Looking back this week on Sept. 11, it’s hard not to conclude that Osama bin Laden won a significant victory. With relatively little money and a small band of suicidal fanatics, he reconfigured the policy of a superpower in a region of vital interest for 16 years, at a high cost in American treasure and lives and global influence that may never be recaptured. From the Iraq war to Afghanistan, and from the Iran nuclear deal to the anti-ISIS campaign, our foreign policy is a bipartisan train wreck endangering passengers and bystanders alike. Bin Laden didn’t destroy America like he set out to do, he did something much worse: He set America on a path to self-destruction. The way I see it, Sept. 11 is how we got Donald Trump.
More specifically, the policies of the Bush White House, beginning with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then the ostensibly corrective policies of the Obama administration, which culminated in the Iran Deal and the ongoing slaughter in Syria, have sucked nearly the entire American foreign-policy elite into a black hole of denial of their own shared responsibility for a self-evident geopolitical disaster that began in the destruction of the Middle East, but is unlikely to end there. That’s why both parties are in agreement on one thing: shift the blame. It’s not on us, Republicans or Democrats. Trump is the problem we can all agree on. Let’s wipe the slate clean and agree that history started in January 2017—and any effort to argue otherwise and put Trump, his policies and even personality, in some sort of historical context rather than simply regard him as a freakish anomaly is “what about-ism,” or Trumpism, or worse.
But history isn’t simply whatever “narrative” the good people of Twitter agree on to whitewash their own guilt. History is bigger than that, and it shapes the future, in ways that we are often powerless to control. In this case, history starts not long after Sept. 11, 2001, first in Afghanistan and then two years later with Iraq, a war whose aims were always unclear, and which were repeatedly re-written over time. It was because Saddam had WMD. It was to punish an Arab dictator who supported the same anti-American causes advocated by bin Laden and the Sept. 11 hijackers. It was to bring democracy to the Middle East.
I found this last rationale inspiring—I was inspired by it living in Beirut. The night of Iraq’s first parliamentary elections, I was out with Lebanese friends celebrating the Arab vote. I’d just returned from Syria where I watched Bush’s second inaugural at the home of a Syrian friend who lived in Homs and wept during the speech in gratitude for Bush’s efforts to liberate the Arabs. As a New Yorker whose city was savaged on Sept. 11 by the same people who made the Middle East a kill zone, I’d found allies. I wasn’t a cheerleader for war: I was an advocate for Arab democracy. And for a while, at least, it even looked like it was working, and why not? Saddam Hussein was a monster, the region was full of monsters. America’s role now was to stamp out bin Ladenism of every stripe and replace it with democracy, a freedom agenda backed by hundreds of billions of dollars and the most potent military machine on earth.
The empathy that many Americans, soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, civilians, and others like myself had for people who deserved our help and respect came from decent impulses, which are deeply American. Nonetheless, those impulses also erased the tragic realities of other people’s lives in a very different part of the world. It was narcissism, with profound geo-strategic consequences. Our empathy for hopeful democrats in the countries where we lived and worked involved denying a reality in which the dreams of those we empathized with were in fact impossible. Empathy got people killed—thousands of Americans, and well over a million people by now in the Middle East.
The Lebanon where I thought I saw Arab democracy blossom is now entirely controlled by a terrorist organization, Hezbollah. Homs, once a city of more than a million people from where I watched Bush wax eloquently about Arab hopes and dreams, is devastated after six and a half years of the Syrian war. The effort to reshape the Middle East was a muddle, which led to a disaster in which both American political parties now own a fully paid-up share.
No part of this stomach-turning mess can be laid at the feet of Trump—not the war in Iraq, nor Afghanistan, nor the Arab revolutions that tore apart the Middle East and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths across the region, nor the Iran nuclear deal, or the Iranian take-over of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Nor, nine months ago, did it take a genius to see that the elites of both parties were responsible—and that their “expertise” had made the world more violent and dangerous, and America less safe. To solve them, Americans tapped someone who had no political experience and rejected the “expertise” of the “experts” whose smart solutions had openly failed.
