Americans see the attacks on the United States through an American-centered eye. That is natural and understandable. But the whole existence of these groups comes out of turmoil in the Arab and Muslim world, wars of religion and wars about how Islam should adapt to the modern world. These debates have been wracking the Arab and Muslim world, at least since 1978, 1979. And these groups can only be understood as an outgrowth of that struggle, in which some of these extremist groups blamed the United States for the problems in their societies and therefore wanted to bring the United States into their fight. This was not a common view throughout the Muslim world.
Americans thought this was all about Islam versus America. In fact, it’s mainly a small group of Islamist extremists who are trying to overthrow their own governments at home and who blamed the United States for propping up those governments and who think they can achieve their goals by attacking us and by globalizing the struggle.
Also, it is a cultural way of symbolically demonstrating empowerment against what they regard as a dominating, globalized Western elite, led by the Americans.
What has happened then is that that struggle inside the Arab and Muslim world at the time of 9/11, when a few people were externalizing on us, has mostly returned home. So those struggles are mostly still going on all the way from Morocco to Indonesia, but those are mostly struggles that are occurring inside those countries. The United States has significantly insulated itself from those struggles now, partly because we are stronger, safer and wiser; and then as we rebuff these attacks, basically the problem comes back home. Some of it is spilling over into Europe.
Q. Should the United States get involved in these Middle East conflicts?
A. That question is partly separate from how to protect ourselves from international terrorist groups. It overlaps, but is partly separate. It really comes down to two questions, and the answers vary from country to country.
Do we care how the internal struggle turns out in a country – fill in the blank, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, the Philippines? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes other countries care a lot more about it than we do. Libya, for example – the United States is barely involved, but countries such as Turkey and countries across the Mediterranean and Europe care quite a lot about who wins the civil war in Libya.
If we do care who wins, do we think we can actually, meaningfully change the odds on the outcome? And if the answer to that is “yes,” it turns out most of the answers where we can change the odds don’t turn on traditional heavy military tools. Even where we can provide a little edge in an internal civil war using what looked like military instruments, even those instruments are often things such as intelligence, medical services, supplies of key equipment, certain kinds of very specific fire support. The notion that Washington needs to send tens of thousands of American soldiers into these places to help sort out their civil wars is substantially discredited.
The United States ended up being successful in helping defeat ISIS, mainly in eastern Syria, because we actually developed strategies in which we used fairly small packages of civil and military support to help empower an Arab and Kurdish side in that fight against another Arab side in that fight.
Whether we can have a net useful and constructive effect will vary from place to place. We are having a debate right now as to whether the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan really helps. I think a lot of Americans, including the Biden administration, have decided “not so much,” at least not so much with traditional military tools. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care who wins in Afghanistan; it just means we have decided that we care some, but we don’t view it as a vital interest of the United States, and we are also increasingly skeptical about the ability of the American military to decide the outcome of the Afghan civil war. And many Americans believe that there are other people in other countries closer to Afghanistan who will take more of an interest and will have more influence over the outcome of that civil war.
Q. What influence did the 9/11 report have on making the U.S. safer, stronger, and wiser?
A. I think the 9/11 report had its influence in a number of ways – some obvious, some not so obvious. It was a way for the country to take stock of what happened and make sense of a terrible trauma. This is an enormously healthy and constructive role. And it helps us come to terms with the trauma in a healthier way than all the alternatives. By coming to terms with the trauma, it helped us make sense of what the problem was, ways that problem could be bounded and understood and ways it could be approached.
A key recommendation emphasized the significance of not allowing violent Islamist groups to obtain large, uncontested sanctuaries around the world in which they could organize at will at the scale of thousands of operatives, training camps and all the rest. That is not a formal legislative recommendation; it was a way the commission tried to help people take stock and understand our strategy. That reinforced what the government was already thinking and solidified it. And that has been a fundamental approach in our strategy ever since. It has worked reasonably well.