Twenty Years Ago, the Mainstream Press Created the War on Terror

Two decades ago, the mainstream media responded to the September 11 attacks by stacking their news coverage and pundit commentary with the country’s most belligerently pro-war voices. We are still paying for their appalling misjudgment.

US newspaper headlines on September 11, 2001. (AFP via Getty Images)

Just shy of twenty years after hijackers with Saudi government links carried out the September 11 attacks, the senseless Afghanistan war finally ended this August. As Americans watched tens of thousands of US and allied personnel flee the country in the wake of a rapid takeover by the very same group US forces had deposed at the start of the century, many were aghast at the aggressive media campaign to restart a war that had achieved nothing except take lives and stuff corporate pockets.

How, having just witnessed the Washington foreign policy establishment’s monumental failure in the country, and having covered firsthand the war’s aimless carnage for years, could the press be eager for more of it?

The answer lies twenty years ago in the weeks after the attack that started it all, where this same media — the same institutions, nationalist worldview, and even the same high-profile figures — were instrumental in sending the US military into Afghanistan to begin with.

September 12–14, 2001

Just as Tony Blair privately plotted out the entire “war on terror” the day after the attacks, the press immediately set the course of the next two decades of foreign policy, mainly by handing the mic to a variety of neoconservative voices.

A bevy of war hawks appeared in the September 12 New York Times to solidify in public minds the strategy that would soon lead to foreign policy disaster. “We have to stop thinking about this as cops and robbers and start thinking about it as a war,” Eliot Cohen told the paper (months later, Cohen would dub it “World War IV,” a massive, perpetual struggle of ideologies to defeat “militant Islam,” of which Afghanistan was just one front).

Calling it a war, he explained, “means you have fewer compunctions about killing them” and that “you may well do things that may well involve collateral damage and hurting civilians.” Henry Kissinger, one of history’s worst warmongers, made much the same point, declaring the attacks “comparable to Pearl Harbor” and urging “the same response.”

The attacks, former state department and CIA official Larry Johnson said, “awakened people to the need to use weapons not used before — including nuclear weapons — on Afghanistan” (lest the United States only make a few “craters” and “be seen as unable to fight,” he explained), while former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger told the paper: “There’s only one way to deal with people like this — that’s to kill some of them.”

“The only way to prevent this in the future is to do what the terrorists did to demonstrate the consequences,” the Los Angeles Times quoted one analyst as advising. “We need a huge show of force that involves huge loss of material assets and lots of casualties.” A day later, former CIA officer and neoconservative analyst Reuel Gerecht appeared in the New York Times, stressing the need for “cluster bombs, even napalm” to fight the war, “not cruise missiles” designed to limit collateral damage.

This was the country’s premier liberal paper, publishing barely coded calls for indiscriminate slaughter of civilians — a war crime.

The Times was far from alone. “That we have promised retaliation for decades and then always drawn back, hoping that we could get through if we simply did not provoke the enemy, is appeasement, and it must be quite clear by now even to those who perpetually appease that appeasement simply does not work,” Mark Halperin wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (headline: “We Beat Hitler. We Can Vanquish This Foe, Too”). Jumping on then-president George W. Bush and other neocons’ framing of events as a “war,” the paper elsewhere urged “rethinking some of the softer political pieties about our modern, violent world,” and “fight[ing] by wartime rules”: namely, “killing your enemy without the demands of due process or a permission slip from the World Court.”

The United States “must have the aim of decisive victory over an aggressor that has attacked the country, not one-time retaliation or criminal prosecution for an act of terrorism,” affirmed the Washington Post. Calling for “a major realignment of priorities and resources,” it urged “serious political, economic or military consequences” for any country that so much as declined to cooperate in this “war effort.” While “holding governments accountable” for their support for terrorism “doesn’t necessarily mean military ground wars,” it went on, “neither can the United States shrink from action because it costs too much or might cause casualties.”

The LA Times likewise demanded the United States respond “not with one-time retaliatory actions but with a sustained, long-term crusade against terrorism,” using the same charged, genocidally tinged language Bush would soon be rightly criticized for. Rather than law enforcement, extradition, and trial, this crusade called for “additional methods, some of them more harsh.”

“The necessary long battle against elusive foes without fixed battle lines can hardly avoid ‘collateral damage’: the deaths of innocents,” the paper concluded. “And the deaths of Americans.”

Right-wing commentators often led the charge. Kissinger was given space in the LA Times to assure readers the terrorists were “motivated by a hatred of Western values” in what they saw as “a clash of civilizations.” Quoting heavily from once and future far-right Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, George Will wrote in the Post of “a war to reverse the triumph of the West,” likened “Islamic radicalism” to the Nazis’ goal to expand across Europe, and suggested “not going after needles in haystacks but against the haystacks — the states that sustain terrorists.”

