Seventeen years ago next week, out of a clear blue sky, Americans were massacred on a scale unprecedented since Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese attack of 1941 led to an intense but relatively brief war. By contrast, the Sept. 11, 2001, attack has led to what some call “The Long War,” a low-intensity conflict with no end in sight.
To say that the 9/11 attacks came out of clear blue sky is true literally but not figuratively. Self-proclaimed jihadists had long been using vehicles packed with ordnance and operated by aspiring martyrs as smart bombs.
That was the modus operandi in Beirut, 1983; New York City, 1993; and against the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, to take just a few examples. Precautions should and could have been taken against the use of passenger planes as guided missiles.
But the rising threat posed by belligerent, apocalyptic, revanchist Islamic movements was discounted if not ignored by intelligence agencies, most think tanks, the media and, especially, academia — where new orthodoxies were increasingly being enforced and “politically incorrect” ideas effectively prohibited.
Even after the attacks on New York and Washington, there was strong reluctance to examine the theologically based ideologies of those waging what they called a jihad to re-establish Islamic supremacy in the world.
Instead, as early as Sept. 16, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke of a “war on terrorism,” emphasizing the weapon rather than those wielding it and their aims. He later used the phrase “Global War on Terror,” carrying the suggestion that we were only fighting fear.
In 2013, President Barack Obama declared the war over. Henceforth, “countering violent extremism” was all that was necessary. Soon, Washington was awash with “CVE experts.”
Mr. Obama then announced his “pivot to Asia,” which was really an attempt to retreat from the turbulent Middle East. His boldest move was to seek detente with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the only major nation in the world openly committed to jihad against the United States and the West.
He concluded a deal with Iran’s theocrats, the curiously named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It gave implicit consent to their hegemonic ambitions, funded them, and turned a blind eye to their threats against their neighbors, their domestic oppression, and their sponsorship of terrorism in the Middle East, Latin America, Europe and America. The war to which they have been contributing in Syria over the past seven years — with no serious pushback from the United States or Europe — has cost more than a half-million lives.
In exchange for these concessions, Iranian rulers agreed to delay — not end — a nuclear weapons program whose existence they have never publicly acknowledged. President Trump withdrew from the deal. The European Union continues to do what it can to keep it alive.
A grand illusion to which Americans and Europeans are susceptible: War is an aberration, and peace is the normal state of the world, a condition to which all peoples aspire. Even a cursory reading of history shows this to be wishful thinking.
Christians and Muslims fought for almost 800 years in Iberia. The Persian-Roman wars dragged on for more than 700 years. The Byzantine-Ottoman wars: more than 200 years. The notion that modernity has brought us wars of only short duration, or, better yet, that modern diplomacy and the “science” of “conflict resolution” can obviate wars entirely is comforting but entirely unsupported by evidence.
The grim reality is that after 17 years of conflict, we have not decisively defeated al Qaeda or the Taliban. Far from it: al Qaeda franchises proliferate and, according to Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “the Taliban’s men contest or control approximately 60 percent of the country — as much ground as at any point since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.”
Claims that the Taliban is prepared to begin a “peace process” seem fanciful. Instead, as Mr. Joscelyn writes, the Taliban has indicated only that it “is willing to negotiate the terms of its own victory.”
The Islamic State, which splintered from al Qaeda and is one of many jihadist groups operating in dozens of countries on several continents, is down but hardly out.
The Islamic Republic’s long-term goal remains, as it has for nearly 40 years, “Death to America!” The supreme leader now projects power into Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza and Iraq. He aids those fighting Americans in Afghanistan. He sponsors terrorists with impunity.
The only good news: The imperial overstretch of his corrupt and unpopular regime may be strained beyond its limits by the tough economic measure being imposed by the current American administration.
Nevertheless, our enemies do not appear exhausted, discouraged or underfunded. Do we know them yet or are we still trying to imagine what “drives” people to “violent extremism?” Do we have the stomach to endure The Long War — which, I believe, should be recognized as a multi-front struggle against jihadism? Do we have the patience to develop a winning strategy even if that requires — as it clearly does — much trial and too many errors?
In the days after the 2001 attacks, it was said that a sleeping giant had been awakened. Today, there are many on both the left and the right telling the giant to go back to bed, and pull the covers over his eyes. If that’s where our enemies find us, they’ll know what to do.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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