September 11 and the Return of American Interventionism

The al Qaeda-orchestrated “planes operation” ended the decade-long interregnum from the fall of the Soviet Union. This “holiday from history” left America unprepared for the sudden terrorist attack on its own soil. Prior to the 9/11 terrorism, Americans had looked inward from global issues, except briefly during the short Persian Gulf War. Washington’s internationalism addressed mostly humanitarian plights in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The pocket-sized military expeditions did not break the rhythm of American society or its citizenry. None overextended America’s armed forces in the manner of the great wars of the twentieth century or even the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. The 9/11 violence was profoundly different, for it marked the opening of several counterterrorist battles, which still persist today.

The demolished World Trade Center and damaged Pentagon snapped the disengagement cycle of American public opinion. The four commandeered and crashed commercial jets undeniably initiated much more than a change in the cycle of American foreign policy. The 9/11 terrorist highjackings set the stage for an expansive strategy of counterterrorism, military invasion, territorial occupation, democracy promotion, and nation-building, which initially enjoyed wide public support.

Stunned by the events of the day, President Bush took to the airwaves from the Oval Office to rally the nation for war. Then at a memorial service at the National Cathedral in the capital, Bush called the terrorist perpetrators the “evil ones,” and pledged to pursue them to the ends of the earth. Next, he traveled to the lower Manhattan and the site of Ground Zero where the 110-storied Twin Towers once proudly stood and 50,000 people had worked. Still swirling with dust and noxious particles in this resting place for most of the 2996 dead, the president took up a bullhorn to address the crowd of hardhats, rescue workers, and gawkers. He spoke for Americans, when he pledged that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”3 The warlike statement heartened the crowd and resonated widely across the country. It was to be one of the high points of Bush’s tenure, a presidency not marked by many rhetorical pinnacles.

Before the Senate and the House of Representatives sitting in joint session, Bush gave his third speech in the trilogy following the 9/11 catastrophe nine days earlier. He spoke like a wartime commander-in-chief laying out a martial campaign to carry the fight to the enemy. He delineated the case against Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. Wisely, he laid down the strategy that prevails today of separating “our many Muslim friends” from the Islamist terrorists, “who are traitors to their own [Islamic] faith.” The president called attention to the fact that the terrorists “want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.”4 The conflict was to be a counterterrorism operation, not a religious crusade against the over 1 billion Islamic faithful.

Rather than moving ahead without Congressional authority, President Bush complied with the US Constitution and demonstrated respect for the separation of powers between executive and legislative branches by seeking approval from Congress for military action against the 9/11 jihadis. Out of these turbulent days came a significant legislative measure that contributed to the expansive use of America’s military power and to its foreign policy reach. The US Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), which granted the president “authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism.”5 At the time of passage, just a week after the horrific destruction of the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan, the Joint Resolution seemed almost perfunctory given the scale of al Qaeda’s terrorism. Soon afterward, the AUMF slipped from public attention for almost a decade. Then, its disinterment was marked by the resolution’s application by President Barack Obama to a broad range of terrorist networks unconnected to al Qaeda, which will be related in a subsequent chapter. With the war-fighting authorization in hand, the Bush administration returned to its goal of building an international coalition. So began the most fervent international interventionism of any post-Cold War president, as the engagement phase of the foreign policy cycle marked.

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