Twenty years after al-Qaeda launched its most brazen attack on American civil society—or, as some of us conceived of it, on civilization itself—a strategic and historical exhaustion has overtaken American thinking about the War on Terror. The political class and the public have wearied of the moral and martial exertions involved in suppressing violent insurgencies and dispatching holy warriors across the lands of Islam.
Despite the many differences—profound and cosmetic—between the Biden administration and its two immediate predecessors, it’s clear that all sought to pivot away from the Middle East. None attempted to justify a continued American presence in the region. Both parties have shown dwindling patience with the use of American military force and a marked timidity about exercising assertive leadership in the world. The old consensus about America’s role as upholder of global security—tenuous since the end of the Cold War—has collapsed.
But the pronounced unwillingness to defend the country’s interests and advance its ideals in the realms of national security and foreign policy isn’t altogether new.
Since the beginning of the 9/11 era, there has been a palpable reluctance in certain quarters to see a vigorous struggle prosecuted against global jihad. Even before the fires in lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon had burned out, a search was in progress—chiefly on the political left but also among an old breed of conservatives—for a way to avoid a serious or prolonged confrontation with the holy warriors as well as the totalitarian movements and regimes giving them succor and support. This dispensation registered itself in opposition to military hostilities, but also to waging ideological warfare with a cult of death that worships suicide and exalts murder and desecration. Much of this early antiwar sentiment, in both its progressive and conservative forms, arose out of a vague but confident belief that a radical band of neoconservatives posed more danger to the nation’s safety and security than theocratic fascists loyal to Osama bin Laden.
The tyranny of guilt gripping much of the West today has ensured that a degree of obfuscation, sentimentality, and neutralism has never been absent from the public debate over the War on Terror. In the 20 years since September 11, 2001, this tendency has inhibited the formation of a coherent or robust response to the ongoing threat of jihadist terror. It has also enabled a callous indifference to the cause of liberals and minorities in the lands of Islam suffering from identical forces of clerical repression and violence.
In a previous era, the Irish statesman and polymath Conor Cruise O’Brien evolved a penetrating description for this parochial tendency. In his 1977 lecture “Liberty and Terror,” O’Brien called it “unilateral liberalism.” This attitude of mind exhibits, said O’Brien, an acute sensitivity to threats to liberty arising from the actions of democratic states, combined with a curiously phlegmatic attitude to threats to liberty from the enemies of those states.
Liberals of this sort have little idea how to defend a nation from formidable enemies and appear to be blind to the plight of those who live in fear and under oppression on distant shores. The all-consuming but mainly abstract concerns of the unilateral liberals about the erosion of liberty by the Western state seem irrelevant to what imperils liberty in the real world. O’Brien noted the irony of actually diminished liberty going “unmourned by those who defend liberty on one side only.”
Contemporary examples of unilateral liberalism abound, but it achieves its distilled essence in Spencer Ackerman’s new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. Ackerman, a national security correspondent for the Daily Beast, finds the entire warp and woof of the War on Terror abominable. In his mind, it is nothing more than a phantom conflict concocted by corrupt and wicked elites to enrich the military-industrial complex at the expense of a sullen American public and wretched foreign multitudes.
IN REIGN OF TERROR, Ackerman sounds the trumpet that hastily calls retreat from the “Forever Wars.” In calling for the War on Terror to be abolished, he candidly outlines that he means not only “the foreign military deployments, but the broader entrenched architecture of surveillance, detention, immigration suppression, and the rest.”
This is not, as you might be able to guess, a faint or equivocating rebuke to the old American consensus. A few pages into the book, it becomes plain that Ackerman harbors an extreme and frantic concern for the threats to liberty arising from democratic states—America and its principal allies—but can spare nary a word for threats to liberty arising from the enemies of democracy.
It is an article of faith among a large and growing segment of America’s commentariat and governing class that the United States cannot sustain or emerge victorious in a “Forever War.” Ackerman falls squarely in this camp. “The War on Terror,” he avers, “will continue to produce neither peace nor victory.” This safe speculation is repeated so often that he seems to believe it is inherently damning of the position that America and its allies have adopted. But is it? Are either of these conditions—absolute peace or absolute victory—sensible metrics for success in a global confrontation with Islamic militancy? Let’s hope not.
