“To govern is to choose, and the choices made [by the Bush administration] in 2002 were fateful. The United States began that year shocked and wounded, but with tremendous strategic advantages. Its population was more closely united… World opinion was strongly sympathetic. Longtime allies were eager to help… The federal budget was nearly in balance… All that was required was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses.
“The Bush administration chose another path… And by every available measure it only worsened the risk of future terrorism. In every sense 2002 was a lost year.”
That was James Fallows’s conclusion to his rather remarkable piece “Bush’s Lost Year” that appeared in The Atlantic in October 2004.
Ten years have now passed since that fateful September day, and just as it hurts to recall the horror and the death and profound sense of loss we suffered back then, it is as painful to think of all that we have lost and the damage we have done to so many others and to ourselves in the decade that followed.
Instead of building on the broad and deep international sympathy that had expressed itself so dramatically in the weeks that followed the terrorist attacks on our country, we let our worst instincts trump sound policy. The Bush administration’s displays of arrogant bravado may have played well at home, but they cost us the support of friends across the globe.
Two ill-conceived, unnecessary, badly executed, and now failed wars have left America weaker. And where once we were seen, and saw ourselves, as “the shining city on the hill” — after Guantanamo, torture, secret “black sites” and Abu Ghraib — our reputation is now in tatters.
There is something both tragic and ironic about the fact that the policies pursued by the Bush administration’s adherents of the “Project for a New American Century” were supposed to make us stronger, securing America’s global hegemony for a century. Instead, they have left our country less respected, our resources over- stretched, and therefore more vulnerable in the world.
It is disturbing to tally up the damage done by these two wars. On just the American side, we can count more than eight thousand lives lost, and tens of thousands shattered by permanent injuries of war. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis who perished and the millions whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed. One-fifth of Iraq’s population now live as refugees or internally displaced persons.
In addition, there is the more than one trillion dollars spent on these unresolved wars. And the fact that while bin Laden is dead, Al-Qaeda and its spin-offs have now metastasised into a global menace threatening three continents. Other unforeseen consequences of these wars have been the dangerous destabilisation of Pakistan and the emboldening of Iran — all of which have made the region and the world a far more dangerous place.
The damage done didn’t stop at our doorstep. Instead of responding soberly and thoughtfully to the crisis brought on by the terrorist attacks, the Bush White House and Department of Justice reacted wildly, throwing caution and the US Constitution to the wind. Instead of acknowledging the failure of intelligence and law enforcement to “connect the dots” in dealing with the threat, the administration put in place far-reaching, intemperate, and discriminatory practices that, until today, run the risk of alienating entire communities and changing the very character of our country.
Not stopping there, the very same cast of characters has continued to spread fear and division, by inciting people against America’s Muslim community. They are creating a wedge issue out of Islam, and in the process, poisoning the well of America’s civic life.
The holes dug during the past decade have been so deep and the problems created have been so great, that it has been difficult for even the best-intentioned president to dig our way out.
The world breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama took the oath of office in 2009. They had great hopes that he would change direction, restoring America’s image. But the challenges have been greater than the efforts of one president. Facing stiff partisan opposition at home and weak support from his own party, that often cowered in the face of attacks, the president was unable to close Guantanamo, reintroduce fundamental principles like due process, and judicial oversight, change direction in the conduct of Middle East foreign policies, and restore civility to our domestic political discourse.
The net result is that ten years after 9/11, we look back at a painful decade of loss, and look forward to real challenges that we must address.
Fallows was right. Fateful choices have consequences. The “lost year” has become a “lost decade”. And today, as we mourn the loss of so many innocents who perished at the hands of cruel terrorists, we must mourn, as well, all that we have lost since then.
James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.