- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
In a three-part series on Jacobin Radio’s The Dig, Daniel Denvir interviewed journalist Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, about how the Forever Wars unleashed violence and wrecked countries across the world, very much including the United States.
The following is a transcript of the first part, edited for length and clarity. They discuss the bipartisan war fever after 9/11, the campaign of mainstream misinformation around the Iraq War, the deflating 2004 John Kerry campaign, and the symbiosis between neoconservatives and nativists in the brutal projection of American military power.
The Post-9/11 Psychosis
For those who were small children or not even born yet, it’s hard to describe the generalized psychosis that coursed through American politics and society after 9/11. George W. Bush’s approval ratings went into the nineties. It was surreal. What was the immediate political and social aftermath of 9/11 in the United States? And how did it shape who Americans are and how they think about their country and the world?
Those approval ratings represented a manipulated, exploited, very genuinely traumatic response. I’m a native New Yorker. I went to college at Rutgers University, so I was away from the city, and all I could think that day was that my parents are going to die, my cousin is going to die, my friends are going to die, everyone I care about is going to die. And I’m here, and there’s nothing I can do about it. So many of my neighbors are forever shaped by that circumstance and by everything that came from it — literally for days afterward, smelling the air that was polluted by burning corpses.
It could have made America receptive and empathetic to what it is like to be the victim of an air strike — this is the only air strike America had experienced, certainly since Pearl Harbor. But this is where the “war on terror” is truly born. Not from the attack itself, but from the deliberate decision of political elites, military elites, journalistic elites, and intellectual elites — to say that there is only one response to this, and it is not a response of understanding that the experience of an air strike is so horrific that the way American foreign policy operates must change if we are to actually, in any durable way, be safe from such a future attack.
The culture of 9/11 was what we would understand today as a cancel culture, an exceptionally censorious culture. An example I use in the book is Susan Sontag, one of the giants of twentieth-century American literature. Sontag writes about a week after the attacks that she’s disgusted with the mainstream response to it because it is so deliberately ignorant of what American foreign policy in the Arab world, in the broader Muslim world truly is — which is to say violent, extractive, exploitative, domineering, and repressive.
And Sontag is canceled. She is described as craven, as a moral relativist (which is a term we’ll hear throughout the war on terror); she is an enemy of another related term, “moral clarity,” unable to diagnose evil in the world, and simply a reflexive proponent of blaming America for attacks that America suffers.
It’s important to point out that Sontag did none of these things. She did not blame the people who died on 9/11, who are blameless for US foreign policy in any rigorous way. She indicted the systems that drove the circumstances that led to the deaths of my neighbors.
So much of the culture immediately after 9/11 seems like a fever dream. In going back through a lot of contemporary journalism at the time, not just the stuff that I was writing but the stuff that was more generally out there, you would see examples of plastic surgery rates in Manhattan skyrocketing because people who felt like they had a brush with mortality, in order to feel normal again, opted for cosmetic surgery. This was part of a response to the trauma of 9/11.
And yet many at the time and afterward think of that moment, which at its most sympathetic was a moment of people suffering in trauma and its least sympathetic of people just embracing wild-eyed jingoism — they reflect upon that moment as America at its best. Glenn Beck’s 9/12 movement was one extreme but revealing example.
There was no national unity after 9/11. There was a national mobilization. These things are very different. I grew up and still live in Flatbush in Brooklyn, and nearby is a sub-neighborhood called Little Pakistan. I recently went through documents that community leaders in Little Pakistan kept about the experiences of the local children.
Junior-high-school and high-school students would report that their classmates — who are children, they’re reflecting the attitudes that the people they look to for moral and ethical direction in life are providing in the wake of 9/11 — talking about reporting them to immigration, talking about calling the police on them because they were responsible for 9/11, talking about calling the police on them because they were responsible for the next 9/11, asking them where the bombs were, calling them Osama, saying that they needed to go back to their own country.
Then what’s really striking is there’s a section on this form that the community leaders prepared that asks, did you tell anyone about this? And uniformly, from what I saw, they said that they were afraid to tell their teachers. They were afraid to tell anyone from outside of their community what was going on. These are children. This is the real wages of what the post-9/11 moment was.