Consider an analogy to the maintenance of local order. It’s no indictment of the police that they do not fully stamp out murder and mayhem in the society they are sworn to protect and serve. Crime and disorder are human perennials, and the police are fairly expected to suppress and punish these malign behaviors, not to eradicate them. Who would imagine that a failure to prevent all crime invalidates the enterprise of criminal justice? Answer: Spencer Ackerman and his ilk. In Reign of Terror, he holds out a similarly preposterous standard for ensuring a modicum of global order while lambasting the American regime where it falls short in that colossal task.
In common with other works in this myopic oeuvre, Reign of Terror places heavy emphasis on America’s sins of commission in the course of the War on Terror while neglecting entirely its sins of omission. The genre hasn’t been strictly “left” or “right” but rather a species of the provincial extreme of each political flank. Ackerman fingers the creed of American exceptionalism as the ideological culprit for the “collateral” harm befalling civilians in this globe-spanning campaign, but his understanding of the concept is not only flawed but grotesque: “America acted. As the global hegemon, it was not acted upon. That assumption was part of a civic religion, as old as the country itself, known as American exceptionalism…which is nothing more than white innocence applied globally.” One needn’t be a scholar of Tocqueville to see that Ackerman’s grasp of this pregnant subject leaves much to be desired.
It can be wearying to wade through the text of Reign of Terror, with its relentless normative arguments against American exceptionalism, or—better put—what Ackerman imagines it to be. But it becomes plain that the author’s grasp on this complex phenomenon is inhibited by his prejudice that attributes all historical agency to America, and none at all to others.
This feature of Reign of Terror is laid bare in its naive treatment of the drone war. The untutored reader will have a better sense of this mode of modern warfare by avoiding the book altogether because the portrait Ackerman paints bears little resemblance to reality. He gives the impression that unmanned aerial vehicles operating in remote areas of delinquent states do more harm than good. The false insinuation is that their attacks are generally inaccurate. So far from consistently laying waste to innocent civilians (and fomenting terrible enmity for the United States), drone strikes are overwhelmingly precise in neutralizing enemy combatants, and they carry fewer human costs than other traditional forms of warfare.
There are exceptions—dreadful exceptions, one need hardly add—that prove the rule. Readers of Reign of Terror are introduced to Faheem Qureshi, a 13-year-old boy from Pakistan’s North Waziristan Province whose family home was destroyed on January 23, 2009, by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. Unlike two of his uncles and his cousin, the boy survived the attack with shrapnel in his stomach and in his right eye (doctors couldn’t save his left). It was hardly the first or final case of an indiscriminate strike in the drone war, which had become the centerpiece of American counterterrorism strategy in the Obama era. Ackerman quotes a Pakistani journalist, Kareem Khan, whose brothers had been killed in a December 2009 strike (for reasons that are not spelled out): “Anything evil,” Khan said, “you always find America behind it.”
It is proof of the author’s unrestrained animus to American power that he giddily recycles this concentrated paranoia and malevolence, presenting it to readers as gospel truth. He compounds this moral depravity with legal sophistry. “Although the United States was not at war with Pakistan, and no United Nations measure had ever sanctioned missile attacks on its territory, Obama’s lawyers assured him that assaults on suspected members of al-Qaeda and its associated forces fell within the 2001 AUMF, now eight years old.”
Is it the case that U.S. military interventions are lawful and legitimate only if they secure the permission of the parliament of the world? Put differently, do they lack legitimacy if they fail to do so? And is a congressional authorization of military force subject to a fixed deadline? Is eight years too long for a just war but eight months acceptable? Ackerman does not address these obvious and thorny counterpoints, but the logical inference of his critique is that American leaders ought to have pledged to pursue bin Laden to the gates of hell, but only on the dual conditions that the Security Council (with all its talismanic power) approved, and that the journey to justice wouldn’t be too protracted.
HOWEVER FATUOUS Ackerman’s narrative, it nonetheless manages to correct some commonplace errors by drawing attention to the bipartisan stewardship that has marked the War on Terror since its inception. Thanks to his unbridled contempt for the “Security State,” and the global hegemony it upholds, Ackerman has no time for the cheap and false evasions of responsibility that once permeated the intellectual left and now defile the anti-intellectual right. He recognizes that the blame for continuing hostilities—if that’s the right word for what is essentially a defensive war—cannot be fixed on a shadowy “deep state,” much less a rogue band of neoconservatives. If there is guilt on this score, it’s a collective one touching almost every member of the governing class.
