Today marks the third anniversary of the terror attacks in New York and Washington. Most of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news. The images of that day have become iconic; 9/11 has become one of those benchmark dates which leaves a mark on public consciousness, providing a psychological divide between a world of Before and After. It joins the pantheon of other such significant dates during the last turbulent century:
August 3, 1914 - the day the nations of Europe marched into a war they believed would be over by Christmas;
October 29, 1929 - the day the stock market on Wall Street collapsed and the world was plunged into the Great Depression;
December 7, 1941 - the day the Japanese Navy attacked the American Fleet in Pearl Harbor and America went to war;
November 22, 1963 - the day President John F Kennedy was assassinated and a darkness descended over American political life;
November 9, 1989 - the day the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and two generations of postwar Soviet occupation collapsed in disorder.
And then came September 11, 2001.
Looking back on the events of the last three years, can we tell ourselves that the world is a safer place? I doubt that anybody believes that. In the stunned aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, an outraged and fearful American public rallied around its (until then) decidedly unpopular President, George W. Bush. The Bush Administration, which had clearly been taken by surprise by one of the most egregious intelligence failures since Pearl Harbor, roused itself from confusion to threaten Biblical retribution on its enemies. In the weeks and months following the attacks, this same administration realised it had been granted a free hand by a frightened public and a cowed legislature to push through plans and policies that would have been unthinkable in normal times. A series of wrong assumptions and arrogant, muddle-headed decisions (none of which were actively challenged until it was too late) have led us to where we are today.
Sympathy for America and condemnation of the attacks was a worldwide phenomenon. A genuine sense of shock and anger was felt all over our shared planet and these feelings of solidarity presented a clear opportunity for America to forge an international alliance against the Al Quaida network. There was widespread support for going after the Taliban and Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan and nations such as Germany and France (yes, France!), among others, willingly supplied support troops for the American military effort. In the event this effort was bungled. The Taliban were quite easily overthrown, as everyone had expected, but follow-up operations to isolate and crush the Al Quaida fighters and capture Bin Laden were poorly planned and badly executed. He and his followers remain at large in the mountainous tribal districts along the Afghan-Pakistan border - the notoriously uncontrollable Northwest Frontier of Kipling's India. Operations in Afghanistan have since fizzled to an inglorious and half-forgotten standoff in which an American-supported puppet government rules over Kabul and little else, while the squabbling warlords of pre-Taliban days have reasserted control over their former fiefdoms and revitalised their main source of income, the lucrative heroin trade. America does little to prevent poor battered Afghanistan - a country that has known nothing but war for the last 25 years - from sliding back into its familiar anarchic patterns. America's interests lie elsewhere.
From documents and memoirs that have recently come to light, we now know that Bush and his closest associates, Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were obsessed with the "problem" of Iraq and its dictator Saddam Hussein from the time they came into office. Richard Clark, the head of the White House CSG or Counterterrorism Security Group, reveals in his book "Against All Enemies" that Bush and his National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice ignored repeated warnings about Al Quaida intentions to target the US mainland. On the day of the Al Quaida attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, Clark is astonished when he is drawn aside by the President and asked to look for connections with Iraq. "There are none," he blurts out, but this is clearly not the answer the President wishes to hear. Even as the initial strikes in Afghanistan are taking place, the President is consulting with Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks about a battle plan for Iraq.
As the confused and indecisive campaign in Afghanistan rumbled on, the press began to report on a number of saber-rattling speeches from various administration officials directed against Saddam Hussein and his regime. An ideologically linked grouping of government appointees and Think Tank policy wonks (Paul Wolfowitz, Daniel Perle, "Scooter" Libby, Douglas Feith, among others) came to be known as the "Neocons", or Neo-Conservatives. It's difficult to assess how much influence these people really had over administration thinking, but they certainly supplied a form of theoretical window-dressing which allowed Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld (The Gang of Four) to proceed with their plans against Saddam Hussein. The interlocking position papers of the Neocons can be perused at their website (Project for an American Century) or in the op-ed columns of the Washington "Weekly Standard".
The Neocons propose exporting "democracy" to the Middle East by the projection of American military power. A hostile Iraq will be replaced with a new democratic regime that will (somehow) maintain friendly relations with America and Israel (!) while acting as a beacon of light to such neighboring states as Syria and Iran. It sounds brilliant on paper but Neocon projections show scant knowledge of actual conditions in the Middle East. Much to their annoyance, they came under sharp and frequent attack from foreign service professionals in the State Department. This led to a rift between the departments of State and Defense to the extent that Rumsfeld and Cheney - a man with his finger in every pie - began maneuvering to sideline Colin Powell and reduce the influence of the State Department . In this they were largely successful.
The administration, having decided to attack Iraq, now needed to drum up public support for a new war (remember, there were still troops wandering around Afghanistan) and were faced with the problem of how to do this. Somehow Saddam Hussein had to be connected with the War on Terror. The answer they hit upon was to emphasize the threat from Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), which, even if they were not used directly by the Iraqi regime, could be passed on to terrorists . To its everlasting shame, large portions of the US press (including such newspapers of record as the New York Times and Washington Post), not to mention a supine Congress, bought into this fantasy. A confused and hyper-patriotic public wanted to lash out at America's enemies and the momentum for war began to pick up noticeably.
The rest of the world (not subject to the constant pounding of American TV) began to get alarmed at this new development. Allies who firmly supported the campaign against Usama bin Laden and Al Quaida could not understand this apparently sudden shift of emphasis towards Iraq. Unlike the American Congress, still wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes, they began asking awkward questions. Patriotic Americans - non-American patriots are called "nationalists", by the way - were outraged at this foreign impertinence and a round of France-bashing and nasty remarks about ungrateful friends ("we saved their asses in WWII!!") began to resound on the airwaves and in Internet chat rooms. So Bush & Co. got their war.
Three years on from the carnage and horror of the 9/11 attacks, we are living in a world that is more polarised and distrustful than at any time since the end of the Cold War. This is largely the result of US government actions under the present regime. In November these actions come up for review in the form of the US Presidential Election. As I write, Bush holds about a 10-point lead over his opponent John Kerry after a particularly self-serving party convention held in New York just blocks away from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers. The propaganda machine that brought us the war in Iraq is now in top gear to ensure that America and the world gets another four years of George W. Bush and his cronies.
The rest of the world has already made its opinions clear about Mr. Bush and the kind of America he wants to create - in fact, has created. Now it is up to the American public to decide if this is what they really want.
Tomgram: James Carroll on Bush's war
To my mind, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, along with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, has consistently been the strongest voice in the op-ed page media mainstream of our country. In his first post-9/11 column, aptly titled "Law not War," Carroll promptly asked whether "the launching of war [is] really the only way to demonstrate our love for America?" In his column last March on the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, he wrote, "Whatever happens from this week forward in Iraq, the main outcome of the war, for the United States, is clear. We have defeated ourselves." These two columns are the bookends of his remarkable, just published record of Bush's war -- Crusade, Chronicles of an Unjust War (Metropolitan Books, 2004). In that very first essay, written on September 15, 2001, he concluded: "How we respond to this catastrophe will define our patriotism, shape the century, and memorialize our beloved dead." How painfully prophetic that sentence has proved.