“This is not crime,” Will’s fellow Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. “This is war.” Charging that the country had been attacked because it had responded to a declaration of war “by issuing subpoenas” and launching “a few useless cruise missile attacks on empty tents in the desert,” he demanded the US military instead “rain destruction on combatants” in the war against “radical Islam.” Rather than bringing individual terrorists to justice, Krauthammer said, the United States “must carry their war” to “any country that harbors and protects” bin Laden and others, in this case Afghanistan.

Likewise, the Times’ Tom Friedman mocked the announcement that there would be no more curbside check-ins at airports. “Does my country really understand that this is World War III?” he asked. “And if this attack was the Pearl Harbor of World War III, it means there is a long, long war ahead.” America had to prove “that we understand that many of these terrorists hate our existence,” he said, and called for a “World War III Manhattan project” to take on terrorists. “While this may have been the first major battle of World War III, it may be the last one that involves only conventional, non-nuclear weapons,” he wrote.

Just five years later, the Financial Times deemed Friedman the second-most influential commentator for the US elite. Number one? Krauthammer.

Just as it was this past month, stacking column inches almost exclusively with pro-war “experts” was a choice. There were plenty of prescient voices who called the disaster that was to come: Phyllis Benes, cautioning this was “not a ‘war’ that can be won by military means”; Lloyd Dumas, pointing out that “the money we’ve poured into missile defense, B-2 bombers and F-22s is of no use in preventing or defending against this kind of horrendous attack”; or Stephen Zunes, warning that a military response would create “a spiral of violent retaliation,” killing “civilians just as innocent as those killed in New York City,” and leaving “survivors bent on revenge.” Unless they read independent media or leafed through obscure sections of the occasional daily national paper, Americans didn’t hear their perspectives.

All Roads Lead to War

This early period set the template for the rest of the coverage heading into the Afghanistan war. The long-term war on terror framework envisioned by the Bush administration and war-hawk media figures became the consensus vision for the way forward; whatever deviated from it was buried or treated as unserious.

This White House messaging became the unofficial editorial line. Outlets underlined the brutality of the Taliban government while focusing constant attention on the subordinate status of women under their rule (“Life under the Taliban is so repressive for Afghan women that many of them now see US military action against the regime as their best hope for a freer life,” went one front-page piece). And having drilled into Americans’ brains that this was a war, headlines soon reflected the widespread understanding that the Taliban needed to be toppled from power: “Our first move: Take out the Taliban”; “Help Afghanistan to Acquire a Government of National Unity”; “Go After the Taliban and Rebuild Afghanistan.”

The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance got the opposite treatment. Viewed as a viable avenue for getting rid of the Taliban, and a handy way to put a homegrown gloss on a foreign invasion, news outlets covered the coalition of warlords sympathetically. “Besieged commander says US could turn tide,” proclaimed the Chicago Tribune, with its portrait of an Alliance general, “his voice filled with yearning,” pointing to targets he fantasized US forces bombing. Peter Baker, then at the Post, gave voice to refugees in Alliance territory, who said things like, “If the Americans attack the bases of Osama bin Laden and we were free from them, we would go back home right now”; or, “the United States should bring peace and freedom. How can the destruction of our country continue?”

Readers weren’t told that the warlords behind this Alliance had records full of just as much brutality and misogyny as the Taliban, as well as corruption, all factors that had fed into the Taliban’s rise in the country to start with. As anyone who did know might have predicted, once the Taliban were out, they quickly put in place their own repressive regimes, some of them as ultraconservative and oppressive for women as anything the Taliban put in place. But that didn’t matter there and then. “Perhaps the most important step we could take would be to furnish large-scale arms, training and other support to the Northern Alliance,” wrote CIA analyst and former Clinton advisor Kenneth Pollack in the Wall Street Journal. Other important steps? Taking “direct military action,” and “looking to kill [Bin Laden’s] people.”

“In the past, we have demonstrated an unwillingness to inflict casualties — even military casualties,” wrote Pollack. “This time, we should be looking to maximize casualties.”

Headlines frequently blared that the Taliban were refusing to hand over Bin Laden, without putting it in proper context: that they wanted to see proof of his guilt first, which US officials refused to hand over; that those officials moved the goalposts, declaring that even if the Taliban facilitated his arrest, they would have to give up every other terrorist inside the country to “drain the swamp” and avoid being invaded; the concessions the Taliban repeatedly made in the face of a US attack; or the fact that the Arab and Muslim worlds and their leadership opposed an invasion. (Once bombing started, the administration would reject a new Taliban offer to hand him over to a third country). Some commentators even justified the Bush administration’s behavior.

