Accepting 'The New Normal'
We mourned, united, and adapted. But five years after 9/11, we are divided once again
The urge to prevent future attacks found further expression in the demand for an independent 9/11 investigation to study what went wrong. But even as the 9/11 commission moved toward its first meeting in January 2003, the nation was growing queasy about a military venture far more ambitious than the one in Afghanistan. In one poll, 59 percent responded that invading Iraq would increase the risk of terrorism against the United States, while only 12 percent thought it would decrease it.
Americans had to digest a lot in the year preceding the invasion of Iraq: Saddam Hussein and WMDs and U.N. resolutions; rumors of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda; the Bush Doctrine and pre-emptive war; the growing rift with "old" Europe. There were so many questions, so many risks.
Regime change. But many went along, including leaders of the Democratic Party. The idea of bringing democracy to the failed autocratic states of the Middle East wasn't bad in principle, even if, in the case of Iraq, it had to be sold in conjunction with a dubiously established threat of WMDs. Still, many asked, was this the best way to win Muslim hearts and minds? And why did U.S. attempts at public diplomacy seem so feeble? Some wondered why more wasn't being done to stop the Saudi-funded Wahhabi religious establishment from indoctrinating more Muslims into the most intolerant strain of Islam. Others pointed to the growing instability in Pakistan, a nation with nuclear weapons. And even if many of the al Qaeda top brass had been rounded up or killed, bin Laden and his sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri remained at large while organizational clones of al Qaeda kept popping up around the globe.
Some charged that America was succumbing to a dangerous idealism and forgetting its tradition of foreign policy realism. Even the president's father thought his son should listen to a wider circle of advisers. Americans, however, saw ever widening rifts within the administration, the more cautious heads in the State Department and the CIA losing out to the full-speed-ahead gang in the vice president's office and the Pentagon. If there was no clear, universally agreed-upon plan for postwar Iraq, well, that would take care of itself later.
And then came the swift deposing of Saddam Hussein, briefly silencing the naysayers and doubters at home and abroad. But the looting of the Baghdad museums was an ominous flicker of a greater lawlessness to come. The failure of the liberating forces to move swiftly in re-establishing order and normalcy in the Iraqi economy and society gave renewed credence to all those pre-war warnings about the need for greater troop strength, a more thoroughly worked out plan, and the full cooperation of all our traditional allies.
As Iraq began to unravel into the civil war that we see today, American confidence further suffered from the disclosures of the 9/11 commission. Why so many clear warnings ignored? Why such poor communication between (and even within) organizations like the CIA and the FBI? And why, apart from Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism official, did nobody seem to take full responsibility for the many institutional failures? The looming question, set forth in the commission's many recommendations, was how well the administration and the nation would address such troubling deficiencies. (Grades on 41 areas of performance issued by the 9/11 commission in its December 2005 "report card" were not particularly encouraging: Twenty-four were C or below, and there was only one A minus.)