The War on Terror, Five Years Later

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, two keen analysts of U.S. foreign policy offer their observations on the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski and international scholar Fouad Ajami speak with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

As the September 11th anniversary approaches, the debate over the nation's response to the attacks is taking new turns.

This week, President Bush acknowledged that 9/11 terror suspects had been held in secret CIA prisons and he asked Congress to give him the legal framework to put the men on trial. But even some congressional Republicans don't share his vision for those trials. They want greater protections for defendants.

And yesterday the Senate Intelligence Committee de-classified a report that calls into question the White House's claim of a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

Today we consider how the administration has waged its war on terror with two scholars, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Fouad Ajami. We begin with Mr. Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor. I asked if he agrees with the president that the U.S. is fighting the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.

Mr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Former National Security Advisor): I think it's an absolutely absurd formulation. We're dealing with a bunch of fanatics. We're dealing with some truly fundamentalist haters of the West. We're dealing with some outraged ethnic and nationalist feelings. But to elevate this into a global ideological collision indirectly somehow reminiscent of the 20th century struggle with Nazis and/or Communism is an absurdity which either reflects profound ignorance or a totally manipulative desire to use public anxiety for political purposes.

ELLIOTT: Well, let's listen to a little bit of President Bush's speech last week, where he attempted to define the enemy in those terms you used.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: They're successors to fascists, to Nazis, to Communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century. And history shows what the outcome will be.

ELLIOTT: Are we in a clash of civilizations?

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: No, I don't think so. I think there's a risk if the president continues on this course of action that we could slide into one. He has isolated America in the world. Look at public opinion polls around the world. Look at what people think of the United States today. People think that the United States is the most dangerous country in the world, and American public opinion increasingly disavows this kind of demagogic, Manichaean, alarmist, exaggerated and ultimately ignorant demagogy.

ELLIOTT: Now, is it exaggerated when you think in terms of 9/11? This was the first time of that kind of an attack on U.S. soil and the United States people expected the president to respond and to fight back.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Yes, and we did in Afghanistan, and the country supported it and the world supported it. But the president then has chosen to undertake a war of choice in Iraq, which he has mishandled badly, and because he has mishandled it badly, he now elevates it into some sort of a titanic struggle with a phantom.

The fact of the matter is, when he talks about Nazis or fascists or Communists, we were dealing with really existing threats of massive proportions. I was responsible to the president for helping to coordinate our national security and I can tell you without revealing any secrets that if we had had a war with the Soviet Union, in 24 hours about 150 million people would have been dead.

Let me just repeat that. Within a few hours, 150 million people would have been dead.

We face a problem. 9/11 was a horrible crime. It has not been repeated. Not a single American has died from a terrorist attack in America since five years. And even if there is a terrorist attack again in the foreseeable future, it will be miniscule compared to what we faced during the Cold War.

ELLIOTT: Now, President Bush points to that as a sign of success, that his policies have resulted in not another attack on the homeland.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: I fail to see what the attack on Iraq has to do with the so-called success back home. I think the fact that there hasn't been an attack is ascribable probably to two explanations. One, we were able to develop a great deal of international cooperation of a police type against the criminals that might have been plotting additional attacks, though we have not identified a single major plot against the United States.

And secondly, I think it's equally likely that the al-Qaida phenomenon has been vastly exaggerated by the administration. This was a much more primitive, not-so-well organized group which we disrupted in any case. And its capacity to stage 9/11 type attacks probably was not all that great in the first place.

ELLIOTT: Looking back five years after 9/11, or I guess now that we are five years after 9/11, do you believe that the U.S. is in a struggle that it can win?

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: I think the United States is getting itself involved in a deeper and deeper conflict which it fundamentally misunderstands, and if it persists in the policies in which it has embarked, and worse, if it widens the scale of that conflict in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf region, then I do not see how the United States will win.

On the contrary, I think we're going to get stuck in quicksand. It's going to be increasingly destructive of our resources, our abilities, our standing in the world, our view as a moral and decent democracy.

ELLIOTT: Zbigniew Brzezinski was the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter. He is currently a counselor and trustee at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: You're very welcome.

