Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that murdered 2,977 Americans. We have been at war since October of that year when we first struck the Taliban in Afghanistan after President Bush gave them the choice between surrendering Osama bin Laden and war.
In those fifteen years of war, we haven’t achieved victory over Islamic terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. The threats of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the other terrorist networks remain almost undiminished. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden as leader of al-Qaeda, used the anniversary of 9/11 to issue more threats.
Where have we gone wrong?
We began with President Bush’s address to Congress on September 20, 2001. He said, “Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
But it quickly became clear that the president wasn’t willing to enforce that choice against Saudi Arabia, which has funded terrorism around the world, or against any nation other than Afghanistan or Iraq that harbored and funded terrorists. Mr. Bush led us into a confrontation-cum-engagement strategy that existed until Mr. Obama became president, when the confrontation part of the strategy was eliminated.
Mr. Bush made two cardinal mistakes. The first was his insistence that we could win the war without attacking the ideology of the enemy. He thus began to raise a generation of military leaders dedicated to that strategy. Thus crippled in their derivation of strategy, none of our generals has been able to produce victory.
Donald Trump’s statement that our generals have been reduced to “rubble” is unfortunate not because it is inaccurate but because of his terminology. Our generals and admirals cannot craft a strategy that leads to victory because, as I have written many times, we cannot defeat the terrorists unless we defeat them kinetically and at the same time defeat their ideology.
Many Americans often call upon Islamic leaders to join in the ideological fight. But moderate Muslims, like their terrorist co-religionists, demand that there is only “one Islam.” The Koran, they believe, is comprised by the literal words of God and cannot be questioned in any way. The moderates cannot be relieved of that burden because — unless Allah spoke to another prophet — his original words cannot be subrogated. In the Koran, the peaceful passages were revealed to Mohammed before those that require subjugation of the non-believers. The latter, under Islamic doctrine, subrogated the former.
The only Islamic leader to dispute this is Egyptian President al-Sisi. In January 2015, when al-Sisi called for an Islamic Reformation and insisted on Muslims’ rejection of the Islamic doctrines that demand and predict Islamic domination of the world through violence, the Islamic world either rejected him outright or remained silent.
A source close to then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld told me that Rumsfeld tried to organize the Bush cabinet to fight the ideological war but failed because none of the other cabinet members believed the president would agree to undertake it.
Thus began our strategy that couldn’t possibly succeed. As Gen. Peter Pace wrote as he became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2006, what we say and what we write is as important as how well we shoot. His words went unheeded and led to the creation of a generation of military leaders who wouldn’t recognize the necessity of fighting the ideological war.
Our generals, under the direction of two successive presidents, have settled on the doctrine that Islam is off limits. It cannot even be connected to terrorism. Under President Obama, the terminology “Violent Extremist Organizations” has replaced any reference to Islamic terrorism or jihad in our military plans.
Many of our younger warriors know precisely how dangerous this thinking is. As one of my friends in the special operations community put it, “When the enemy tells you he wants to kill you, we should take him seriously. When he tells us why, we should listen.” But he, like so many who share his thought, isn’t among the generals and admirals whose thinking froze in 2001.
Our military leaders have a single great responsibility: to deter or defeat any existential threat to America. They simply cannot do so while they believe we cannot and must not fight the ideological war.
President Bush’s second great mistake was to adopt the strategy of nation-building. Because Islam dominates the nations where we tried it, the strategy couldn’t possibly succeed. In the greatest book on the subject, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, David Galula wrote that the counterinsurgent had to offer something that was more attractive than the insurgent could and that the insurgent could not offer. In nations dominated by Islam, the most powerful force in people’s lives is their religion. Offering democracy, which was quickly labeled anti-Islamic, was bound to fail. It did, at an enormous cost in lives and treasure.
The third greatest mistake — which wasn’t Bush’s but everyone’s especially the media’s — was allowing Islamic groups such as CAIR to put us on the defensive regarding our Constitution and our culture and enabling the anti-anti-terrorists to dominate the domestic debate.
Those of us who remember the Cold War proudly labeled ourselves then — and do so now — as anti-communists. The domestic Left quickly established itself as anti-anti-communist as soon as Whitaker Chambers — himself a former communist — told Congress in 1948 that the State Department had many communists working inside it.
The anti-anti-communists lost ground at the outset of our involvement in the Vietnam War but rapidly regained their dominance. Fifteen years ago, anti-terrorism was a common bond. Today, anti-anti-terrorism surrounds us just as the anti-anti-communists did until Ronald Reagan took to fighting the “evil empire” (a simple but effective example of ideological warfare) and defeated the Soviet Union ideologically and by defense technological advances they couldn’t afford to equal.
Since 9/11, political correctness has been the weapon of the anti-anti-terrorists. It has become so absurd that the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently said, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”
For the past eight years we have had a president who insists on separating Islam from the terrorism its adherents wreak almost every day around the world. That’s how we have our generals speaking, theorizing and writing in the most politically-correct terms about “Violent Extremist Organizations” instead of Islamic terrorist networks.
They should instead be speaking, thinking and strategizing about how to defeat the Islamists’ ideology. But at this stage, that would be so alien a thought pattern to them that, frankly, most of them need to be replaced by warriors who can.
The same holds true for our intelligence community. There is much to be written and said about how our intelligence community can be reformed. The CIA’s track record — as well as the other agencies’ — isn’t enviable. The CIA was just as surprised when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 as it was when it was built in 1961. None of the intelligence agencies predicted the 9/11 attacks or subsequent attacks such as the shootings in San Bernardino and the Orlando nightclub massacre.
Part of the failures in recent years has been caused by President Obama’s abandonment of “HUMINT,” regular on-the-ground spying. He has also reined in intelligence gathering actions by NSA and other agencies, as have the courts.
Despite those facts, as Mr. Trump revealed in the “Commander in Chief Forum,” President Obama has rejected many of the actions that the intelligence community has wanted to take. We don’t know what those actions were, but Trump’s claim that Obama wants to hear only the things he agrees with isn’t a surprise. The revelations that Central Command commanders rejected analysts’ work that didn’t paint a rosy picture that fit Obama’s preconceived notions support what Trump said.
Where we go from here is anybody’s guess. It will take months or years to replace the Obama generation generals and admirals as well as his favored intelligence leaders. Mr. Trump may do it, Mrs. Clinton certainly won’t.
Over the past few days I’ve been reading Greg Behrman’s superb history of the Marshall Plan, The Most Noble Adventure. In post-World War Two America, we delayed our economic recovery in order to compel Europe to organize itself in a manner that would allow American aid to be effective in those nations’ recovery and thereby prevent the very real possibility of a communist takeover of the entire region.
If we can elect a president who will correct the mistakes of the past fifteen years, we can defeat Islamic terrorism as completely as we defeated communism in the Cold War. The thought of what will happen if we do not should be on our minds on November 8th.