These are now people in their twenties, thirties, forties. They’re people who suffered through the NYPD’s construction of an extensive surveillance apparatus at Brooklyn College. Muslim student organizations found themselves under police surveillance.
The FBI, as well, by 2010 created a network estimated at ten thousand informants. This doesn’t prevent terrorism, but it absolutely expands and normalizes an apparatus of repression that is racialized, that is overwhelmingly focused on working-class neighborhoods, that is able to persist for so long because it has, at the absolute minimum, the acquiescence of both political parties.
That’s really what the post-9/11 moment is. You can see its authoritarian nature from the start. You can see who its victims are from the start. You can see the distinctions it is not interested in drawing from the start.
You hinted at this, but before we move on, what was the massive Muslim registry known as NSEERS [National Security Entry-Exit Registration System] — which was designed by John Ashcroft aide and future nativist celebrity Kris Kobach — and PENTTBOM [Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombing Investigation]?
NSEERS is the first Muslim registry in the United States. You’ll recall that when Donald Trump proposed such a thing in 2015, there was an enormous outcry, and it was seen as a disgusting thing because it is a disgusting thing. What was very rarely noted at the time was that this was a database of about one hundred thousand Muslim noncitizens. This was considered voluntary. But if you are in a position of not having citizenship and you hear that you have been invited to register your presence by the immigration authorities, you’re probably not going to consider that very voluntary at all.
This resulted in about twelve thousand deportations, and it provides the government with tremendously invasive vision into how people operate, where they live, where they move, what they do, what their patterns of life are.
This registry existed until 2009, operated ultimately by the Department of Homeland Security. It included biometric information. The Obama administration says, “That’s enough. We’re going to shut down NSEERS.” They shut down NSEERS, but they don’t delete the data. The database is still there. Anyone who wants to have a Muslim registry in the United States can flick a metaphorical switch and NSEERS is there, and you can continue to expand it. That is one of several institutional Chekhov’s guns of the war on terror.
Then there’s PENTTBOM. The name is the FBI’s acronym for the investigation into the Pentagon bombing. There are substantial Muslim communities in Northern Virginia, including very affluent ones, particularly around places like Falls Church, and very Republican voting. It’s also wild to remember, in retrospect, Bush reached out to conservative Muslims during the 2000 election and suggested that he would be better equipped to be a critic of Israel than Al Gore.
Under the pretext of investigating local connections to the al-Qaeda attack on the Pentagon, the FBI conducted, over the course of many months, mass roundups in Northern Virginia and found, predictably, no al-Qaeda connection. It also found people who preached things that the FBI finds alarming; people who are connected through — sometimes directly, other times a couple of steps removed — people who would be traveling to places like Pakistan to try and join in, allegedly, fights against US soldiers in Afghanistan, more often in more localized jihadist activity in Pakistan. But more often what it found was regular people, and it mapped the patterns of life of entire communities.
Before we move on from this, we should underline that 762 people were held on immigration charges, including many at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, in incredibly abusive conditions.
That’s 762 that we know about, even twenty years later. Lawyers, advocates, activists, survivors, and so forth are not confident that we know the scale of the post-9/11 immigration roundups, which used tools like something called the material witness statute, which is supposed to stop people who’ve observed a crime from fleeing. Now it was misinterpreted so that the government says that all of these people saw 9/11, so they’re material witnesses to that crime, and that’s all the pretext we need. And they would go inside places like this federal jail in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and were treated like they were violent killers. They were held in four-point restraints like we see in Guantanamo Bay.
Think about that. Your arms, your feet, sometimes your waist, sometimes even your neck would be strapped down onto gurneys. You were under constant surveillance, and you were entirely at their mercy. Sometimes your families would go days without knowing where you were. There were people, including a man named Mohammed Butt, who died inside there from cardiac arrest. Someone who had never been in any sort of trouble in his life.
American Exceptionalism and American Conspiracy
Because the United States believed itself to be exceptional, it was poorly equipped to understand that the sort of geopolitical, economic, and cultural impact it has on the world would at some point provoke a violent response. Such recognition was too close for elite comfort to contend with the entirely separate proposition that America deserved such an attack, but exceptionalism equipped the nation very well to turn its trauma outward onto the world.
