Ten years on from the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, Al Qaeda appears to be largely a spent force – one hopes -- and its leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead.
But the September 11, 2011 attacks forced a dramatic change in the ethical course of the United States and have undercut whatever moral authority the country had. It did not have to be that way.
The standing of the United States in the world today -- militarily, economically and morally -- has been damaged almost irreparably not so much by Al Qaeda as by the presidency of George W Bush and the reign of his vice president, Dick Cheney. There is little sign that President Barack Obama is on track to do anything about it.
Perhaps the most telling remark to have appeared recently in the press was contained in a review of Cheney's new book, “In My Time,” in the Financial Times. It pointed out that the CIA's nickname for Cheney was “Edgar,” a reference to a famous ventriloquist in the 1940s and 1950s who had a dummy named Charlie McCarthy and the vice president's presumed control over Bush.
Any country hit by the enormous shock of 9/11 can overreact. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country's most famous liberal and a Democrat, did it in 1942 by ordering the internment of all Japanese-American citizens in the wake of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The US had the moral high ground on Sept. 11, 2011, and it would have done well to keep it. It did not. Other countries have learned to live with occasional losses to terror without subverting their ideals. Spain and Britain and especially Norway in the wake of the rightist attacks that took scores of lives, have done so.
Bush and Cheney -- or Cheney and Bush, perhaps -- using the peril of additional attacks on the United States, pretty much wrecked most of the foundations of democracy that were enshrined in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, not just domestically but internationally..
Having squandered the national exchequer with vast tax cuts for their rich cronies, they pushed through the Patriot Act, which created an enormous bureaucracy that vanquished habeas corpus and allowed,for warrantless wiretapping and surveillance, condoned torture and gave the go-ahead for “extraordinary renditions” in which suspects could be snatched away in other countries and flown to places outside the United States where acquiescent governments did the torturing for them.
The fact is that Cheney and Bush started the process before there ever was a 9/11 crisis. Before the planes had ever hit the towers, the so-called Bush Doctrine was in place, allowing for the administration‟s unilateral withdrawals from several carefully negotiated treaties including the ABM treaty with Russia, and asserting that the US had the right to strike first to secure itself against what it perceived as terrorism by invading or attacking countries deemed to harbor or give aid to terrorist groups. The doctrine held that the United States could depose foreign regimes that represented not a real threat to the security of the US but a potential or perceived threat, even if that threat was not immediate.
The doctrine was used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down Bin Laden. But the subsequent invasion of Iraq was peddled on grounds as phony as the Soviet Union's excuses for invading Poland and Czechoslovakia in another era. There was no smoking gun and the Bush people knew it. It was a war sold on a lie.
It was also a military blunder committed without first securing the Afghan front, thus stretching US military forces across thousands of kilometers, attempting to fight two wars at once. The “democracy” that US intervention brought in Iraq to this day is a tissue of falsehood.
Meanwhile, without enough forces to secure Afghanistan, the west allowed the Taliban to regroup and ultimately to flourish into the fighting force that NATO allies face there today and are unable to eradicate.
The Bush administration's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, one justified and one not, and its other actions such as rendition and putting un-tried suspects into the Guantanamo Bay gulag, plus the unquestioning approval of every criminal action by the Israeli government, eventually added up to the impression on the part of the world's Muslims that the Americans were out to destroy Islam.
Friends in Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries take it as a matter of faith that Americans are out to kill Muslims – despite, for instance, the Clinton administration's interventions in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia that were undertaken to save Muslim lives.
Domestically, the Bush administration was equally dishonest, using the threat of terror to destroy principled opposition. Karl Rove, the president‟s political advisor, ran specious campaigns that turned patriots into cowards and traitors and made Bush and Cheney – both of whom dodged the draft to avoid the Vietnam War – into patriots and heroes. Who can foget the picture of George Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Linclon, clad in a flight suit and flight helmet, proclaiming ":Mission Accomplished?.
John Kerry, who was awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Heart medals as commander of a Swift Boat in the inland naval war in Vietnam, was depicted as an antiwar traitor who received his medals dishonestly. Cheney was openly contemptuous of Kerry‟s statement that the campaign to get Osama should have been nuanced and directed to finding the Al Qaeda leader rather than using a blunderbuss on Iraq. Kerry, of course, lost the 2004 race by a small margin. And he was proved right when what amounted to painstaking police work got Osama rather than the prosecution of two wars.
Rove also upended then-US Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who had been awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars for valor in action in Vietnam and lost both his legs and an arm when a grenade he picked up exploded prematurely. Cleland was vilified as a traitor for opposing portions of the Patriot Act. He was defeated in the 2004 election by Saxby Chambliss, who had opted out of the Vietnam War on student deferments and a medical deferment due to a football injury.
The United States has continued to suffer from this dishonesty. The Obama administration still uses indefinite detention in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, military tribunals and targeted drone killings of terror suspects as far away as Yemen and Somalia, where the US is not at war, to prosecute what at least is no longer called the Global War on Terror.
The fact is that the American moral legacy has never been what the country thought it was, even when acting as a bulwark against the enslavement of millions by Communism. . The US largely exterminated native Americans, kicked Mexico out of the southwestern United States, enslaved Africans to work its fields, tortured and murdered Filipinos in a misguided colonial episode at the turn of the 20th Century, dropped two atomic bombs on civilians in Japan and condoned a gamey flock of dictators across Central and South America, Asia and the Middle East.
In previous years, that has been balanced by a commendable effort to foster or preserve democracy on other fronts. US generosity sustained Europe and kept it from starving in the wake of World War II. The US has played peacekeeper to the globe since World War II, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, at enormous cost to the US taxpayers, despite arguments that it did so only to preserve its commercial empire, which wasn't true. The Bush-Cheney administration, using 9/11 as a pretext, pretty much put paid to the commendable parts and the Obama administration tragically has followed in its tracks. Now, if the polls are anything to go by, the Republican voters in the United States appear ready to anoint another Texas Christian fundamentalist former flyboy with a pipeline to God. There is little chance that, if he is elected, he will do any better.