The Nation That Fell To Earth

Did the U.S. overreact to Sept. 11? Niall Ferguson, one of the world's leading historians, speculates on how future generations will judge the war on terrorism--and on what it will take for America to win it


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    The result was that by the time of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military was distinctly overstretched. To maintain manpower levels, the Army was forced to increase its maximum enlistment age from 35 to 42. The Commander in Chief insisted that the U.S. would not withdraw from Iraq until its mission--the establishment of a stable democracy--was completed. But it seemed increasingly likely that when Americans finally went home, there would be no Iraq left to withdraw from--just three warring mini-states. As they bade farewell to the Green Zone, some Americans remembered the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, a generation earlier, which had sounded the death knell for South Vietnam.

    Iraq's disintegration was the harbinger of a wider regional meltdown. The irony was that terrorism thrived more readily in the new Middle Eastern democracies than in the bad old dictatorships. It was no coincidence that, outside Iraq, the terrorist organizations causing the most trouble in the region were operating out of southern Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. In all those places, elections had been held. Yet those who won them--Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied territories--were historically terrorist organizations.

    Worse, by breaking up Iraq, the U.S. had unwittingly handed a belated victory in the earlier Iran-Iraq war to the fundamentalist regime in Tehran. No state stood to gain more from democracy in Iraq, since the country's Shi'ite majority felt close ties of kinship to Iran. And no state in the region was more explicitly committed to the destruction of America's ally Israel.

    The decision of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to press ahead with Iran's secret nuclear-weapons program confronted the U.S. with an agonizing strategic dilemma. Iran made no secret of the fact that it was supplying Hizballah with the missiles that rained down on Israel in the summer of 2006. Iran was also hell-bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Yet the essentially unilateral action that had been used against Iraq in 2003 was no longer possible against Iran. A U.S. Administration that had once confidently bypassed the U.N. found it had no option but to turn to the U.N. Security Council in the hope that international pressure could disarm Hizballah and keep Iran from going nuclear. The colossus that once bestrode the globe seemed to be stuck in the Middle Eastern sands--and unable to prevent the seemingly inevitable confrontation between Iran and Israel.


    In the Bush Administration's final years, its reputation touched bottom. Many Americans complained that they had the wrong President. For a time, Bush's approval ratings sank below Richard Nixon's and Jimmy Carter's worst.

    Yet history has been a kinder judge of Bush's presidency. Although many analysts had predicted that terrorists would strike again on U.S. soil within five years, there was no sequel to 9/11 on Bush's watch. It was just his bad luck that success in counterterrorism grabbed few headlines, since plots stifled at conception are nonevents in news terms. Moreover, the key point of his national-security strategy turned out to be correct. It was just that pre-emption had been used against Iraq when it should have been saved for Iran.

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