from The Water's Edge

Friday File: Remembering 9/11


New York Fire Department Battalion Commander Tom Currao raises a flag outside the World Trade Center construction site at the 9/11 Memorial Visitors Center in New York September 9, 2011. The flag, which flew overseas during Operation Enduring Freedom, was accepted by museum curators into their collection. National and city leaders will commemorate on Sunday the ten-year anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 with a ceremony unveiling a memorial and museum. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
New York City Fire Department Battalion Commander Tom Currao raises a flag outside the World Trade Center construction site at the 9/11 Memorial Visitors Center in New York on September 9, 2011. (Brian Snyder/courtesy Reuters)


Above the Fold. Hindsight is 20-20. So looking back at the decade since 9/11 it is easy to identify grave mistakes of U.S. statecraft: Neglecting political reconstruction in Afghanistan. Invading Iraq. Failing to prepare adequately for what would follow Saddam Hussein. Abu Ghraib and waterboarding. Exaggerating what military force could achieve while squandering our soft power. Not understanding that not everyone sees us as we see ourselves. Letting terrorism crowd out other critical foreign policy priorities. A lot of ink will be spilled this weekend debating whether what we got wrong over the past ten years outweighs the benefits of what we got right. The historians can have that question, not that they will ever agree on the answer. In any event, real life doesn’t allow for do-overs. We are stuck with the mistakes we make. The more important question is whether we can learn from those mistakes and make smarter choices going forward. On that score, I draw three lessons from the past decade: It is easier to break societies and governments than to build them. It is good to hope for the best, but better to plan for the worst. And, subject every claim and policy recommendation to skeptical (but not cynical) review.

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Defense and Security


CFR Event of the Week. The New York Times editorial page argued earlier this week that many tasks lie ahead for U.S. forces, diplomats, and aid workers before the Afghan army takes full responsibility for security within the country in 2014. One of the obstacles facing the United States and its allies is reconciling the Afghan government and Taliban fighters. CFR convened a meeting this week to discuss that challenge with James Dobbins and James Shinn, who co-authored a primer on the topic, and Frank Wisner. You can read the transcript of their discussion or listen to the audio.

Read of the Week. Did the United States overreact to 9/11? The Wall Street Journal posed that question to seven foreign policy experts. Their answers, not surprisingly, are all over the map. But their very diversity attests to the fact that at least in the commentariat the lessons to be learned from the last decade remain very much open to debate.

Blog Post of the Week. CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance Program just unveiled a new Global Governance Monitor on Terrorism. The multimedia package includes a short video explaining the challenges that terrorism presents, a graphic timeline tracing the long history of terrorism, and an interactive map detailing flashpoints in the fight against terrorism. For diehard policy wonks there is an issue brief that summarizes the state of multilateral efforts to prevent and respond to terrorism, as well as a matrix that catalogues the international agreements, institutions, and organizations that deal with terrorism.

Poll Question of the Week. How worried are Americans that a terrorist attack on the United States is likely in the next several weeks? Before the news broke last night of a “credible but unconfirmed” terrorist threat, the answer was not very. Gallup found in a mid-August poll that only 38 percent of Americans thought that a terrorist attack was very likely or somewhat likely. That’s well below the high of 85 percent recorded shortly after 9/11. Overall, the public’s fears of terrorist attacks have gone up and down over the last decade in response to events in the news. Slightly more than six in ten Americans worried about a terrorist attack right after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Chart of the Week. There has (thankfully) been no large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, and the number of American civilians who have died worldwide in terrorist attacks remains small. But as the chart compiled by the Economist and reprinted below shows, terrorism deaths worldwide remain stunningly high. More than 7,000 people died in terrorist attacks around the world in 2010, and that number was actually down from a high of nearly 13,000 in 2007. The spike in terrorism deaths in the middle of the decade reflects the insurgency that developed in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Sixty percent of the terrorism fatalities recorded in 2007 occurred in Iraq. So the “war on terrorism” is a long way from being won.

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Defense and Security


Chart source: The Economist.

Too Good Not to Note. The New York Times looks at the costs and consequences of 9/11. The New York Times Magazine has a photographic retrospective of 9/11 and its aftermath. The Washington Post examines the age of 9/11. Time features the testimonies of forty men and women who were in the news over the last decade. Fareed Zakaria reflects on 9/11 and its aftermath. Michael Mandelbaum argues that Americans need to recapture the spirit of September 12 and harness it to meet the great challenges they face. John Mueller and Mark Stewart want the federal government to subject counterterrorism spending to cost-benefit analysis, think that experts massively overestimate the risk of terrorism, and that few homeland security measures justify their cost. Jeremy Stahl examines where 9/11 conspiracies came from, why they made it into the mainstream, how “truthers” respond when their claims are challenged, and what happens when truthers change their minds. Fred Kaplan credits the U.S. military with adapting well to the post-9/11 world.

Perils of Prediction. “The greatest risk [of terrorist attack] is clear: if you are drilling for oil in Colombia—or in nations like Ecuador, Nigeria or Indonesia—you should take appropriate precautions; otherwise Americans have little to fear.” Larry C. Johnson, “The Declining Terrorist Threat,” New York Times, July 10, 2001. Two months and one day after Johnson, a former deputy director in the State Department Office of Counterterrorism, penned his op-ed, nearly three thousand people died in the worst terrorist attack in history.

Quote to Ponder. “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” The statement the Irish Republican Army issued after narrowly missing in its attempt to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England in October 1984.

A Reason to Smile. Human resilience in the face of tragedy.