It Didn't Have to Be This Way

Though it is enmeshed in US foreign policy today, the "War on Terror" was not inevitable. Smarter US choices after the September 11, 2001 attacks could have avoided the catastrophes that ensued.

Hey everybody, Derek here. I’m very pleased today to publish Alex Thurston’s first piece as a Foreign Exchanges contributor! Here he takes a look back at the attacks of September 11, 2001, and considers what a more thoughtful US response might have entailed. If you missed Alex’s intro last week you can check that out here.

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Most of the choices American policymakers have made in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks have been disastrous. To be sure, a small segment of the American elite has benefited politically and financially from those choices, even when they’ve failed to work as advertised. But on the whole, this disastrous response has weakened the United States as a nation and as a society. It has affected people in other countries even more dramatically. Thousands of innocent people have died, or had their lives ruined, because of a quixotic “counter-terrorism” effort—an effort that has ultimately boosted the spread of the very movements and ideologies it is ostensibly meant to combat, as even ardent defenders of the War on Terror admit.

Then-President George W. Bush and Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer during Bush’s surprise 2003 Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad International Airport (US Navy photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet other courses of action were possible in response to 9/11. Here I lay out four scenarios for how things might have gone differently, each of them progressively more distant from how the actual response played out.

Scenario 1: The War on Terror, but Without the War in Iraq

“Take it from me,” former Vice President Al Gore said in 2008, addressing that year’s Democratic National Convention. “If [the 2000 election] had ended differently, we would not be bogged down in Iraq; we would have pursued [Osama] bin Laden until we captured him.”

This scenario is the easiest to imagine. A president other than George W. Bush might well not have invaded Iraq after 9/11—although certainly, the desire for Iraqi regime change in Washington predated the Bush administration and involved the infamous Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 and the strangling, immoral sanctions that devastated Iraq in the 1990s. Had the US not gone to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, a host of catastrophes might have been avoided or at least minimized. The Islamic State (IS) may never have arisen at all, or at least not with the same capacity to recruit, expand, and eventually rival al-Qaeda worldwide. Tensions with Iran could have been substantially lower, especially if Washington had accepted some of Iran’s offers of assistance in the immediate post-9/11 period.

However, the core problems of the US response to 9/11 would have remained. For starters, the war in Afghanistan would likely still have gone badly. The word “Afghanistan” does not appear in Gore’s remarks from the 2008 convention. But Barack Obama and others routinely argued during that period that the Iraq War had been the “dumb war,” distracting from the ostensibly smart and necessary war in Afghanistan. Without the energy and resources wasted on Iraq, the argument ran, the United States could have managed the occupation of Afghanistan more effectively and—as Gore implied in his speech—pursued bin Laden with more focus.

But Obama’s argument about Afghanistan was weak at the time and appears even weaker in hindsight. The problem in Afghanistan was not, pace various apologists, a lack of resources, a misapplication of strategies, or a lack of will and steadfastness. Rather, the problem is that the Taliban has enough support and skill that on a long enough timeline it will outlast and politically outcompete the United States. To put it in a broader context, if people don’t want an occupying force in their country, those occupiers will eventually have to leave. And in my view that would have been true regardless of whether Washington could have “focused” on Afghanistan without the distraction of Iraq. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden’s 2011 assassination in Pakistan—not Afghanistan—shows that there is more to the story than just Washington’s attention span or lack thereof. A more competent American administration might have caught or killed bin Laden in 2001 or 2002, providing a tidy and quick end to the conflict, but there is no guarantee that would have happened.

Further west, in parallel to a faltering occupation of Afghanistan, the United States would also have been caught in the same hypocrisies and irreconcilable, competing priorities that have plagued American foreign policy in the Middle East since well before 9/11—namely, supporting dictators in the service of “stability” while simultaneously insisting that promoting democracy and liberalism are core American values. For the sake of argument, let us assume that without the Iraq War, there would have still been an Arab Spring. Perhaps the United States would have enjoyed greater credibility in the region, having not invaded Iraq, but the American response to the uprisings would still likely have been messy, inconsistent, and overly militarized. IS may not have been around to exploit, but there might have still been profound conflict—and footholds for al-Qaeda—in Yemen, Syria, or elsewhere in the region. The US would then have faced the same dilemmas it did in responding to the actual Syrian revolution, including contradictory objectives involving counter-terrorism and regime change. Even without the Iraq War, in other words, US policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East could still have been a mess.