American exceptionalism is essentially the outward direction of manifest destiny — that ultimately America has the right — and under some versions of the theory, the obligation — to expand frontiers of freedom on behalf of all of these benighted civilizations that will ultimately benefit from acquiescence to the American way of life.
The event of 9/11 is seen as a horror not only because of its human consequences but because it represents a breakdown in the US-led-international order — that America has experienced the air strike rather than inflicting the air strike. That is not for a moment to deny the agency of al-Qaeda, it’s to contextualize it.
The reason why it is sometimes a point you have to struggle to make even twenty years later is because the legacy of the initial rejection of such modes of thinking after 9/11 became so dominant. It is always understood as, well, what do you want to do? Give Osama Bin Laden what he wants and leave the Middle East? Well, maybe allow the people of the Middle East to determine their own fate. Maybe that would prevent people from deciding that they need to take revenge on the United States to whom they correctly or not attribute this circumstance of subjugation.
There wasn’t much dissent in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but neither was there as much of a consensus as it might have seemed to many at the time. And some of the dissidence fermenting just below the surface was pretty weird and revealing. You write, “A durable conspiracy called 9/11 trutherism held that the towers were destroyed by a treasonous globalist government that sought to gin up an imperial war.”
What accounts for the remarkable popularity of 9/11 conspiracies? According to a 2006 Scripps Howard Ohio University poll, “More than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.” It’s a pretty remarkable number. Was this what antiwar politics looked like in the face of a political class so unified behind war and in the absence of a coherent left to channel the underlying sentiment? And was it a precursor of sorts to QAnon, which, after all, has its own ideas about the security state?
Some of these figures are direct bridges. Alex Jones starts life as a 9/11 truther. Prison Planet starts life as 9/11 trutherism. The most charitable explanation I can offer is that the trauma of 9/11 is so real, and the discussion of 9/11 that emerges afterward is deceitful, euphemistic, propagandistic, and clearly for the benefit of a very narrow slice of the population; and that, ultimately, while it might have momentarily very high poll numbers, a sustained militaristic reassertion of American power overseas is not popular. In such an environment, it can be very easy to simply discredit everyone who is seemingly picking up on strains of the mainstream explanations for 9/11.
Another element of it is that everyone is being misled during this period. All the explanations on offer are wretched. The ones that come closer to the truth are very aggressively and deliberately marginalized. And this happens when the American left is in one of its weakest stages. I’m not equipped to say if it was the weakest the American left has ever been, but I can tell you as a disappointed teenager and someone in their early twenties who was very much a red-diaper baby, the Left felt just entirely irrelevant. There hadn’t yet been a leftist recoalescence.
And liberals are really not equipped, even if they were so inclined, to offer resistance to this enterprise. Instead, they offer acquiescence, technocracy, and a less rude form of hegemony. Without that countervailing political force, some people, in their despair and in their earnest searches for understanding what happened and the meaning behind their trauma, are going to sign up for a lot of really obnoxious shit.
Afghanistan and Iraq
Let’s turn to the wars, starting with the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed all but unanimously by Congress on September 18, 2001. What was in the AUMF of 2001?
The Authorization for the Use of Military Force is sixty words. It says that in order to avenge the 9/11 attacks and anyone who had remotely anything to do with them — which includes states, unnamed regimes, unnamed entities — the United States is authorized to respond anywhere in the world with any tool of its choice, at any time it sees fit. It is about as literal a definition of a blank check for war as you can imagine. The enemy is not fixed, which means a politician, and particularly the president, can define the enemy as they see fit.
A lot of people have described this as a moment where the presidency starts to look more like an elected king or a Roman consul, where near-dictatorial powers are invested in the president. And the other elements of government, when it comes to this sphere of authority, are more like consultative bodies than meaningful constraints. They can be discarded at will.
That is the AUMF of 2001 that remains on the books today. It was amended under Barack Obama’s presidency to expand its scope even further by adding the words “and associated forces.” This was Obama, who had, early in his presidency, attempted to reorient the war on terror into something more like a war on al-Qaeda, but then quickly found that it was exceptionally convenient to include not only al-Qaeda in that designated targeting list — that there were these associated forces that the public has never had defined for it. This is a state secret who the members of those associated forces are and how they are defined. It remains to this day an aspect of opacity around a central aspect of the war on terror: Who does the government designate as its enemy? Who can be targeted under the war on terror? That’s a really astonishing thing.
