almost as surprised as Secretary Hull, who could not contain himself — the ultimatum he expected, not the attack itself — and yelled at the Japanese diplomat that never had such treachery been seen in the affairs of nations. The ultimatum that Yamamoto had meant to be delivered prior to the attack was still being deciphered at the Japanese embassy. In fact, the botched sequence of events was a shabby legalism and Yamamoto knew very well that he had planned a surprise attack. But he missed all the aircraft carriers, on their way back from Wake and Midway, and they were far more important than battleships in the coming Pacific war. His other mistake was to hold back the third wave, which he believed he needed to protect his carriers and which would have hit the supply depots, notably the oil, and the repair shops. The survival of these facilitated the repairs — all but two of the eight sunken battleships went back into service — and, according to Admiral Chester Nimitz, saved perhaps two years of recovery time.
Which began immediately. The sleepy ex-peacetime army was deluged with volunteers. War was declared with only one dissenting vote. The America First committee dissolved itself and declared the only goal now was victory.
YOU CANNOT CHANGE human nature, and comparing the events those years with those just behind us, we cannot but be struck by the similarities. We kept the dangerousness of the world at bay, at least in our minds, during most of the years that followed the end of the Russian threat in its Soviet Communist guise. The restoration of international borders in the first Iraq war was treated almost as an update of 19th century gunboat diplomacy, play by the rules or else, pal (which in fact has a lot to recommend it), and we paid remarkably little attention to the time bombs, the several time bombs, in the Islamic world.
Still, unlike in the years before World War II, we had a big national security and foreign policy establishment in place at the end of the competition with the Soviets. And we received terrible warnings: there was the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, there was the assault on the USS Cole (eerily recalling the US gunboat Passan, which the Japanese navy sank in 1937 in the South China sea in an alleged mishap for which Yamamoto apologized), there were murderous aggressions against military and diplomatic installations in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and elsewhere, such as a Marine base in Lebanon in 1983.
The intentions of the Islamic radicals, gradually becoming known as “Islamists” following the French usage to distinguish them from ordinary believers, were broadcast openly, whether they were functioning as freelancers like Bin Laden or as agents of a state sponsor like Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They were just as open in their contempt of us as were the Japanese fascists and the German Nazis. Big wars within Islam, with tens of thousands of victims, such as those in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal and in Algeria in the 1990s, warned us that the world was dangerous as ever.
Nonetheless, it all came as a surprise. And so, too, was America’s response a surprise to our enemies. On September 11 in the evening, EST, President Bush addressed the nation:
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