At home, meanwhile, as discussed below, there would still have been huge dangers of overreach by the security state, tech companies, and other actors who saw in the tragedy of 9/11 opportunities for expansion and profit.

Scenario 2: Pursuing the Authors of 9/11 as a Limited Criminal Network

In this scenario, the United States would have invaded neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. Rather, this would have looked vaguely like Obama’s counter-terrorism policy circa 2009-2010 in places such as Yemen and Pakistan: a lot of targeted raids, but no big wars. This scenario would have still involved substantial American disregard for other countries’ sovereignty, and there may still have been direct conflict between US forces and the Taliban, if the US had conducted special forces raids in Taliban-held territory in Afghanistan. But rather than trying to topple the Taliban, the US would simply have hunted down bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other key actors in al-Qaeda, even if that meant striking Taliban targets.

In the best version of this scenario, Washington would have limited strikes to al-Qaeda core and people actually involved in the plotting and execution of the 9/11 attacks. Washington would not have gone looking for analogues to the Taliban and al-Qaeda elsewhere. For example, the US government would not have backed the abusive and counterproductive Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. That maneuver was intended to topple the Islamic Courts Union, a sort of hybrid actor that contained some hardline elements with informal ties to al-Qaeda, but also a lot of more mainstream Muslim activists and constituencies. Toppling the ICU, however, simply opened the gateway for those hardliners—rebranded and expanded as al-Shabab—to mount a comeback a short time later.

In numerous parts of the world, we find that American efforts to blot out “terrorist safe havens” (a mythical notion) ended up causing or accelerating the deterioration of security and territorial cohesion. Meanwhile, in many of those same places, the US came to depend on unsavory and duplicitous partners, many of whom have credibly been accused of colluding haphazardly with the same elements they were supposed to be fighting. The “Global” part of the “Global War on Terror” has been particularly disastrous, as has been the assumption that the overriding goal of US foreign policy is preventing another 9/11. That mentality has led American policymakers to see potential 9/11s lurking in various corners of the world, always with the consequence that local realities are erased amid a simplistic globalized narrative.

A further refinement to this scenario would have involved treating the 9/11 attacks as criminal rather than terrorist in nature. The label “terrorism” is not problematic because it is hard to define; every term of any importance is hard to define. The label is problematic because it invokes the specter of something extraordinary, enabling extraordinary responses and justifying a suspension of ordinary procedures. The aim of a global manhunt for al-Qaeda could have been not political revenge but mere criminal justice, and that might have helped take the temperature down a bit both overseas and at home, constraining at least some of the abuses that followed 9/11. A sober criminal investigation into the 9/11 attacks, rather than a frenzied “Global War on Terror,” would hopefully have involved zero torture, zero renditions, zero black sites, and zero detentions at Guantanamo.

A more targeted approach might have made things better at home, too. The Bush administration was quick to take advantage of an atmosphere of panic after the 9/11 attacks, most dramatically through the USA PATRIOT ACT of October 2001. The panic, and the overly securitized response, has helped to swell the budgets of the military, law enforcement, the intelligence agencies, and other stakeholders. Yet the authoritarian domestic response to the 9/11 attacks did not make the United States safer. “Security theater” has simply made life more fraught and tense, and massive data collection and electronic surveillance have made government and tech companies even more intrusive than they might have been had the 9/11 attacks not taken place. Meanwhile, some of the “foiled plots” that the FBI and other agencies boast about seem in fact to involve varying degrees of entrapment and incitement on the part of law enforcement. Policymakers seemed to conclude from 9/11 that intelligence and law enforcement agencies were insufficiently vigilant and aggressive. But they might well have concluded the opposite, namely that spies and cops were tracking too many threats, processing too much information, etc. A more targeted, measured approach to domestic security might have still identified the genuine threats but without treating the entire population, and particularly ordinary Muslims, as potential terrorists.