“So what?” said right-wing commentator Bruce Herschensohn, reacting to a hypothetical where bin Laden and Al Qaeda turn out to have been uninvolved in the attacks after all. “If we are at war against terrorism, all terrorists should be on notice that they are the enemies of the United States and of all civilized societies.” The country wasn’t at war with individual terrorists, but with terrorism as a whole, he explained, making the entire notion of coughing up proof of bin Laden’s guilt irrelevant anyway.

The few exceptions to this coverage — highlighting the civilian casualties that would come out of this war, underlining the role of US foreign policy in stoking terrorism and the futility of military solutions to the problem, or otherwise pushing back on the pro-war narrative — tended to be hidden to all but the most avid news consumer. M1, M2, C1, B4, B7, A21: these were the back pages Americans had to scour to find the few stones clinking against the mammoth wall of pro-war messaging built by the White House and media.

Meanwhile, the Right delighted in the marginalization of left-wing and antiwar opinion, scoffing triumphantly that “politically correct” pieties about human equality, tolerance, and solidarity had gone out the window.

“The nice kids have been taught that all differences are to be celebrated,” sneered David Rieff in the Chicago Tribune. “It just doesn’t make emotional sense [to them] that cultural differences could lead to war and not greater understanding.” Pointing to big majorities in support of military action, the paper quoted Rich Lowry’s prediction that “the portions of the left that oppose it will go the way of the America Firsters during the last war.”

“In one atrocity, Osama bin Laden may have accomplished what a generation of conservative writers have failed to do: convince mainstream liberals of the illogic and nihilism of the powerful postmodern left,” cheered Andrew Sullivan in one particularly nauseating Wall Street Journal column.

There is literally nothing that the Left can credibly cling to in rationalizing support for these hate-filled fanatics. This is therefore an excruciating moment for the postmodern, postcolonial left. They may actually have come across an enemy that even they cannot argue is morally superior to the West. . . . The emergence of the Taliban is a body blow. If dark-skinned peoples are inherently better than light-skinned peoples, then how does a dark-skinned culture come up with an ideology that is clearly a function of bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia?

By the time this column was printed on October 4, there were already copious reports of racist attacks on Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs. This was the ugly backdrop to Sullivan’s cartwheels now that, in his mind, the West had been proven superior to a “dark-skinned culture.”

A War on the World — With Exceptions

Drunk on the revenge fantasies and grandiose visions of American power that percolated down from the top in those days, the press gave voice to the warped thinking that would soon take the United States from Afghanistan into the Iraq disaster. Just like the Bush administration had already loosely plotted out a timetable of military attacks across the Middle East and North Africa while the towers were practically still smoldering, right-wing hawks looking to make the case for forever war got a warm welcome in mainstream news outlets.

“Afghanistan is just stage one. A logical stage two is Syria,” wrote Krauthammer. “Stage three is Iraq and Iran, obviously the most difficult and dangerous.” “At the battle of Midway, the US didn’t just go after individual kamikazes. They went after the carriers,” went Netanyahu’s advice, quoted in a column by Bret Stephens, who listed these “carriers”: Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, the Palestinian Authority. “Mr. Netanyahu’s counsel is that they be crushed straightaway.” If they weren’t, warned one Journal op-ed titled “Oust the Taliban,” then “there isn’t much hope of removing other, more study terrorist states,” adding Algeria to the list.

“May the coalition roll from strength to strength,” prayed Halperin, who urged Bush to make ousting the Taliban “the chief aim” of an invasion. A successful war, he wrote, would set up a “historical precedent” and give Washington a “credential” that would “convince regimes that harbor or would harbor terrorists that the United States will carry through with its demands until they are met” — first in Syria, then maybe Libya, “and so on.”

Conspicuously missing from every one of these lists was Saudi Arabia, which over decades had used its oil money to ingratiate itself with the US elite, the Bush family first among them, and its media. Even before journalists and other investigators turned up evidence of Saudi government complicity in the attacks, the list of red flags was long: fifteen of the nineteen attackers had been Saudi; the government was directly responsible for the spread of the ultraconservative version of Islam the terrorists adhered to; and Saudi rulers had earlier rejected Sudan’s offer to take in an arrested and deported bin Laden, despite US pressure — the same standard that was enough to doom the Taliban.

Over the years, the public would learn there really had been a fundamentalist, repressive, and anti-woman government involved in the September 11 attacks. But in the all-out rush to war, this information was publicized too late to stop a pointless war on Afghanistan.

Where Are They Now?

It should go without saying that no one who urged this foolish and destructive course suffered any professional consequences. The opposite happened, actually.

