What would have happened if we had not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq?
Obviously, we've all thought about 9/11 a lot. Now imagine it had been different, that five terrorists boarded one plane and took it over, but were forced to crash. Just five terrorists, just one plane, mission unsuccessful and unknown (in this exercise). What would have been the impact? Even without the context of 9/11, such an event would have been awfully devastating in and of itself.
Add a second plane, hijacked and crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Two groups of terrorists, one plane crashed into the WTC, one into an empty field. I'm not trying to minimize anything but am suggesting that a lot less could have happened, and it still would have been deeply traumatic.
But 19 terrorists took over four planes and crashed three of them into both towers and the Pentagon, with only one failing to reach its target (though it still caused the death of all onboard). The magnitude of this terrorist act is extraordinary. These terrorists succeeded in killing as many Americans as possible, an event greeted with celebration in many places. The U.S. was finally being taught a lesson.
The action was profoundly humiliating for this country as a nation, as well as terrifying, as it made clear world events are not played only by our rules.
Worse, there was nothing we could do about it. There was no nation-state we could invade, were no survivors to punish. Despite spending more than $300 billion a year on the military, we had no defense. In spite of boasting the most sophisticated military force in history, we posed little threat to these terrorists.
"What would have happened if Bush hadn't invaded?" Consider that the economy had just collapsed, his election was controversial, and the country was unusually vulnerable. How would most Americans have handled it if there had been no overt and strong response?
Close to 70% of our population thinks Iraq was in some way responsible for 9/11. Not just as a consequence of the administration's misinformation, but because they need to have a tangible enemy. If we had just invaded Afghanistan, it wouldn't have been enough. Not only was it a medieval country, but it didn't host an appropriately oversized villain. Certainly, Osama bin Laden was and is a villain, but he's more a gangster. Bush intuitively understood that this extraordinary action had to be met by an equally elaborate reaction. Not a diplomatic response nor even a curative solution, but an act of imagination to re-empower the American people. The invasion of Iraq was a foregone conclusion.
If the inspectors didn't find weapons, we'd go in (which is what happened). But if the inspectors had found weapons, we would have gone in as well, because then it would have been obvious Hussein was lying, was in violation, and had more. If Hussein had turned weapons over, we would have gone in: Look, he had been lying, would lie again, and probably had more. Bush knew we had to invade Iraq to maintain our self-image and self-respect. Listen to so many that support the invasion: "We're combating terror. We couldn't let them continue to bring the battle here; we had to go over there. They struck first. We just responded."
This country has done very little to address the threat of terrorism, a goal certainly not accomplished by invading Iraq. All the excuses for the invasion have always rung hollow. There has never been any significant proof of a connection between Iraq and 9/11. Al Qaeda and Iraq under Hussein were natural enemies, which is not to say they hadn't nor wouldn't work together -- the enemy of my enemy, and so on. Still, the Hussein memo warning Iraqis against foreign fighters sheds light here. Weapons of mass destruction have not yet been found, but even if they are, there is no proof that Hussein would have offered them to terrorists. Certainly, that he didn't use them against the invasion argues that the threat was exaggerated. Hussein's military proved more hype (by us) than threat. The consequences of more than a decade of embargo proved as substantial as anti-war activists suggested.
The recent flare-up over the Bush-Hitler comparisons was legitimate, if exaggerated. As much as one might dislike the president, that comparison is absurd and indecent. In real-world political terms, it is also counterproductive, perhaps entertaining the most strident of the convinced but alienating the undecided and mobilizing partisans.
The Saddam Hussein-Hitler comparisons were also absurd, though they had a more substantial basis in that both were monsters that killed their own people. But this comparison helped author far worse real-world consequences. Not only was the magnitude of Hitler's genocide far removed from Hussein's (and making such distinctions does turn one's stomach), but Hitler posed a much greater world threat than Hussein ever did. There's no space here to develop a careful distinction, but Hitler's Germany was building a grandly ambitious military machine that, at first, invaded neighboring countries with impunity. Iraq was fought to a draw by Iran and driven back in overwhelming defeat when it invaded Kuwait. But in order to create the Captain America-tackles-the-Axis-powers, Kirby-and-Simon comic-book imagery, we had to be tackling an oversized, superpowered, threatening monster.