The point I’m driving at is that this central authority, the 2001 AUMF, is a recipe not only for a truly forever, forever war, but as well, from the start, transforms the relationship between the presidency and the citizenry. This is not a war coming home. This is the war that’s been home.
And yet Barbara Lee was the only person to vote no. To Bernie Sanders’s credit, in the past presidential campaign, he said during a debate that he regretted voting for the AUMF and that Lee had been right. But at the time she was absolutely alone.
It’s important to remember the counterargument that Lee offered, which was, as she put it, “Can we just stop and breathe for a moment and think about the implications of what we’re about to do?” I write in the book that there were powerful Democratic senators like Carl Levin, who would go on to be the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who responded to Lee tacitly by saying, no, he had gotten the needed assurances from the White House that they weren’t going to use the AUMF as this blank check for war. And then in secret, in a legal interpretation of the AUMF, a couple of days later, that’s exactly what John Yoo wrote as the wages of the AUMF.
What was the stated rationale initially for the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban government, and how did that change over time?
The surface explanation, which was entirely accepted at the time, was that there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and those entities that sponsored them.
Bush is equipped to say all these things and not draw these distinctions, because of this atmosphere of deliberate indecision about who the enemy is. And so this epic conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda also means that when Bin Laden escapes, the fallback position that operates as something of a victory is the fall of the Taliban regime, even though that has at best an attenuated and indirect relationship to 9/11.
So the United States puts itself in a position to do nothing but lose this war and kill so many people, create so many refugees, have so many service members either die or, among those who survive, have life-changing experiences, if not life-changing injuries. More American contractors die in the Afghanistan war than American service members — something like 38,000 contractors versus 2,300 service members. The War in Afghanistan was always an extractive, moneymaking endeavor.
How did the Right set about using the attacks against the Left, and how did so many liberals help make that possible? And how did that joint effort to marginalize the Left so quickly get turned against liberals, even pro-war liberals? As soon as 2002, there was already that infamous TV ad that juxtaposed triple-amputee Vietnam veteran and Democratic Georgia senator Max Cleland, who supported Bush on the war, with images of Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.
Again, there is this rhetoric of national unity after 9/11 where journalistic and political and intellectual elites just declare that the country is united and done with the frivolous aspects of 1990s national politics. They’re talking exclusively about elite politics, just to be clear about this. This new national unity, this desire to be done with childish things and accept the responsibilities of history — this is how not even liberals, but conservatives, described American purpose after 9/11.
The Right, despite this declared national unity, immediately starts settling scores rhetorically. It starts apportioning blame for 9/11 to those who it sees as supporting and maintaining both the intellectual and bureaucratic infrastructure that prevented the United States from stopping 9/11 in the first place and will threaten the war on terror and so needs to be suppressed. By that, they mean nothing more profound than the rule of law — than the institutions, both cultural and political, that restrain the repression of declared internal enemies, and that stand in solidarity against violence and domination at home and abroad.
This score settling sets in early. The point of it is exactly the cancel-culture point of Susan Sontag’s experience. The point is to ensure the weakness of institutions that will restrain or prohibit the indefinite detentions, not just military, but immigration, outright torture, the renditions (which is to say the kidnapping of people by the CIA and its allies), the relentless air strikes, the outright invasions, and most certainly the police, FBI, and NSA surveillance that is to replace the Fourth Amendment.
Karl Rove says very early on in the war on terror, before the midterm elections of 2002, that the Republican Party ought to use the war on terror as a mechanism to ensure that it stays in power. Once the Democratic Party sees that happening, they want absolutely no part of resisting that. They understand that resisting that is a way to have those kinds of politics played against them. What are those politics? They’re certainly not something that the war on terror invents. They’re, in fact, a very familiar pattern of politics throughout the twentieth century and particularly after the Second World War: the politics of anti-communism.
You see a tremendous amount of zombie anti-communism in the political roles that the parties immediately adopt and sort of playact. On a different podcast, I said it was like Cold War anti-communism was a theater stage that had remained dressed and was not broken down. Elite political actors in both parties and in the security state run onto that stage and assume their old stage directions.
