“I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.” — That was Winston Churchill’s description of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s surrender to Hitler in the Munich Agreement of 1938.
Yet Churchill’s words also apply to where the United States is today.
Our men and women in uniform have been heroic.
Many have signed up to serve again even after being wounded.
Our tactical units remain the best in the world.
Our intelligence officers and diplomats have risked their lives in service to the country.
The problem is not with the sincerity, the courage, the energy or the effort of individual Americans.
The problem has been the approach of a bipartisan Washington political elite that has squandered 15 years, thousands of lives, many thousands wounded, and trillions of dollars with no coherent strategy, no honest assessment of the challenge, and no willingness to learn from failure and develop new strategies and new institutions.
Since September 11, 2001, we have moved from righteous anger and clarity of purpose against the forces of terrorism in the immediate aftermath of the attacks to now sending $1,700,000,000 in cash to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
We have watched our efforts in Iraq collapse while our efforts in Afghanistan decay.
We have seen the Middle East grow more violent, more chaotic, and more ungovernable despite 15 years of American and allied effort.
Fifteen years ago this week, terrorists killed 2,977 Americans in the worst surprise attack on our homeland since Pearl Harbor, 70 years earlier. In fact, 574 more Americans were killed on 9/11 than on December 7, 1941.
It was a huge, tragic, and deeply emotional shock. And yet the 9/11 attack was not the beginning of our war with Islamic supremacism.
By 2001, we had been at war with the Iranian dictatorship (still to this day listed by the State Department as the leading state sponsor of terrorism) for 32 years, when Iranians seized the American embassy in Tehran. Mark Bowden described the event appropriately in the title of his book, “Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam.”
From an American perspective, that war had continued in Lebanon in the 1980s and in Saudi Arabia, East Africa and Yemen in the 1990s.
In 2001, the terrorist war came to American soil with shocking results.
American anger was vivid and deep. President Bush reacted with powerful, clear, morally defining words.
In his address to the Joint Session of Congress, just nine days after the 9/11 attack, President Bush asserted “on September 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.”
President Bush described a huge goal. “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated,” he said.
President Bush described the scale of the challenge, saying, “Americans are asking: How will we fight and win this war? We will direct every resource at our command–every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war– to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.”
Bush went on to warn that “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have seen. …Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
President Bush wisely warned that “the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows.”
Four months later, in his 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush described North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “Axis of Evil”.
Bush warned that “the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” The Congress applauded.
And that was the high water mark of the response to 9/11.
Just this week, North Korea had its fifth nuclear test. Last week North Korea launched three missiles in direct violation of United Nations Resolutions.
We now know that while deceiving the Congress and the American people, the Obama Administration has sent $1,700,000,000 to what even the State Department says is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, the Iranian dictatorship.
Iraq, at great cost in American lives, wounds and money, has degenerated into a mess dominated by Iran and by ISIS.
How did we go from brave words to defeat, dishonesty, and humiliation?
Tragically, after heroic leadership in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (who can forget President Bush in New York standing next to the fireman and promising that the people who attacked New York would hear from all of us?) and after delivering exactly the right words to Congress, the Bush administration failed to plan for how big, how hard, and how long the fight with Islamic supremacists would be.
Almost immediately, the lawyers began imposing rules and regulations.
It was decided not to declare war even though President Bush had described 9/11 “as an act of war” in his congressional address.
The State Department began pushing back against an honest, clear statement of who was attacking us.
The Defense Department was very cautious about distorting the military establishment with an aggressive focus on learning how to defeat Islamic supremacists.
The initial Afghanistan campaign was brilliant, lean, decisive, and gave us an exaggerated sense of how powerful we were and how weak our enemies were. However, the campaign was understaffed and under resourced. We did not invest the military power to completely destroy the Taliban.
President Bush had warned that “you are with us or you are against us,” but the State Department rapidly began to offer an alternative in which you could be a little with us and a little against us.
Pakistan was with us in providing a logistics system to sustain our forces in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan was against us in providing an enormous sanctuary for the Taliban in the northwest region. Instead of thinking through the cost of a campaign to wipe out the Taliban sanctuary, we limped along in exactly the kind of indecisive guerrilla war we had waged in Vietnam. Today the Taliban has regained momentum and, the minute we leave, Afghanistan is likely to fall back into Islamist dictatorship.
Our efforts to create a modern Afghanistan were crippled by a State Department bureaucracy that was clearly unwilling to cut through red tape and learn to be effective. This pattern of systemic incompetence would be repeated in Iraq because the Bush Administration was simply unwilling to reform the State Department. Failure abroad was more acceptable than a bitter bureaucratic fight in Washington.
Once the Iraq campaign began, resources were drained from Afghanistan and the military was stretched almost to the breaking point. The unwillingness to build a genuine wartime military began to cost us lives and wounded warriors as we found ourselves unable to field and sustain the combat power that was needed. Jake Tapper’s book “The Outpost” details the tragic costs of an American military which is overextended and tries to accomplish more than it is resourced to achieve.
The Iraq campaign might have been a brilliant success if Ambassador Bremer had not changed the mission in mid-war.
The American military knew it could defeat Saddam Hussein very rapidly but it also knew that it then had to rebuild the Iraqi system and let Iraqis run their own country. It would have taken four times as many troops to actually occupy and police Iraq.
Bremer seemed to think he was supposed to profoundly change Iraq and he set about to do so with little coordination with the American military and little understanding of how deep the internal hatred and potential violence among Iraqis was.
Instead of a brief campaign Americans have been sucked into endless conflict.
As an example of the dishonesty in the title of this paper, it is simply a lie to say we don’t have boots on the ground in Iraq. At last count there were more than 4,400 American troops in Iraq, not counting temporary forces rotating in and out.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations have failed to define the scale of the threat, the determination of our enemies, and the very real dangers we face.
Since the bipartisan establishment can’t even define the threat, it certainly can’t define a strategy for success.
As our enemies grow stronger and smarter, we slide from defeat to humiliation.
As our enemies watch us accept humiliation, they grow bolder and more daring.
There is a remarkable parallelism to Iranian ships crowding our navy and Russian planes crowding our air force.
None of this is a surprise.
I have posted here a paper from 2002 and 2003 warning that we had lost our way.
We have eight weeks before an historic election.
We need a robust, courageous, and honest debate about where we are and what we need to do — 15 years after 9/11.
Newt Gingrich, a Republican, was speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. He is the author of the new novel “Duplicity” and co-author, with his wife Callista Gingrich, of “Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future” (Center Street, May 17, 2016).