Once the Taliban were taken out, Eliot Cohen quickly turned to beating the drums for “the big prize,” Iraq, urging officials to transform the entire Middle East by force, and play “by ‘9/11’ rules,” meaning: “we help our friends, punish those who impede us, and annihilate those who attack us.” More than a decade later, he continues to be feted by liberal news outlets to make the case for more military aggression — the latest enemy is China — and is a contributing writer at one of the country’s most influential liberal magazines.

Henry Kissinger, the grand old man of war crimes himself, is still a sought-after voice on foreign policy, as was the case this past August, when the Economist asked him to explain the US failure in Afghanistan. Bret Stephens became one of the Times’ token right-wingers, using his platform to push for war with Iran and, of course, China. Halperin became a ubiquitous political pundit, his career wounded only by a sexual harassment scandal. Friedman continued to cheerlead for war from his perch at the Times, though the Afghanistan withdrawal seems at least to have brought him to his senses on China. Peter Baker, the reporter who wrote glowingly of the Northern Alliance as they begged for US backing, has used his position as that paper’s chief White House correspondent to inveigh persistently against withdrawing from the country, even quoting (and not disclosing) a Raytheon board member to do so.

Charles Krauthammer, who died in 2018, didn’t live long enough to see the end of the war he worked so hard to send others to fight, but he used his remaining years to push for another war with Iran and praise Trump for abandoning his initially tough posture toward the country that actually facilitated the September 11 attacks; he was eulogized by the Times as “one of the nation’s most cogent conservative voices.”

His fellow right-wing Post columnist George Will is still there, attacking the withdrawal under both Trump and Biden (despite having seemed to come to Jesus more than a decade ago), and itching for conflict with China. Netanyahu, whose deranged calls for the United States to wage war on the entire Middle East were repeatedly cited in those days, became the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history and a respected statesman among the Washington establishment.

Nearly every one of these figures later built off their success on Afghanistan to do the same for Iraq. Both the neoconservatives and the centrist Washington foreign policy establishment — in both cases made up almost entirely of figures pining for a war they’d been too young to fight in, but old enough to grow up worshipping — had spent the postwar decades desperately searching for another World War II, a morally righteous war to re-energize the country’s martial reflexes.

The first Gulf War had, in their minds, been such a thing, curing the country of its dreaded Vietnam syndrome. Here was an even better chance to exorcize the ghosts of failure and return to the golden age of American power that existed only in their minds. The yearning was obvious: September 11 was Pearl Harbor; Al Qaeda were the Nazis; the war on terror was World War III — or was it number IV?

The psycho-political complexes of a handful of men unable to measure national greatness in anything other than the capacity to kill and destroy ended up costing the country trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, and destabilizing one of the world’s already volatile regions. All have remained respectable voices, having climbed only further up the media ladder after leading the United States and world into what still feels like never-ending turmoil.

No Hugging, No Learning

The post-9/11 days were a vicious time, and chances were that, between public rage and the war-hungry extremists in power under Bush, something rash and pitiless would have come out of the aftermath of the attack. But that something didn’t need to be the longest war in US history, nor the perpetual murder machine we call the war on terror.

Pretty much every convention that would come to characterize that “war” was established in those early weeks: that the United States had to treat the struggle as a war; that there was no number of years or lives too big to spend on winning it; that “radical Islam” was the opponent; and that the adversary was driven by a mindless hatred of Americans and their values, and nothing else.

Washington conceivably could have taken a law enforcement approach to stopping terrorism, capitalizing on the global outpouring of sympathy and good will toward the United States in the wake of the attacks to ensure that the terrorists were brought justice, and could have rethought the destructive foreign policy that terrorists themselves have cited over and over as driving their determination to attack and harm the United States. But that was the lily-livered babble of idiot peaceniks, the public was told; much more sensible to topple a few unrelated governments, in advance of waging war on the entire planet.

When we think of those years, we imagine bloodthirsty rags like the Weekly Standard or the National Review making these arguments. But these delusional neocon fantasies reached their widest audience through mainstream and liberal news outlets, which saw their mission in the wake of the attack not as holding the powerful to account or scrutinizing government policies, but in the nationalistic terms summed up by ex-CBS anchor Dan Rather six days after the towers were hit: “George Bush is the President. He makes the decisions, and, you know, it’s just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

This history has taken second billing in our collective memory to the media’s failure on Iraq, largely owing to Afghanistan’s status in the United States as the “good war.” But two decades of that war has, hopefully, buried that misconception: the war wasn’t good for the US soldiers killed and maimed while fighting it; for the vast majority of Afghanistan’s women, terrorized and mistreated by coalition forces; or for their sons, husbands, and other relatives, who were killed and tortured in any number of inhuman ways.

The question is, have the media outlets that helped lead the country into disaster learned from this dreadful saga? Or is it just a matter of time before history is repeated?