Not just by coincidence. You might think the end of the Cold War, which left the United States as the world’s sole superpower, would have made American elites feel pretty great and on top of the world. But instead the 1990s were full of foreboding and confusion, and definitely for natsec elites and politicians, there’s something comforting about once again having a big enemy that posed an existential threat.
Let’s turn to Iraq. When did the Bush administration begin planning to invade, and how did the media and so many Democrats end up going along with it?
This is a matter of great dispute, and it depends what you mean by planning. But suffice it to say that around 9/11, according to Dick Clarke — the White House counterterrorism czar left over from Bill Clinton’s administration, who had been pressing the Bush administration to do something about al-Qaeda, and the Bush administration never does — Bush turns to Clarke and says, “See if Saddam Hussein was involved.” Clarke, who testifies about this to the 9/11 Commission, says that he’s taken aback, and he’s like, “Look, al-Qaeda did this.” And Bush is like, “I know, but just see if there’s anything there.”
The weekend after 9/11, Bush assembled his national security team at Camp David. Among the items on the agenda, particularly brought up by Donald Rumsfeld is, do we attack Iraq now? The response that comes out of the meeting is, we’re going to table that for now. We’re not going to say no to that, but we’re not going to focus on that. Afghanistan is the first target of the war. But the conflation between al-Qaeda and the Taliban continues, and out of that atmosphere, the Bush administration is saying consistently, Afghanistan isn’t going to be the last thing that happens here. We’re going to do a lot more.
Throughout all of 2002, while the Bush administration denies that it’s doing anything, using euphemistic nondenials that everyone then understands means that this thing is real. Bush would be asked, “Are you going to attack Iraq?” And he would say things like, “I have no plans on my desk for that.” It’s this open secret that is discussed in the media and in particular on all the cable networks. MSNBC has Phil Donahue’s show, and Donahue is the only guy on cable news who openly dissents from an unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq. NBC throws him off the air.
While there was very little protest against the Afghanistan invasion — I was part of them as a freshman in college in Portland, Oregon, and they were small — ahead of the Iraq War, there were massive protests, including the largest single day of protests globally in world history.
And it meant nothing. This tells you everything about the war on terror and its antidemocratic characteristics: that the people of the world deliver a literally unprecedented mobilization against an act of aggression that they feel powerless to change through institutional redress, because they are powerless to change it through institutional redress.
Bush portrays his enthusiasm for dismissing all of this global outrage as not “governing by polling,” which he considers beneath contempt — aka democracy. It’s important to also bring into the conversation that George W. Bush is not an elected president by this point. This is also something very important that 9/11 does. It transforms George W. Bush from an unelected and presumptively illegitimate president who happened to have enough of the already-undemocratic rules behind electing a president break enough in his way, and then some in unexpected ways, like the Supreme Court deciding the 2000 election. All of that is washed away because now he is the great leader of the war on terror. And he intends to operate that way.
So all of this public outrage demanding that a war of aggression not be launched is dismissed as the unfortunate misguided elements of people who are not prepared to exercise the necessary moral clarity and go along with the order that the United States is unfortunately compelled by history to bring now to Baghdad. This tells you everything about how the war on terror conceives of its relations with the public. This tells you everything about how those who carry out the war on terror and those who apologize for the war on terror, those who defend and even expand the war on terror inside the halls of Congress, view their relationship with the public.
The aspects of the government that govern national security and foreign policy are exceptionally nonresponsive to the public. During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, those who ensured that would be the case portrayed that as a virtue.
Many Democrats, of course, voted for the Iraq War, even as wartime jingoism was quickly developing an ever-sharper partisan edge used by Republicans against any Democrat. You write, “Three politicians personified the Democratic acquiescence to the Iraq War senators: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden” — also known as three out of four of the next Democratic nominees for president. What did the vote for war from each of those Democratic senators reveal about the Democratic politics of the war on terror at the time?
The Vietnam War is one of the leading contributing factors to the destruction of the New Deal political coalition. And as this happens, the 1973 oil shock sets in, the Volcker Shock sets in, then austerity politics. Reaganism. The Democratic Party’s response to a lot of this is to shed its commitments to its labor constituency, become less of a working-class party and much more a middle-class and increasingly upper-middle-class cosmopolitan party.
