Because Americans generally failed to consider seriously why we had been attacked on 9/11, the Bush administration was able to respond in a way that made the situation far worse. I believed at the time and feel no differently five years later that we should have treated the attacks as crimes against the innocent, not as acts of war. We should have proceeded against al-Qaeda the same way we might have against organized crime. It would have been wise to call what were doing an "emergency," as the British did in fighting the Malay guerrillas in the 1950s, not a "war." The day after 9/11, simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times of London, insightfully wrote: "The message of yesterday's incident is that, for all its horror, it does not and must not be allowed to matter. It is a human disaster, an outrage, an atrocity, an unleashing of the madness of which the world will never be rid. But it is not politically significant. It does not tilt the balance of power one inch. It is not an act of war. America's leadership of the West is not diminished by it. The cause of democracy is not damaged, unless we choose to let it be damaged."
Had we followed Jenkin's advice we could have retained the cooperation and trust of our democratic allies, remained the aggrieved party of 9/11, built criminal cases that would have stood up in any court of law, and won the hearts and minds of populations al-Qaeda was trying to mobilize. We would have avoided entirely contravening the Geneva Conventions covering the treatment of prisoners of war and never have headed down the path of torturing people we picked up almost at random in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. government would have had no need to lie to its own citizens and the rest of the world about the nonexistent threat posed by Iraq or carry out a phony preventive war against that country.
Instead we undermined the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance and brought to power in Iraq allies of the fundamentalists in Iran. Contrary to what every strategist recommended as an effective response to terrorism, we launched our high-tech military against some of the poorest, weakest people on Earth. In Afghanistan, our aerial bombardment "bounced the rubble" we had helped create there by funding, arming, and advising the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s and gave "warlordism, banditry, and opium production a new lease on life." In Iraq our "shock and awe" assault invited comparison with the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols. In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, President Bush decalred that the coming battle was to be global, Manichean, and simple. Your are, he said, either "with us or against us" (failing to acknowledge that both Jesus and Lenin used the phrase first). His actions would ensure that, in the years to come, there would be ever more people around the world "against us."
As I watched these post-9/11 developments, it became apparent to me that, even more than in most past empires, a well-entrenched militarism lay at the heart of our imperial adventures. It is a sad fact that the United States no longer manufactures much--with the exception of weaponry. We are without question the world's greatest producer and exporter of arms and munitions on the planet. Although we are going deeply into debt doing so, each year we spend more on our armed forces than all other nations on Earth combined. In The Sorrows of Empire, I tried to analyze the nature of this militarism and to expose the harm it was doing, not only to others but to our own society and governmental system.
After all, we now station over half a million U.S. troops, spies, contractors, dependents, and others on more than 737 military bases spread around the world. These bases are located in more than 130 countries, many of them presided over by dictatorial regimes that have given their citizenry no say in the decision to let us in. The Pentagon publishes an inventory of the real estate it owns in its annual Base Structure Report, but its official account of between 737 and 860 overseas installations is incomplete, omitting all our espionage bases and a number of others that are secret or could be embarrassing to the United States. For example, it leaves out the air force base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union and today part of our attempt to roll back the influence of the Soviet Union's successor state, Russia, and to control crucial Caspian Sea oil. It even neglects to mention the three bases built in tiny Qatar over the past few years, the headquarters for our high command during the invasion of Iraq during 2003, so as not to embarrass the emir of that country, who invited in our "infidel" soldiers. This same kind of embarrassment to the government of Saudi Arabia, not to mention the public displeasure of the Saudi national Osama Bin Laden, forced us to move our forces out of that country and to Qatar in the years immediately preceding the assault on Iraq. (4-6)