Beginning in the Bush years, “Democrats sought to make the War on Terror work more rationally…. Whatever discomfort they felt with that effort did not develop into opposition.” Even after Obama’s inauguration, the Democratic Party made no effort to wind down the war—and given the political liability entailed by holding a soft line against terror, it was never going to do so. Reign of Terror shows that liberal “complicity” has been a feature without which an indefinite, expanding war could never have been prosecuted with such vigor and for this duration. And yet “liberalism”—consistently used by the author as a term of abuse—“would always be shocked to discover” that enlisting in the war effort “empowered those who wanted America not to be a global police force for undeserving foreigners, but a domestic one guarding the ramparts of American civilization.”
Inadvertently, however, Ackerman demonstrates how untenable winding down this struggle prematurely would be. With remarkable insouciance, he concedes that Pakistan, “like other countries the United States had turned into battlefields, had little interest in suppressing extremists in its own tribal areas” on behalf of a distant hegemon. A fair-minded observer might retort that it would behoove Pakistani authorities to suppress extremists on behalf of their own citizens, regardless of the wishes of a foreign state. In any case, the United States is surely less responsible for the burning grounds of the Hindu Kush than are al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their Pakistani paymasters who not only refuse to suppress extremists but insist on supporting them to the hilt.
Although Ackerman’s bill of indictment includes the CIA’s black-site secret prisons (shut down by Barack Obama in the first week of his presidency) and the prison at Guantanamo (which Obama failed to close after promising to do so), he seems particularly incensed by the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. For him, “a constitutional Rubicon” was crossed when the Obama administration decided to kill this American citizen without trial after he had taken up arms against his country.
Reign of Terror retraces Awlaki’s story with a tendentious slant. After coming to the attention of the “Security State” as a foot soldier for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Awlaki was struck down in September 2011 when his convoy was incinerated by a Predator drone in the northern Yemeni desert. (Another American citizen, Samir Khan, who published an English-language al-Qaeda webzine, died with Awlaki.) Curiously, Awlaki is described as “the former northern Virginia preacher radicalized by [the Bush administration’s post-9/11] crackdown” who had “fled” America for Yemen. You might doubt whether it was really necessary for anyone to adopt a lawless frontier as a home base to prosecute jihad against his forsaken country, but it isn’t the sort of doubt that gives Ackerman any pause.
In his role as a leader of AQAP, Awlaki inspired numerous deeds of terror, including a botched attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab to detonate explosives packed into his underwear aboard a commercial airline over Detroit. Abdulmuttallab had received spiritual guidance and the bomb-making kit from the most prominent member of al-Qaeda’s Yemini affiliate, but civil libertarians insist that American citizens should not be treated as other enemy combatants on the battlefield. Ackerman echoes this objection: “Awlaki’s constitutional right to due process was not an obstacle to his execution.” Hence Ackerman argues that “the true threat” in an age of holy terror was “counterterrorism, not terrorism.” Unilateral liberalism, please take a bow.
ACKERMAN CONTENDS that the war America has been provoked to wage—the war declared against America and its citizens, civilian and military—could be neither sustained nor ended. The logical inference is that it should never have been initiated, or joined. Obviously, this prospect could never have been faced with equanimity, and so Ackerman never brings himself to state it outright.
Early in his tale, Ackerman quotes a bin Laden communiqué that reproaches America for “occupying the lands of Islam in its holiest of places.” He continues in his own voice to parrot bin Laden’s view that “since it underwrote the world order, America was ultimately responsible for the cheapness of Muslim life worldwide: the Iraqis it starved and bombed; all those tortured and slain by America’s allies…; and even the deaths caused by American rivals or enemies.” Instead of countering that morally depraved narrative—what about the innumerable Muslims from Kuwait to Bosnia whose suffering was alleviated by American power?—Ackerman leaves it alone. This reviewer was decidedly uncertain whether it was intended to be only bin Laden’s judgment or Ackerman’s as well.
Later on, Ackerman warms to his theme that U.S. foreign policy—having turned the trauma of 9/11 “outward onto the world”—fortified the jihadist narrative about American malice and weakness. “Bush was showing the Muslim world the America that bin Laden depicted: both a bloodthirsty oppressor and a vulnerable one.”
It isn’t clear how dethroning retrograde governments and degrading terrorist movements while laying the foundations of democracy in the Middle East constitutes a thirst for blood, but this isn’t the actual focus of Reign of Terror. Whatever rage is mustered on behalf of the victims, and targets, of American imperialism, the source of Ackerman’s bile isn’t really to be found on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, or Libya, or Syria, or Niger. It lies instead with what he imagines that war has done on the home front—a predictable feature in such a strikingly solipsistic book. “Fundamentally the war was always home…. Of all the endless costs of terrorism, the most important is the least tallied: what fighting it has cost our democracy.”
