Rice's testimony before the 9/11 commission didn't resolve questions about
what the Bush administration could, or should, have done to prevent the
attack, but her comments made it clear how Bush policies since 9/11 have
made Americans radically less safe.
While Republicans and mainstream Democrats argue over what Bush and Clinton officials did or didn't do, the conventional wisdom - that Bush officials may have dragged their feet before 9/11 but have since acted decisively to protect Americans - goes unchallenged.
But the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has done virtually nothing to prevent future terrorist attacks, and the Iraq war has boosted recruitment efforts of groups such as al-Qaeda.
The Afghanistan war typically is treated as a victory, though it's not clear why. By June 2002, classified FBI and CIA investigations concluded that the war failed to diminish the al-Qaeda threat and may have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers. Indeed, after the war a variety of radical Islamic groups around the world came together, aided in part by al-Qaeda members who had fled Afghanistan.
The invasion of Iraq, which never had anything to do with fighting terrorism, has provided fresh examples of U.S. brutality for al-Qaeda recruiters. As Rice was testifying on Thursday, the death toll from the U.S. attack on Fallujah rose to 300, doctors begged the United States to lift the siege, and news that the U.S. military bombed a mosque circulated around the Arab and Muslim world.
Virtually everywhere outside the United States, people understand the Iraq war was not about liberation of the Iraqi people (claims about weapons of mass destruction, if they ever were taken seriously elsewhere, evaporated long ago) but about extending and deepening U.S. dominance in the Middle East. While the majority in the Muslim world do not support terrorism (by groups or nations), U.S. policy - and the ugly way it is carried out - creates conditions for support or toleration of groups such as al-Qaeda.
Yet, instead of acknowledging this wide, deep resistance to U.S. policy, Rice on Thursday repeated the absurd claim that America was targeted "because of who we are - no other reason, but for who we are." Rice seemed to think she was boosting Bush's standing by repeatedly emphasizing that he is now on a "war footing" in this so-called "war on terrorism."
In the world's overwhelming superpower, U.S. policymakers talk easily of war; no nation or group can challenge the United States on conventional military terms. Yet so long as the United States shows contempt for international law, international institutions, and the views of the rest of the world, that military dominance is also a weakness. It inevitably leads to asymmetrical tactics; if military targets are too strong, opponents will hit "soft targets." In the end, no administration can protect us from all attacks under such conditions.
To acknowledge that reality is not to justify terrorism but to realize that if U.S. foreign policy doesn't change dramatically, more terrorist attacks are inevitable. Ironically, Rice talked of that inevitability when she told commissioners that "there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks." Echoing Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address ("... and the war came"), she said, "So the attacks came."
The roots of those attacks were in the indefensible policies of previous administrations that sought dominance over the region with the largest, most accessible reserves of the most strategically important commodity in the world. Significant policy changes that the United States should pursue on both moral and pragmatic grounds - withdrawing all military forces from the Middle East and ending reflexive support for the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine - would lessen the threat immediately.
Rice told the commission "the war on terrorism has... given us an organizing principle that allows us to think about terrorism." That's true, but it's the wrong organizing principle that leads us to think in the wrong way. And the cost of those mistakes will continue to be borne by innocents, around the world and in the United States.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Articles by Robert Jensen