Among the consequences of this is that elite Democrats understand foreign policy as only something that can hurt them through the application of Cold War politics, and then, also, that a proper alternative conception to be offered from the Democratic Party is one of more enlightened management of the American global military, geopolitical, and geoeconomic systems — that unlike these crazy Republicans and their theological conceptions of the Cold War, it’s the Democratic Party’s cadre of technocrats, educated, properly put into positions of wonkish authority at places like the State Department, then the Pentagon, and even sometimes the CIA, who are the appropriate stewards of this enterprise of American power.
John Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran who very bravely joins Vietnam Veterans Against the War and speaks with tremendous candor and power about the horrors of Vietnam and conceptualizes it in much broader, deeper trajectories of American foreign policy. He does this in such strident terms that he inspires the hatred of many revanchist Vietnam veterans who will ultimately fuel Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 election and lie and say that Kerry faked his Vietnam War wounds and, accordingly, should not have the respect that we show to troops and to veterans, particularly in the post-9/11 era.
Kerry and Biden, who were senators in 1990, voted against the first Gulf War. The first Gulf War is immediately seen as a major success. All the predictions that it will become another Vietnam are overtaken by events. It’s something like a ninety-day war. It ends with something that looks like a decisive conclusion. This is very much why Kerry and Biden come to view their votes against the war as deep political mistakes.
Let’s just take Biden for a moment, because he’s the current president. If you ever want to have a weird experience living, or reliving, a capital “M” moment in the war on terror, go to YouTube or go to CSPAN and pull up Biden’s floor speech. It’s about an hour long, from October 10, 2002, when he’s voting on the resolution to invade Iraq.
Biden does something a little bit different. Biden frames his vote for the war as a way of weakening the Bush administration neocons who he genuinely disdains. That’s wild. What he means by this is a reference to an open political secret that Colin Powell, secretary of state, is against the Paul Wolfowitz neocon faction and against their big patrons of the Bush administration, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for shaping the course of the Iraq War. Powell’s course is one that runs through the United Nations. And in theory — this would ultimately be a refuted theory — if Bush pursued a course through the United Nations of demanding more rigorous weapons inspection, all nations at the Security Council would vote for that as an alternative to war. That might actually resolve the crisis so an invasion is not necessary, because you could determine that Saddam Hussein is not armed.
Now all of that is a gigantic delusion. This is a war foretold. And what Powell really did was make the war possible for respectable people to embrace because it followed rules-of-process liberalism. So Biden in his speech is arguing not just for strengthening Powell’s approach but is actually gloating to neocons about how he has been having all of these great conversations with Bush and Condoleezza Rice and the neocons are marginalized.
When the war happens, Biden gives a bunch of speeches about how he’s worried about this or that concern, and it was wrong to mislead the public about weapons of mass destruction. But he is the most important elected Democrat when it comes to foreign policy, and he lines up behind this thing. Not only does he line up behind this thing, he finds it increasingly difficult to find the right position to reject it.
Biden runs a piece in the New Republic in which he says yes, this is going badly because the Bush administration is so incompetent. But no, we can’t leave. We have a real mission to achieve in Iraq. And the piece is entirely incoherent. Eventually this went so badly that Biden proposes partitioning Iraq. The United States has just invaded this country, absolutely destroyed it, privatized everything, used an unelected clique of mostly Iraqi exiles, and then, as resistance coalesces, engages in acts of routine barbarism, and Biden’s response is to call for the partition of the country. This has the amazing effect of uniting warring Iraqi civil war combatants — like, who the fuck do you think you are, having already invaded and occupied our country, decimated our daily lives, and now thinking you can redefine what the borders of this country are?
The Democrats totally don’t get the medium- or long-term politics of this at the time. All they can see is that there’s majority public support for the invasion at the time in 2003. They can’t see that that majority support is in part an artifact of the high-profile bipartisan support for the war, which includes the high-profile media support for the war. And they can’t, for the life of them, look around the bend to see what might be coming next.
Is there anything so painfully illustrative of the war on terror’s bipartisan hold on American politics and the way that Democrats just willingly, consistently, ceded the basic bedrock framing of American politics to Republicans’ advantage than John Kerry’s appearance at the 2004 DNC announcing that he was “reporting for duty”? What did the Kerry campaign and the Democrats think they were doing there, and what did they actually accomplish?