Sound familiar? Despite his lack of foreign-policy experience and rejection of the consensus wisdom of both parties, Barack Obama led a successful insurgent campaign that defied the establishment of his own party and then won the general election. The fact that he was openly different was, in fact, his main electoral virtue: His charisma and a personal story that seemed to realize mainline Protestant narratives of a historical singularity redeeming a sinful America were icing on the cake.
What mattered was that, unlike Hillary Clinton and other brand-name Democrats, like Joe Biden, Obama couldn’t be held responsible for the pressing disaster of the day—the Iraq war. Sure, I’m untested, Obama intimated, but here’s what I won’t do—risk American lives and interests to set the region on fire. And then he did.
Obama was openly contemptuous of the political class, on both sides, that backed the war, officials, lawmakers, as well as journalists and pundits, or what his deputy, the similarly contemptuous Ben Rhodes, called “the blob.” Despite their contempt for people like Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, they kept them around for political cover, in order to convince Capitol Hill and the press corps that Team Obama was solidly in the mainstream of American foreign-policy wisdom. Sure, Obama wanted to put some distance between the United States and Israel—but only because it was in the best interests of Israel, the love for which he felt in his kishkes. Obama wasn’t going to pull any fast moves, like make a deal that gave Iran a nuclear weapon. That’s crazy, crypto-racist talk. Iran will never get the bomb on Obama’s watch—and all options are on the table to keep it from happening.
By the time Democratic centrists figured out the play, they were all on the hook for helping Obama sell the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—i.e. for selling the preposterous theory that guaranteeing the eventual acquisition of man’s most destructive weapon would actually moderate leaders who send people out in to the streets to shout Death to America, Death to Israel, leaders who would be given hundreds of billions of additional dollars to spend on whatever they wanted.
The worst part is that the Iran deal wasn’t just a spectacularly bad arms agreement. It was also the instrument for realigning American regional interests—downgrading traditional allies like Israel and upgrading adversaries like Iran. By diminishing American influence while setting the Middle East on fire, the Obama camp authored a massive strategic failure as bad as—maybe worse than—Bush’s Iraq adventure—a failure that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The only thing that could be said for it was that Obama spent a lot less American money on his disaster than Bush spent on his.
At present, Iran is rushing to complete a land bridge linking Tehran, through Baghdad and Damascus, to the eastern Mediterranean, including Israel’s border. For the first time in four decades, Russia is entrenched in the Middle East, on the border of Israel and NATO member Turkey, and even American allies have to go through Moscow for answers. That’s strategic failure on a historic scale.
Morally, Obama’s supporters are on the hook for doing nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran from slaughtering half a million Syrians, in a genocide whose gruesome nature and civilian death toll exceeds even the large-scale violence visited upon Iraqis by all parties—including those backed by the United States, and by Iran—over a decade of war. Obama’s U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who literally wrote the book on how American bureaucrats justified their repeated failures to stop genocide, is only one among many who were complicit in blinking at war crimes on a historic scale. Presumably, she will take refuge in that defense, the same way the foreign-policy elites of both parties now seek to erase the catastrophic failures of successive two-term administrations—one thoroughly Republican, and the other impeccably Democratic—by pinning the blame on Donald Trump.
History will judge which administration, and which supporting camp, caused more damage to the Middle East and American interests. But in both cases, the accounting is likely to be brutal. History will also judge the size of the damage that Trump is doing to America all on his own. But partisan efforts to rewrite recent history and purge the failures of both parties by blaming Trump simply won’t wash.
So, is Trump the answer, even given all his glaringly evident flaws? Has he begun the hard work of correcting the course set by his two immediate predecessors, in response to Sept. 11?
The short answer is no. The longer answer requires a closer look at Afghanistan and the Trump administration’s plan to prolong the most corrupt and corrupting military engagement in American history.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).