The Scorecard: Five Years Later
I'm writing this column from Cairo while on an extensive visit to the Middle East. If there's a more appropriate place from where to assess the implications and repercussions of the events of 9/11 and the success or the failure of the Bush administration’s so-called war on terrorism, I don't know of one. If success or failure is judged by the number of subsequent attacks on the United States, it might be said that President Bush’s strategy in combating terrorism is a success. But who can say that the purpose of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups is merely to strike repeatedly inside the United States to achieve their core objectives?
From the time that the world first learned about Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin-Laden made it clear that he wanted to free the Arab world from the "tutelage" of the West and its destructive influence on Arab society. Viewing America as the main culprit using and exploiting Arab resources, he was determined to embroil it in a continuing struggle with the Arab and Muslim world until the Middle East became “free of American exploitation and the abuse of power.” The Iraq war was a heaven-sent opportunity for Al-Qaeda to confront the United States on the organization's own terms mainly because the Bush administration made the war and the occupation central to its battle against terrorism.
Judging from the situation in Iraq today, it is hardly plausible for the Bush administration to claim even relative success, let alone victory. American casualties are rapidly approaching 3,000, with more than 20,000 troops injured and close to $400 billion spent: by all estimates, even if the war ended today, its long-term cost for the United States will exceed $1 trillion. And as the slaughter continues, the Arab and Muslim world are increasingly enraged over the plight of the Iraqi people, with hatred toward the United States reaching new heights.
Over 100 thousand Iraqis have died and nearly 200 are dying daily in a raging sectarian civil war. More than 130,000 American troops are fighting an insurgency that appears to have inexhaustible resources and unlimited recruits. To be sure, America finds itself in a quagmire in Iraq, embroiled in a civil war that seems to eat away at both the Iraqi social fabric and American resources with no way out in sight. Try as it may to put the best face on it, the Bush administration has failed miserably in Iraq, and in the process damaged greatly America’s global standing while inflicting a disaster of historical magnitude on the Iraqi people.
But this is not the whole story. Five years after 9/11, the Middle East finds itself in greater turmoil than in more than a decade. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become, if possible, more inflamed, with daily violence and destruction destroying the last vestiges of civility and humanity between the two sides. In defiance of the West, especially the United States, Iran is racing toward the development of nuclear weapons. All moderate Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, are extremely anxious about the expansion of the Shiite crescent, fearful of Iran’s ambitions to become the regional hegemon with a nuclear arsenal at its disposal. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are on the march again, posing a serious threat to the regime in Kabul. Lebanon is half destroyed. Islamic militancy is on the rise everywhere, with significant gains in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. In the midst of this, the administration’s program for democracy and political reform is in tatters, all the while causing more upheaval than stability and peace.
Al Qaeda does not need to attack the United States again to advertise its continued viability or the degree of damage it's capable of inflicting. By itself the administration has wounded the United States more than Bin-Laden could have ever done. Yes, President Bush may boast that America is safer today than before 9/11, but six years of misguided policy has not only brought greater damage to America than the attacks on that date. In the Middle East, the administration has lit the fuse, igniting regional turmoil of unprecedented proportion. The war in Iraq has pitted the Sunnis against Shiite communities beyond the Iraqi borders in a new struggle, the consequences of which are hard to fathom. The war has alienated the Arab masses to the utter detriment of East-West relations. It has given rise to Islamic militancy that endangers the existing order in most Arab states without setting a viable political alternative in place. Finally, it has neglected the Arab-Israeli conflict, precipitating more violence, even to the point of war. Surveys almost universally report that 9 out of 10 ordinary people in the Arab streets share this grim assessment of the overall state of affairs.
During the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Americans may once again be reminded of that day's horror and horrific consequences. But what has happened in the past five years has already exacted far worse consequences. America will not be safer tomorrow unless the disastrous policy of “staying the course” gives way to an enlightened policy that sees things the way they really are and responds with the necessary vision and courage to do something about them.