A Decade of Resolve

We've made some mistakes in the 10 years since 9/11, but today Americans are profoundly safer -- and Islamic terrorists are dramatically weakened -- as a result of the course we've charted.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks nears, it has become fashionable in some quarters to characterize the U.S. response to the threat of Islamist terrorism since 9/11 as an overreaction. According to this argument, Americans should look back regretfully on this period in our history as a lost decade in which we succumbed to our fears and exaggerated the dangers we faced — betraying our own best values and exhausting ourselves in the process.

This view is profoundly mistaken and could lead to a false and dangerous roadmap for our future.

In fact, the core of the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks, and the broader challenge of Islamist extremism they revealed, has been necessary and justified. We were absolutely right to recognize that, after 9/11, we became a nation at war, in a conflict with an enemy that is real, brutal, and global. We have therefore been absolutely right to put this conflict at the very top of our national security agenda, which is where it must stay for the foreseeable future. Had we not done so, it is very likely we would not have the luxury today of debating whether we overreacted to the threat, because many more Americans would have been victims of this enemy.

The fact that we have gone a decade without another successful major terrorist strike on American soil has not been because our enemies have stopped trying to attack us. Our security at home has been hard won and fiercely fought. It has required the bipartisan determination of leaders across two presidencies and six Congresses; far-reaching reforms and reorganizations enacted and implemented within our government; and, most of all, the difficult, often dangerous work of thousands of heroic individuals — the men and women of our military, law enforcement agencies, intelligence community, and diplomatic corps — operating every day on almost every continent to keep us safe from Islamist terrorism.

We have also taken the offensive in this war abroad with a focus and ferocity that the Islamist extremists plainly did not expect. Like other enemy leaders over the last century, Osama bin Laden underestimated America, dismissing us as a "weak horse." This has proven to be a fatal mistake for him and growing numbers of his associates.

Americans have proven adaptive and dogged in our prosecution of this fight, pioneering new capabilities and tactics — from stunningly precise unmanned drones to a brilliant new counterinsurgency doctrine — that have enabled our forces to outflank our enemies in this very unconventional war. Simply put, in the 10 years since 9/11, the U.S. has built the most capable and lethal counterterrorism forces in human history.

As a result, al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan has been badly damaged. Its affiliate in Iraq, which came dangerously close to seizing control of that country, has been gutted. Indeed, contrary to bin Laden’s predictions that America would retreat at the first sign of casualties, we summoned the strength and tenacity necessary to turn the tide in two key battlefields of this conflict — first in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, and now in Afghanistan.

What these achievements underscore, even more profoundly, is  the American people’s capacity — demonstrated again and again in the course of the first post-9/11 decade — for bravery, ingenuity, and resolve. There is no better illustration of this than the young people who have come of age during this period and chosen to serve our country in uniform — a group that has been rightly described as a new "greatest generation." We also see it in the emergence of a handful of extraordinary national security leaders — individuals like Gen. David Petraeus and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates — who stood above the fray of our normal politics and earned bipartisan respect from a grateful nation. In all these ways, our response to 9/11 has brought out America’s absolute best.

In addition to recognizing the seriousness of the Islamist threat to our security and rising to meet it, the United States also grasped the fundamental nature of this conflict early on. Rather than a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West that al Qaeda hoped to provoke, U.S. leaders instead saw the war as an ideological struggle within Islam, waged between an extremist minority that seeks to enslave the world and a moderate Muslim majority who want the same freedoms and opportunities that we all desire, and with whom it was our national and moral responsibility to stand.

Have we made mistakes since 9/11? Of course we have — just as every nation, including ours, always has in war. Some of these mistakes are obvious and undeniable: the terrible abuses committed at Abu Ghraib and the broader mismanagement of the Iraq war prior to the surge, to name two. But as we look back over our actions over the past 10 years, a lot more went right than wrong.

What, then, are the lessons of the 9/11 decade for the decade to come?

The first is that we still live in a dangerous world — a reality that remains as urgent and important today for Americans to understand as on that clear Tuesday morning 10 years ago.

