Back to previous page


Post Most

Who got 9/11 right, and who got it wrong? A pundit score card.

By Jordan Michael Smith,

Jordan Michael Smith

Nothing gets foreign policy wonks more jazzed than a bona fide Watershed Moment — an event that allows them to spin out some idea or argument that defines a new era, proposes a new foreign policy or develops a new doctrine. Sept. 11 was such a moment: In addition to launching a couple of wars, they were the attacks that launched a thousand op-eds and journal articles and think tank conferences.

But how did the early predictions and proposals fare? With the benefit of hindsight, here’s a look at some of the best, worst and most interesting analyses and predictions that were issued a decade ago.

The Worst Timing Award

Many people played down the threat of catastrophic terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001, and one might make the opposite case today — that the threat has become vastly overblown. But it’s hard to imagine a less apt time than July 10, 2001, for former State Department counterterrorism specialist Larry C. Johnsonto write a New York Times op-ed headlined “The Declining Terrorist Threat.”

“Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism,” Johnson opined. “They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

“None of these beliefs are based in fact,” he said, adding that “early signs suggest that the decade beginning in 2000 will continue the downward trend” in terrorist activities.

The Quickest Trigger Award

Many Americans were calling for justice, if not blood, as they watched the replays of the attack on the World Trade Center. Few were as forthright, however, as Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, who called for military retaliation even before a culprit had been found. “There is no need to know the precise identity of a perpetrator; in war, there are times when one strikes first and asks questions later,” Pipes wrote late on the afternoon of Sept. 11 on National Review’s Web site.

He did show a good grasp on how we’d come to speak of a war on terror: “The time has come for a paradigm shift, toward viewing terrorism as a form of warfare,” he asserted, adding that this would mean “targeting not just those foot soldiers who actually carry out the violence but the organizations and governments that stand behind them.”

The Crass Partisanship Award

In terms of wrongheaded insta-analysis, it’s hard to top filmmaker Michael Moore’s reaction to 9/11, which implied that the al-Qaeda hijackers were like jihadist James Carvilles, angered enough by the results of the 2000 election to kill thousands of Americans. “If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes’ destination of California — these were the places that voted AGAINST Bush!” Moore wrote on his Web site on Sept. 12, 2001. He later removed the lines from the posting, asserting that the passage was “satire.”

The Religious Zealotry Award

Two days after Sept. 11, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell pinpointed a different but equally unexpected culprit. Speaking on the Christian television program “The 700 Club,” Falwell said: “The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this. . . . The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked.”

In case the point was not clear enough, Falwell explained that the “Christ-haters” had angered God by throwing Him out of the public square and the schools. “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle — the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ ”

The Wishful Thinking Award

Not since the bombing of Pearl Harbor destroyed American isolationism has a school of foreign policy thought been so discredited as neoconservatism was by the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in the first months after the 9/11 attacks, neoconservative plans to redesign the Middle East found a sympathetic hearing in the White House and among the commentariat. Probably the most romantic neocon was military analyst Max Boot, who believed that the world was desperate for American domination.

“Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,” Boot wrote in the Weekly Standard on Oct. 15, 2001. Just as the U.S. war in Afghanistan was beginning, Boot was planning other campaigns. “Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul. With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.”

The Be Careful What You Wish for Award

As Americans encountered a threat different than any they had seen before, the temptation to jettison key American values loomed large. Consider Jonathan Alter’s Newsweek essay on Nov. 5, 2001, titled “Time to Think About Torture.”

What was needed, in Alter’s view, was for the United States to use various forms of what would come to be euphemistically called “enhanced” or “coercive” interrogation. “Even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation,” he wrote.

“How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings?” he asked. “Short of physical torture, there’s always sodium pentothal (‘truth serum’). The FBI is eager to try it, and deserves the chance.”

Unheeded Warnings Prize

Some Middle East experts cautioned that, in the long run, questions of justice were far more important than U.S. firepower in getting Muslim opinion on our side. Fawaz Gerges, now a professor at the London School of Economics, warned that already, “many Muslims suspected the Bush administration of hoping to exploit this tragedy to settle old scores and assert American hegemony in the world.”

In an October 2001 article, Gerges sympathized with American aims but questioned the means. “As this war continues, the United States cannot afford to neglect the painful and frustrating, but critical, work of building bridges to Muslim peoples and societies,” he wrote. “This task requires cultural sensitivity, understanding and full political and economic engagement with the Muslim world.”

The Unappreciated Prescience Award

After the Taliban collapsed much sooner than expected, American hubris became endemic. But not everyone was seduced by fantasies of domination. In early November 2001, University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer urged the United States to withdraw troops from Afghanistan immediately and instead concentrate on targeting al-Qaeda members. In a New York Times op-edtitled “Guns Won’t Win the Afghan War,” he predicted that “the Taliban would launch a guerrilla resistance from the countryside. It is unlikely that the United States could win this armed struggle at any reasonable cost. Afghanistan is ideally suited for guerrilla warfare, as the Soviets discovered in the 1980’s.”

Though few wanted to hear it, Mearsheimer wrote that “Americans must face a hard reality: massive military force is not a winning weapon against these enemies. It makes the problem worse.” He also offered a counterterrorism strategy that would become popular only years later: “a strategy that emphasizes clever diplomacy, intelligence-gathering, and carefully selected military strikes might produce success eventually if we pursue it with patience and tenacity.”

jordanmichaelsmith100@gmail.com

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington.

Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

© The Washington Post Company