The Kerry campaign is such an artifact of 9/11 politics because, first, the viability of Kerry’s candidacy is predicated on two things. First, you can’t say John Kerry is an opponent of the war on terror. He voted for the Iraq War. You can’t. And guess what? John Kerry is a veteran. And he’s also the kind of combat veteran who came home and protested an unjust war. So you have great flexibility in how you can understand John Kerry’s political symbology and his relationship with an enterprise that the Democratic Party is mostly behind but has some reservations about.
The pitch of Kerry’s campaign is that the problem with the Iraq War and the war on terror is that George Bush directs it and Bush is a psycho and Bush is an idiot. To go through in a more fundamental sense about why they’re wrong would involve implicating activities the Democratic Party and its constituents eagerly go along with. So that can’t be done. And Kerry instead thinks that the rules of the war on terror are such that people like him get valorized.
Kerry, very early on, gets confronted with something that he doesn’t expect, which is widespread, very deep grassroots anger within the Democratic electorate about the Iraq War. Kerry quickly encounters that the energy and the zeal and the righteousness that exist on the Left are now aimed at him. And he tries playing war on terror politics against [antiwar candidate] Howard Dean.
Kerry finds for most of the winter of 2004 that he’s on the back foot and he can’t explain his votes for the Iraq War. The veneer of patriotic righteousness of the war is turning out to be a very brittle protection for him in this circumstance.
He loses the election. He doesn’t lose by much. He’s still running against Bush, but he loses the election. So ends that chapter of John Kerry’s political career, though not that chapter of Democratic acquiescence to the war on terror.
Nativists and Neocons
As the war went bad fast, a divide began to emerge and widen on the Right. I don’t think that divide at the time was evident to many outside the Right. You write, “The split between neoconservatives and nativists represented competing conceptions of American exceptionalism. Both were inclined to civilizational explanations for 9/11.” What, then, were these competing conceptions? And how and when did the war on terror’s balance of power on the political right begin to shift from neocons to nativist nationalists well before the prospect of a Trump presidency?
I think the best thing to do is to recognize that while nativism and neoconservatism are competing factions, they operate in an important symbiosis, particularly throughout the 9/11 era. Consider one of the quintessential neoconservative writers who achieves prominence as an oracle of the 9/11 era: Bernard Lewis of Princeton.
If you read Lewis in both the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and in the months that follow, he doesn’t publish in places like the Weekly Standard or National Review or Fox News or, you know, the warrens of conservative outposts. He publishes in the New Yorker. He publishes in the most respectable warrens of American opinion, and he’s treated very seriously in the explanation that he offers, which is the neoconservative explanation of 9/11. What’s happened is that a civilizational pathology, an anti-modern civilizational pathology, has taken hold within the Muslim world and especially the Arab world. It has been a pathology that is resistant to real political development.
Lewis will say as well that now, finally, the United States understands what the valiant spartan-like Israel experiences — of course, they will not recognize it as an apartheid system that America is invited to identify with, but more important, is expected not to question — that Israel’s war against Palestinians is America’s war on terror. That’s a very important contention.
Then Lewis talks about how we need to understand 9/11 as a humiliation. We need to understand that Bin Laden has talked endlessly about the United States as a paper tiger, that it only appears like the United States is the only remaining global hegemonic power. In fact, the United States is engaged in a campaign of misguided withdrawal from the Muslim world, from its responsibilities toward these benighted realms to project American power in order to make sure that these malignant elements within Muslim civilization, especially Arab civilization, don’t expand beyond their prescribed frontiers and threaten America. That’s what’s happened. We should understand 9/11 as a culmination proving liberals can’t be trusted to wield American power overseas.
In the course of saying this — this is immediately after 9/11, his first New Yorker piece after 9/11 — he talks not only about the sad inevitability of invading Iraq but also says that about Iran. From the start, we have civilizational pathology rather than specific historical and material explanations for al-Qaeda. We have an attribution of blame that goes far beyond al-Qaeda toward essentially mainstream Arab and Muslim political thoughts, structures, organization, and so forth. We have an incensed sensibility that because American exceptionalism has been violated, 9/11 represents America being acted upon, not acting in the world. The only thing to do is to prove Bin Laden wrong by violently reasserting, as if this had ever gone away, American power in these regions.