ELLIOTT: We hear now from another scholar: Fouad Ajami. He's with the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and has advised the White House on Iraq and the wider Arab world.

Professor Ajami, we were just speaking with Zbigniew Brzezinski, who said that the U.S. is getting deeper and deeper into a conflict which it, quote, fundamentally misunderstands.

Do you think the Bush administration correctly identified the enemy?

Professor FOUAD AJAMI (Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies): Well, first of all, it would stand to reason that Zbigniew Brzezinski would say so, and I think Mr. Brzezinski should know something about getting lost in the alleyways of the Middle East. He was lost himself in 1979 in the storm of the Iranian revolution.

We are caught in a very difficult Arab and Muslim world. There is no doubt. We waged two wars in the aftermath of 9/11. One was the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and then one was the war against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And these two wars, I think, are connected.

This is a very difficult and very impenetrable world for America. We are not an imperial power, but we were called upon to do imperial duty. We don't know the Arabs. We don't know Islam. We don't have the languages. We don't have the preparation. But here we are.

ELLIOTT: You say the two wars are connected.

Prof. AJAMI: Yes.

ELLIOTT: The Bush administration has portrayed them both as part of the wider war on terror. Do you think that that's the case?

Prof. AJAMI: I'll draw the connection for you. It may not satisfy everyone, but the connection is that Saddam drew the short straw after 9/11. The Bush administration looked at the region and it understood that the terrorists of 9/11 came out of Arab lands, that in fact Afghanistan was this place of convenience, this place that the Arabs jihadists had rented, if you will, from the Taliban. So we overthrew the Taliban, and then we looked around and thought, where should we go next? What do we do? We had a choice.

We could go after Saddam Hussein in order to strike at Arab terror, or we could take up our account with the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which gave us the terrorists of 9/11.

So the choice was, either we go at these regimes allied with us, or we try to find way into the Arab world, into the Arab psyche, into the force of Arab radicalism. And Saddam was the man we chose.

ELLIOTT: But it was not Iraqi Arabs that were funding these.

Mr. AJAMI: You're exactly right. They were not Iraqis because Saddam had taken Iraqis out of the mainstream of Arab life. He had constructed this big penal colony. He was a warden. He was not a leader. So they were not Iraqis, you're exactly right. The people who manned al-Qaida came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They came from all walks of Arab life, and there was a feeling of - the Arab have a good expression, shamata. There was a feeling of gloating. There was a feeling of schadenfreude among the Arabs as to what befell America on 9/11.

And I think now Arabs have now begun to understand the consequences to themselves of that kind of radicalism that played havoc with the Arab world.

ELLIOTT: There are people who think that the U.S. presence in the Middle East, the foreign policy in the Middle East, the war in Iraq, that these things are just fueling hatred for America and making it a more likely target after 9/11.

Mr. AJAMI: Well, I think the hatred for America preceded the Iraq War. To be fair, go back to the '90s and think what was being said about America and what was being done to America. And these terrorists of 9/11, September 11, it happened, as we know, on George W. Bush's watch. But the preparation for it, the ground for it was prepared long before.

It had to do with the malignancies of the Arab world, the flight from modernism, the crisis of young people disconnected from reality, the anger against regimes that - these Islamists hated these regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan and so on, but could not overthrow. So America was caught in the crossfire and this civil war between the Arab autocrats on the one side and the radicals on the other.

ELLIOTT: Do you agree with President Bush that the U.S. is now engaged in a struggle with Islamic fascists that can be compared in scale to the struggle against, say, Nazism or Communism?

Mr. AJAMI: There's no country in the Islamic world which has the industrial power of Germany. It's a different kind of war. It's a twilight war. It's something between war and peace. It's a war without frontlines. It's a war without places that you can capture, regimes you can sack. The fight against Hitler and Mussolini was a very precise war. This is a very different kind of war. It's a civilizational struggle and it takes many shapes and many forms.

ELLIOTT: Fouad Ajami's new book is The Foreigner's Gift, about the war in Iraq.

Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. AJAMI: Thank you, Debbie. Thank you very much for having me.

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