So we pumped up Hussein as a threat. How did the Hussein-Hitler comparisons, coupled with the American president treating Hussein as such a dangerous power, impact a delusional megalomaniac? Our threats against Hussein empowered him, guaranteeing there would be no solution except the invasion.
In strategic, diplomatic, and political terms, we went in too quickly. Apologists dismiss this as absurd, pointing to the decade-plus of sanctions. Conspiracy theorists point to Paul O'Neill's recent revelations that the Bush administration had started talking about invading Iraq before 9/11.
After the Gulf War, Bush Sr. made the clear decision not to invade Iraq. The anti-Clinton pro-invasion folks bring up Clinton's militaristic condemnations of Iraq as proof that both the invasion was justified and Clinton was a coward. At the beginning of their tenure, the Bush Jr. administration discussed invading Iraq. Of course they did; every recent administration had, for good reason. But in each case, calmer heads prevailed. In striking distance of Baghdad, with U.S. troops and equipment there, Bush Sr. turned back. The quicksand idiocy of invading a country and taking out its government without a potent alternative always proved too obvious to ignore. If 9/11 or something similar hadn't happened, Bush would not have invaded Iraq; it's almost certainly a losing situation.
War supporters scoff that we have removed a monster and struck a blow against terrorism. I buy the former. But what blow have we struck against terrorists? The argument goes that the most dangerous ones are harbored by terrorist-friendly states, and we have made it clear what our response will be. I agree that now few nations, even the most renegade, will openly host terrorists. But this modern wave of terrorism began with fundamentalist extremists in Egypt attacking their own secular government.
"OK, but we have shown the terrorists just how strong this country is, intimidating them into nonaction," Iraq war advocates say. Instead, some of us might suggest we played into the 9/11 terrorists' plans by taking out a secular government that they opposed while solidifying the Muslim world against us.
Terrorism owns no geography, has no permanent government, no standing army, few military bases, no civilian population. What it was on September 11, 2001 (about eight years after the first WTC bombing), it may well be now. The invasion of Iraq, no matter how viscerally satisfying and psychically comforting, changed little in those terms.
Still, if Bush hadn't invaded, what would have happened? If the response was a more reasonable but almost entirely hidden one involving diplomacy, foreign aid, espionage, covert activities, and expanding intelligence, how would the American people have responded? The invasion, which most Americans are convinced was against the perpetrators of 9/11, provided immeasurable psychological comfort to supporters. In response to chaos, Bush created order.
I'm not even hinting at justifying the war. I'm thinking about that question. I'm very pessimistic about Iraq's future. I'm pondering this country's future. Those opposed to this administration might find some psychological comfort in the usual: basic paranoid fantasies, political conspiracy arguments, and big-business manipulation scenarios. Unfortunately, I fear that this comfort is as illusory as was the Iraq invasion. Bush's intuitive genius for resonant political actions is disturbing, especially as they are divorced from history, lack sustained consideration, and oblivious to negative consequence and defiantly ignorant of the future. In terms of the moment, they are near perfect, embracing impossible extremes. "The administration is going to cut taxes even more, make the current cuts permanent, improve education, venture into space, build Star Wars, expand health coverage, defend the family, and cut the deficit -- Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!"
Wowing the public, dazzling the media, thrilling the partisan, offering no doubt, suggesting no pain, Bush's 21st-century genius, driven by an unmoored internal gyroscope, is all flash, little substance, and more than likely to earn him a second term. Not being tied to the past or the future allows for intoxicating solutions -- but what happens when he finally stops spinning?