Nine Years from 9-11

President Bush believed history would vindicate his actions and justify our aggression abroad. The Bush Doctrine was to be the cornerstone of his administration, America’s new approach to the world and the war on terror and the toppling of Saddam’s statue would be its symbol. But the hands on the rope that pulled down the statue, and would later hang the man, would ultimately fail to save the legacy of the doctrine.

It is nine years from the moment America’s heart stopped at 9:03 a.m., September 11, 2001. This was the precise moment the second plane struck the South Tower and threw the nation into a state of shock—the instant we realized we were under attack. The strongest nation in the world was stunned and immobile, paralyzed with fear. One hour and two minutes later America’s heart began beating once again with a shot of adrenaline when the South Tower collapsed. We sprung into action and haven’t stopped since.

Promises were made to us that day and many days since. We were promised American troops would hunt down the terrorists and “smoke ’em out” of their caves. We would take the fight to the “evil-doers” and disrupt the vast terrorist network around the globe. The Bush administration stepped into Soviet shoes by assuming their unwinnable fight in Afghanistan. Yet we diverted our focus to Iraq and allowed those responsible for 9/11 to slip away. We committed the unforgivable sin in warfare of dividing our attention and took firm control of the ministry of oil in Iraq while the rest of the country burned and Afghanistan floundered.

President Bush believed history would vindicate his actions and justify our aggression abroad. The Bush Doctrine was to be the cornerstone of his administration, America’s new approach to the world and the war on terror and the toppling of Saddam’s statue would be its symbol. But the hands on the rope that pulled down the statue, and would later hang the man, would ultimately fail to save the legacy of the doctrine.

We will probably never know if the Bush Doctrine has any merit as it was improperly applied to nations that didn’t pose a threat to us as a whole. We have, however, learned that democracy is not portable. It cannot be imposed; rather, it must be grown in a territory governed by firm secular guidelines by which laws are crafted and enforced. And while the underpinnings of a nation’s code of law may be similar to the moral tenets shared by the world’s most practiced religions, they must also operate independently. Democracy is also aided by a diverse economic base stemming from rich agrarian resources that foster infrastructure growth. None of these were fully developed in the nations we overthrew.

In Iraq the American neo-cons attempted to manufacture something that looks and feels like democracy from a single-source oil economy through the forced installation of infrastructure and free elections. These are important tributaries of democracy but not the river from which it flows. Bush’s belief that we would win hearts and minds in the Middle East by spreading democracy through state-building had the reverse effect of further poisoning the region and positioning Iran and Pakistan, two powerful nuclear nations, against us. Now, as we withdraw thousands of our troops from Iraq on the eve of 9/11, we are left to ponder the one war that remains.

Americans didn’t need a war to assuage our anger after 9/11. We needed to punish the leadership of the radical fundamentalists who attacked us. We needed baseball and country music, candlelight vigils and Bin Laden’s head on a platter. How miraculous it would have been had we sent elite military teams to Afghanistan to rout the Taliban and focused all of our energy on bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. Imagine how quickly we could have responded to the aftermath of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and how prepared we would have been to assist in Haiti. The experience our troops would have received from these humanitarian exercises would have prepared us for the devastating floods in Pakistan today; an effort that could truly win over hearts and minds.

No, democracy is not portable, but humanity is. And as we ready ourselves to return to that moment nine years ago, we will also revisit some remarkable acts of humanity that shone on that day. Acts of heroism performed by citizens, not governments; just as our heroism abroad was in the actions of our soldiers and not the policies they obeyed.

Iraq

The Iraq War has officially come to an end with the Iraqis celebrating their independence this past Tuesday. “Shock and Awe” has now faded to fizzle and yawn. Americans, satisfied with what can now be characterized as blanket retribution for 9/11, have moved on. In the end we fought two wars simultaneously and overthrew a regime—a ferocious display of might perhaps no other nation could manage without coming apart at the seams. 

It was one hell of a war, wasn’t it? Or was it?

There are parts of the world where fresh battle lines are continuously drawn over ancient disputes; the impermanence of Western culture allows us to forgive and forget and heal all wounds but not all of the wounded. But as the scene in Iraq fades to black, American media has lapsed back into reporting woes of the pocketbook, Gary Condit-like coverage of our politicians and news of tragic celebrity deaths. No shark attacks at the moment folks—we do have dolphins in the Long Island Sound.

As far as Iraq is concerned we’re left to simply ponder what the hell just happened. So let’s talk about it. What is ultimately in question will be the fate of the Bush Doctrine, the centerpiece of the Bush administration. Some may remember it simply as the question that flummoxed Sarah Palin during the now-infamous Katie Couric interview. It was a serious question that exposed a seriously unqualified candidate and one that will linger for decades.

Is the Bush Doctrine simply veiled imperialism at its worst or the righteous burden of a superpower? Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein? Was it even our fight? Would it have made a difference if we uncovered weapons of mass destruction? Was Saddam with access to nuclear weaponry more of a danger than an unstable nuclear Pakistan or an unpredictable nuclear North Korea?

We now know that this was an unnecessary war as it relates to the proposed reasoning for entering into it. But was it necessarily unjust?

There have been some answers along the way and not all of them tragic. As Americans, we learned how to treat returning soldiers with the respect they deserve while maintaining our right to question their mission. We have learned that conventional warfare is over and that working with civilians is more important than leveling their society and dictating terms. We have also learned that those who run the departments that govern the military cannot necessarily run a war. That exercise is better left to the generals.

For better or for worse, the Bush Doctrine gave America something that it has been missing since the Cuban Missile Crisis—a little touch of crazy. This war proved that you can poke the bear one too many times. It showed that we will throw you out of your house, kill you in front of your friends, marry your wife and rename your kids. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it’s a lousy way to win friends and influence people. 

It will be years before the Iraq puzzle can be assembled objectively with the wisdom that only time can provide. Yet trying to determine whether a war was a “success” may be impossible. Can the lives of American soldiers or innocent foreign civilians really be quantified? Twenty nine soldiers from Long Island gave their lives to free Iraq and overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now consider that 397 Long Islanders have lost their lives to heroin in the same time period.

This correlation isn’t meant to minimize the wartime deaths but to challenge whether or not any war can truly be objectively quantified in terms of battles, casualties and borders. Today, heroin flows cheap and easy across the globe due to the overwhelming productivity of poppy fields in destabilized regions such as Afghanistan. Did our myopia in Iraq cause tributaries to pour dangerously in ways we have yet to contemplate? Will they empty into perilous seas that will someday be too difficult to navigate?

Countless questions. Seldom an absolute answer. And what do we ponder instead? What will become of MJ’s estate? Will Paul McCartney finally get the rights back to the Beatles? Will they freeze Michael next to Walt? Did Farrah get a proper send off? And who the hell is going to pitch OxiClean?

Asking questions is a good thing. Let’s just make them the right ones.