As the nation marked Sunday’s 10th anniversary of 9/11, these terrorist attacks have assumed a place in American history as the 21st century equivalent of the Pearl Harbor attack two generations earlier.
It’s an event that millions of Americans will recall forever and recount to their children and grandchildren.
Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 involved a dangerous adversary traumatizing the nation by striking unexpectedly, instantly transforming the nation’s focus from home to abroad and leaving significant lasting consequences. President George W. Bush often likened his role as a wartime president fighting terrorism to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in World War II.
In both cases, some were asleep at the switch. After Pearl Harbor, two top U.S. military commanders in Hawaii were fired, though supporters said they were scapegoats for superiors’ failures. Before 9/11, neither Bush nor his top advisers reacted to a national security briefing suggesting a threat of an al-Qaeda terrorist attack, possibly with hijacked planes.
In a recent National Geographic television interview, Bush said that, in the hours after the attack, “I thought about, ’Why didn’t we know this?”’ He concluded he’d rather bring those responsible “to justice” as opposed to looking back and pointing fingers. Subsequent investigations cited intelligence failures by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, especially within the FBI and CIA.
In the longer run, how the horrific events happened seems less important than how our leaders reacted.
And from a decade’s perspective, the United States, while probably safer, seems economically and politically weaker at home and abroad, in contrast to the way it stood militarily and economically triumphant 10 years after Pearl Harbor.
To be sure, managing World War II and its aftermath was easier, since it was a classic fight against nations and their leaders. The war on terror, despite some successes, and the attendant consequences remain more complex.
Here are some areas in which comparisons suggest the United States and its leaders managed the post-Pearl Harbor world more effectively than the post-9/11 world:
Pearl Harbor prompted a total national mobilization to defeat the aggressors. “Dr. Win-the-War,” Roosevelt said, replaced “Dr. New Deal.” Though Bush invoked national unity, he never sought any national sacrifice. Taxes were cut, not increased, and the military bore the principal burden, physically and psychologically.
Economically, World War II mobilization ended years of post-Depression unemployment, laying the basis for future economic success by modernizing the American industrial plant. Bush financed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by withholding costs from regular budgets and borrowing billions, contributing to a budget deficit that exploded 85 percent during his presidency.
Politically, Roosevelt united the country behind the war’s goals, enlisting top Republicans such as Henry Stimson and 1940 opponent Wendell Willkie, though the parties kept fighting over other issues.
After initial unity and significant bipartisan support for attacking Iraq, Bush used the war on terror as a political tool, accusing Democratic opponents of weakness. His support faded as the two wars dragged on and evidence emerged that he had misstated the Iraqi threat.
Militarily, Roosevelt kept the focus on defeating Hitler’s Germany before Japan, achieving a total victory that destroyed the aggressors and left the United States as the world’s main power.
Bush switched focus prematurely to Iraq from Afghanistan, despite lacking evidence of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9/11. His administration botched the post-military conquest of Iraq, leaving an over-stretched military still struggling to win in Afghanistan and extricate itself from Iraq.
A decade after Pearl Harbor, the United States stood supreme, despite the tensions of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and a shooting conflict in Korea. The country was stronger militarily, economically and strategically than before.
That is not true today. While experts generally believe the United States is less vulnerable to terrorism, the nation’s global position as a whole has weakened in the decade since 9/11.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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