The nativist currents were saying the danger that’s expressed by 9/11 is a danger that highlights how these people are already in the country. They’re living in places like Maine. They’re living in places like Minnesota. Some nativist intellectuals like Pat Buchanan were, in fact, against the invasion of Iraq.
But the nativist critique and the neoconservative critique are identical in diagnosing pathology in foreign civilizations. They agree on all of this.
The neocons claim that they’re waging a war for Muslims, whereas the nativist and nationalists understand that it is a civilizational war against Muslims.
Except that the neoconservatives have this both ways because very often they will talk about the deep pathologies of the Muslim world that require — and this is Max Boot’s famous language — the enlightened self-interest that used to be performed by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets, while simultaneously arguing that ultimately this redounds to the benefits of the natives themselves. We’ll bomb you for your freedom.
It’s important to emphasize that however twisted and paternalist the neocons were, that they and the Bush administration really did aggressively frame the Iraq War and the entire war on terror as a beneficent civilizing mission. As you write, “Wolfowitz spoke in the Arab American community of Dearborn of Iraqis’ dream of a just and democratic society.” Admirers like Christopher Hitchens called Wolfowitz a revolutionary. For his part, Bush implied that opponents of the war believed that Arabs must not be civilized enough for democracy.
There was this tension between the obvious civilizational war taking place on the one hand and then Bush and the neocons’ insistence on framing it as a militarized act of paternal benevolence to liberate the Muslim world.
What’s key here is that the neocon and nativist nationalist conceptions are, on this formal level, hostile to one another. But the former empowers the latter, ultimately, which the neocons never understand.
Yeah. This is a symbiotic relationship, and what the neocons are doing, whether they realize it or not, is setting the proper battlefield conditions for the nativists and ultimately MAGA to triumph.
One of my favorite examples of this is shortly after Obama is elected president. Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol, and a particularly rabid 9/11 veteran and deeply Islamophobic person named Debra Burlingame start a political action committee called Keep America Safe. Who does America need to be kept safe from? America needs to be kept safe from, it is implying, Barack Obama — playing off the nativist meme of birtherism, which suggests that not only is Obama not a legitimate president because he is black, he is in fact an enemy of real legitimate Americans, because he is secretly a Muslim. And this is a time of war that, as Rudy Giuliani puts it, the terrorists war against us.
They run an ad, these respectable neoconservatives, that calls seven attorneys who go to work for the Justice Department in the Obama administration — and who had during the Bush administration represented clients in terrorism cases — the “al-Qaeda Seven. “
Everything that we see since in both Kristol and Cheney’s political careers needs to be understood as emerging from that soil, particularly today, as both of these people seek to portray themselves as the antithesis of Trump and MAGA rather than the precursor conditions for it.
Yeah, this bedrock belief that the US was doing a huge favor for the Arab world set up the right wing to blame Arabs and Muslims for the war’s failure and for this balance of power to shift from the neocons to the nativist nationalists. Because if the United States gave so much to the Muslim world, then the Muslim world, refusing our charity and meeting our beneficent offer to them with such violence, was just proving how horrible Muslims were.
One of the leading broadcasting warmongers of the war on terror, and the Iraq War in particular, was Tucker Carlson. Carlson, as much as he postures as an antiwar figure in his current nativist incarnation, not only pimped for the wars so hard on CNN, but later can only interpret the failure of the Iraq War as a failing of the Iraqi people and gives interviews that I quote in the book talking about how these are subhumans. They don’t even know how to wipe their asses. They can just shut the fuck up and obey as far as I’m concerned.
This is such a consistent pattern: that the war was glorious and the problem was with the people who lived in the place where the war was fought.
What also happens is that evangelical communities that had pushed very hard for the invasion of Iraq, and regarded it as a kind of a crusade, very quickly saw that efforts at missionary activities in Iraq were met with violent responses and were understood by Iraqis as the ultimate goal of the war. And Northern Iraq becomes a dangerous place for Christians to live.
The evangelical disillusionment with that enterprise is profound. It is also a factor in the turn away from the open Bush-era embrace of foreign military expeditions — but never with a diminution of hatred of Muslims and Islam. When you can’t get vengeance against such an enemy overseas, you can get vengeance on communities like Murfreesboro, Tennessee.