Even in a limited mission focused on eliminating the direct authors of the 9/11 attacks, however, there would have been a profound risk of mission creep. With an organization as amorphous and ill-defined as al-Qaeda was circa 2001—more a network than a membership-based, hierarchical body—it would have been difficult for US policymakers to avoid the temptation to expand their “kill list.” After all, Obama’s counter-terrorism policy involved unacceptable civilian casualties and extraconstitutional murder. Drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere fueled local resentment and undermined national governments. A worldwide manhunt, in other words, has inevitable downsides.

Scenario 3: A Shift Away from Pro-Authoritarian Policies in the Middle East

In this scenario, a limited manhunt for bin Laden and his co-conspirators could have been paired with and tempered by a quiet but decisive shift away from the previous US policy framework in the Middle East. An imaginative and courageous American president might have begun backing away from unstinting support for Gulf monarchies, the Egyptian dictatorship, and the Israeli state, while also reducing overall troop levels and military maneuvers in the Middle East and closing some bases. Pressuring Gulf monarchies to allow dissidents more freedom could have helped reduce pipelines to militancy. Attaching greater conditionality to American aid to Egypt could have helped lessen the political repression there, and attaching greater conditionality to American aid to Israel could have made a genuine two-state solution more likely in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, less bluster toward Iran, Syria, and Libya (even if those regimes were all hated by al-Qaeda, at least on paper) could have helped reverse the widespread image of America as an arrogant hegemon. All of these maneuvers could have taken some of the wind out of al-Qaeda’s sails; after all, al-Qaeda in the 1990s was much more focused on overthrowing Middle Eastern regimes than it was on global “jihad.”

Such a president would not have needed to present those maneuvers as direct reactions to the 9/11 attacks, but thinking carefully about why the United States was attacked could have prompted some changes. Taking a lesson from a setback does not automatically make you Neville Chamberlain or Robert Taft, and not all re-balancings are tantamount to appeasement or isolationism. Washington could have pulled back on its support for Middle Eastern authoritarianism not just as a means of reducing militants’ anger, but because such a move would have been—and would still be—sensible and in line with America’s stated values. 

Scenario 4: A Pacifist Response? 

I am not a pacifist but it is important, I think, to acknowledge the possibility (however slight) of a world where the United States might have responded to the 9/11 attacks completely nonviolently. Here we almost pass beyond the realm of conceivable politics into utopianism, but it would have been an extraordinary moment—the sole superpower saying that it felt no need for revenge against a band of petty criminals, other than perhaps ordinary police work.

One glaring thing about the post-9/11 era inside the US, especially right after the attacks, was American politicians’ bizarre (although politically useful, for the Bush administration) combination of defiance and victimhood, the simultaneous proclamation that we would change nothing about ourselves and that we would change everything, that the attacks had not broken our spirit and that the attacks had shaken us, that we would defeat “the terrorists” by going shopping but we would also defeat them through reckless wars, expanded state surveillance, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e., torture), and so forth. I think that combination of contradictions and tensions has been bad for the national psyche and perhaps even for some individual psyches. A clearer response would have been healthier.

Pacifist responses are often derided as weakness, but the actual path the United States took in response to 9/11 is about the weakest response I can think of—a careening, destructive, counterproductive lurching from venture to venture and defeat to defeat (all while various powerful actors have lined their pockets and reaped political capital), but without any real national courage to admit that anything we tried was a bad idea. There are many among the American foreign policy and political elite, I suspect, who publicly say that the Iraq War was a mistake but who continue to believe privately that the only problems in Afghanistan and Iraq were ones of execution, not ones of wisdom. A pacifist response would at least have had the virtue of some clear-eyed confidence and resoluteness, rather than the mess we’ve made.


My own preference would have been for something like Scenario 3—a very limited and targeted manhunt, combined with deliberate but sweeping foreign policy changes—with perhaps a measure of that pacifist self-confidence. The 9/11 attacks became a turning point for America because Americans, and in particular some very powerful Americans, decided it would be. But we could have said simply, “This was a horrible tragedy. We will find those who are responsible, we will tighten security where it is necessary and reasonable to do so, and then we will move on.” Instead, America’s choices have led to two decades of bloodshed, with most of the ultimate price paid by civilians overseas, and the United States is now a tenser, grimmer, unhappier place than it was before the attacks.