Thursday, September 07, 2006

Bush (and luck) have shielded US

Bush (and luck) have shielded US
By Jacob Weisberg
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: September 6 2006 19:29 | Last updated: September 6 2006 19:29

After September 11 2001, nearly everyone expected life inside the US to change significantly and for the worse. Americans had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we would have to learn to accommodate the ongoing threat of terrorist violence – like Israelis, Spaniards during the era of Basque separatism or Britons in the heyday of the IRA.

As the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, perhaps the most surprising result is that American life has not changed much at all. We fret more and allow more time to negotiate airport security. But amazingly, al-Qaeda has not claimed a single additional victim inside the US. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the special challenges America faces in preventing terrorism: thousands of miles of porous border, an open, mobile society and easy access to firearms.

Does President George W. Bush deserve credit for what has not happened? One might argue that America’s half-decade of immunity from domestic terrorism is due to circumstances beyond his control. Contrary to alarmism in the wake of the attack, al-Qaeda did not have thousands of operatives nestled inside the country. We also turn out to have unappreciated strengths when it comes to preventing terrorism. The most important is that America’s Muslims – more moderate, prosperous and assimilated than Europe’s – have not been willing to serve as hosts for jihad. But any honest appraisal has to recognise that Mr Bush has played a role in keeping the US free from another attack. This is not to say that his policy choices have been wise or that they have truly made America safer over the long term.

The first way in which the Bush administration deserves credit is for its role in incapacitating al-Qaeda itself. US military and intelligence operations have not succeeded in killing or capturing Osama bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. But American-led efforts have wrecked al-Qaeda as a centralised organisation. The war in Afghanistan took away its operating base. A ferocious international crackdown denied its members the ability to communicate, send money or travel. What survives of al-Qaeda now relies on “self-starter” clusters, of the kind that appear to have been behind the alleged London aircraft conspiracy as well as last year’s London public transport bombings and the Madrid attack. One can speculate that a president other than Mr Bush might have challenged al-Qaeda in much the same way. Or one can argue, as Lawrence Wright does in this week’s New Yorker, that we are playing into al-Qaeda’s long-term plans. But one cannot reasonably deny that by turning al-Qaeda from an organisation able to plan attacks into an organisation capable only of inspiring them the Bush administration has reduced the risk of terrorist attack.

Mr Bush’s domestic assault on potential terrorists has been a more mixed blessing. In the days after 9/11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation rounded up the usual suspects. It brought in for questioning and fingerprinting, held without charge as “material witnesses,” arrested and held secretly, or deported for visa violations thousands of Muslim American men. The vast majority caught in this dragnet had done nothing wrong and planned to do nothing wrong. But wherever it could find a whiff of a terrorist connection or sympathy, the justice department pushed for the most aggressive prosecution possible, even when evidence was thin or non-existent. At the same time, immigration authorities made it extremely difficult for Arab and Muslim men to enter the US. This wave of repression, which has now subsided to some extent, amounted to a strategy of internal pre-emption. By locking up, harassing or deporting a large number of American Muslims guilty of either minor infractions or of nothing at all, the authorities may well have avoided some terrorist incidents. But a policy of mass preventive detention comes with significant drawbacks. Because it is discriminatory and unfair, it alienates a much larger body of Muslim opinion. The prevention value of such policies has to be weighed against their incitement value.

A final factor in our avoidance of terrorism is Mr Bush’s poorly judged, dishonestly sold and incompetently executed war in Iraq. “Fight the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here,” was always something of a caricature of one of the president’s post-hoc rationales for the war. But the “flypaper” effect is genuine. The occupation of Iraq has created a convenient target of opportunity, drawing terrorists who would otherwise ply their trade elsewhere, including possibly in the US. This is not to argue that the war has truly made us safer. The number of Americans killed in Iraq is rapidly approaching the 9/11 death toll. The occupation also serves as a propaganda and recruiting tool for jihadists. With respect to Iraq, helping to keep America clear of attack is simply a perversely positive side-effect of a disastrous policy. This may help to explain why Mr Bush has been reluctant to claim credit for keeping the country free from another attack. There is another, more obvious reason. Americans know their immunity has also been the result of extraordinary good luck. One of the lessons 9/11 taught us is that such luck can run out any day.

The writer is editor of


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