Although Osama bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda’s core has been severely weakened, its regional affiliates are on the rise. Somalia and Yemen today provide terrorist sanctuaries for these groups, and we cannot credibly claim to be on course to shut down either. Until we do, we can expect that attacks will continue to be plotted and launched against us and our allies from both of these countries.

The situation in Pakistan — a nuclear-armed state whose military maintains ties to violent Islamist extremist groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which in turn are in league with al Qaeda — is likewise deeply troubling. As long as tacit support for these groups remains a core component of Pakistan’s regional strategy, the United States and others, including the Pakistani people themselves, will face an entrenched terrorist threat.

Then there is the government of Iran, the leading state sponsor of Islamist terrorism in the world and the patron of Hamas, Hezbollah, and various Iraqi extremist groups, all of whom have American blood on their hands. This is a regime whose nuclear program is speeding forward  and whose leaders, it was recently disclosed, have for years had their own secret relationship with al Qaeda, facilitating the flow of terrorists and funds across Iranian territory.

In addition to these continuing threats from abroad, we also face a new and ominous threat from homegrown and self-radicalized terrorists here in the United States — often "lone wolves" like Maj. Nidal Hasan, who murdered 13 people in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas.

In sum, current geopolitical realities do not justify a claim of victory or a sense of closure or complacency about the worldwide war that Islamist extremists continue waging against us. This is not a moment when the United States can unilaterally declare a holiday from history. To stay safe at home, it is more important than ever for Americans to remain engaged abroad and — despite mounting budgetary pressures — to make the necessary investments to keep our military the best in the world and ensure the other instruments of our national power are well-resourced and strong.

As a matter of math, we will not work our way out of our national indebtedness or create the new jobs we need if we decimate our national security budget. Doing so will jeopardize our security here at home and destabilize the broader international order on which our domestic economy and prosperity depend.

The second lesson from the last decade is that, contrary to the pessimism that currently pervades our national mood, America remains a remarkably strong and resilient country.

Our people are still capable of pulling together and achieving things that no other nation in the world can. The daring operation that located and then rid the world of Osama bin Laden, deep within Pakistan, is the latest reminder that almost everyone who has bet against the United States has, in the end, lost big. What is needed going forward is more, not less, of the confidence, urgency, and bipartisan solidarity we felt immediately after 9/11, to address the current threats to our national security, and, I would add, the current fiscal and economic challenges that in a different way threaten our future as a country.

The events of the past decade should also give us renewed faith in the power of our ideals, foremost our belief in the universality of human rights and the longterm wisdom of standing up for democracy and the rule of law around the world. Now, throughout the Middle East, we see the narrative of violent Islamist extremism being rejected by tens of millions of Muslims who are rising up and peacefully demanding lives of democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world. Indeed, the Arab Spring and its successes thus far are the ultimate repudiations of al Qaeda and everything Islamist extremism stands for.

A third, and final, lesson of this decade concerns the place of surprise in history. From 9/11 itself to the post-invasion Sunni insurgency in Iraq to the Arab Spring, America’s national security over the past decade has been profoundly shaped by events that, while understandable and even obvious in hindsight, were largely unforeseen by our best and brightest beforehand.

As we look ahead to the next 10 years, then, there is consequently one prediction about the future that we can make with absolute certainty: Our nation will face surprises again.

The true test of our national leaders, therefore, is not their ability to perfectly predict what will come next for America but our capacity to remain prepared as best we can, militarily and otherwise, for a range of possibilities, and to adapt, as a nation, when the unexpected invariably occurs. It is especially important to remember that the wars we are required to fight are rarely the ones we predict or plan for. Yet it is profoundly encouraging to look back and see how well we have adapted to fight the current war with the Islamist terrorists who attacked us unexpectedly on 9/11.

As we approach the 10th remembrance of 9/11, then, Americans have reason to be proud about all that has been done to protect our homeland and deny our enemies the victories they have sought, vigilant about the continuing threats to our security; and confident about our future and about ourselves as a nation. Above all, a review of the 9/11 decade affirms why, though we do not know exactly how long this conflict will last or what further turns it may take, we can be certain of how it will end — in the defeat of our enemies and the triumph of our values with the ideology of Islamist extremism joining fascism and communism on the ash heap of history.

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