Of all the explanations for the rise of Trump, Reign of Terror offers among the most tedious and least substantiated of the lot. Ackerman expressly argues that the War on Terror incubated a populist nationalism that Trump initially fed in to and was in turn fed by. The themes of the Trump presidency, this argument runs, at once preceded and will endure long after the deaths of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden, and Omar al-Baghdadi. Donald Trump, with his chauvinism and xenophobia, “was the War or Terror’s lagging indicator, the promise of what George W. Bush unleashed and what Barack Obama nurtured.” It follows that until this “Forever War” is terminated, “it will propel itself toward greater domestic destabilization.” The United States, in this view, continues to unleash destruction “not only on the world but on itself.”
It must be said that this narrative frame is erroneous—delusional, even. Unless it is shaken off, it will not only inhibit our understanding of how we reached this juncture, but it will inhibit our ability to escape it. The appearance of populist nationalism in American politics is by no means an exclusively American phenomenon. If Trump merely followed where George W. Bush and Obama led, as Ackerman suggests, then what can explain Brexit? There are nastier versions of populist nationalism on offer across the European continent. How does the prison at Guantanamo, or CIA black sites, explain the rise of the Swedish Democrats or the National Front in France?
And still the biggest question of all remains: If the drone war and the obsessive focus on counterterrorism stir populist nationalism, how was the populist rebellion quelled (at least for a time) in November 2020? This happened despite Trump’s decision, in Ackerman’s words, to make the War on Terror “great again” by “intensifying aerial bombing campaigns across multiple war zones.” If endless war was a leading factor stoking populist resentment, one might have thought America would have never found its way back to something like political normalcy before it terminated hostilities.
Another curiosity is why the authoritarian populist rebellion has been quelled only here. Ackerman never asks, because the intricate economic and social phenomena that truly account for the rise of Trump is largely omitted from his telling. And, as a booster of the political career of Bernie Sanders, Ackerman does not believe much political progress has been made simply by seeing off Trump. It remains interesting that while other established democracies have succumbed to the political contagion of our times, America has managed to inoculate itself, at least for now. But it’s an inconvenient achievement for the dour and fanatical enemies of the endless wars who cannot change their mind and cannot change the subject. Perhaps Ackerman’s shallow treatment of America’s political evolution comes down to the fear that Trump’s ouster gives some force to that quaint old notion of American exceptionalism he so deplores.
“The War on Terror fit within American traditions of settler colonialism,” Ackerman concludes. In the national myth, as he tells it, it was “a white man with a flag and a gun” who “had made America great,” and this image was ostensibly repurposed in the war against jihadism. In the 9/11 era, Ackerman continues, that white man would become the world’s premier “counterterrorist.” This equation of America with whiteness was always profoundly ahistorical, and it left Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and James Baldwin scratching their heads since the American character is intrinsically a composite identity. But in recent decades, racist theories of nationhood held even less purchase against the backdrop of America’s stunning moral advances in the realm of human equality. The war against jihadism, involving allied forces of various nations and ethnic backgrounds, was no exception. This campaign was a struggle to defend civilization from religious barbarism, and not by any means an exclusively “white man’s burden.”
This nuanced and textured understanding of the continuing necessity of the battle against terrorism has fallen out of fashion in both parties today. It was former Obama aide Ben Rhodes who declared that the pandemic has created an opportunity to reorient America’s role in the world. “This is not simply a matter of winding down the remaining 9/11 wars,” he said. “We need a transformation of what has been our whole way of looking at the world since 9/11.” Doubtless many Trump Republicans would agree.
The view that the War on Terror has deformed America into an evil empire while eroding its republican character is parochial. The suspicion that America cannot be at once a flawed democracy and a robust force for freedom smacks of the very Manicheanism that the anti-warriors discern in their neoconservative and neoliberal rivals. This culminates in Ackerman’s breathtakingly myopic final flourish that it is “difficult to see America as anything more than its War on Terror.” In a sprawling republic making vast strides toward a more perfect union while a troubled world still yearns for American leadership, what could be a more thorough demonstration of American innocence?
The usefulness of such innocence in the lingering confrontation with clerical fanaticism in large swathes of the Islamic world has still never been demonstrated.
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