Are There Lessons for Israel From America’s Response to 9/11?

If you compare the massacres carried out by Hamas in Israel with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as many observers have in recent days, you are offering Israel a tacit warning: Don’t repeat the kind of blunders that pervaded American policymaking after the trauma of Sept. 11.

That kind of admonition is easy to offer as a generalization, in the way I’ve recently offered it myself. Who, after all, is in favor of repeating blunders? But it’s harder to get specific about the lessons from the American experience that Israel should take to heart.

The United States arguably fought four wars after Sept. 11: A regime change operation in Afghanistan aimed at both Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban enablers; a global campaign to disrupt and destroy Al Qaeda; a war in Iraq aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein and (in its more expansive moments) planting a democracy in the heart of the Middle East; and finally, a war against the Islamic State that emerged out of the wreckage of our Iraq policies.

None of these experiences exactly resemble the challenge Israel faces with Hamas and Gaza; each of them yielded different outcomes, different problems, lessons that vary with the circumstances.

Some lessons probably don’t apply to the current moment at all — particularly the elements of American folly that reflected our universalist overconfidence hyped up by our unique post-Cold War position as a globe-bestriding superpower. In 2003, we imagined ourselves capable of remaking the Middle East, or indeed the world, on a scale that today’s Israel, a small country set about with enemies, is extremely unlikely to envision.

Other lessons do apply, but not in any simple way. For instance, one basic lesson you could take from America’s post-9/11 disasters is the importance of restraint in moments of maximal emotional trauma, of thinking it through and counting the cost rather than just obeying a do-something imperative.

Among all the various factors that led us into Iraq, one shouldn’t underestimate the impulse that we just hadn’t done something big enough in response to the terror attacks, that the Afghanistan intervention alone wasn’t enough to satisfy our righteous rage or prove our dominance. And you can see this as a temptation for the Israelis now, with the horror so fresh — an impulse to reject anything that smacks of half-measures or limitations, to wave away the risks of civilian casualties or regional chaos, to treat any hesitation as a form of cowardice.

But not every aggressive path America took after 9/11 looks mistaken in hindsight. The long-term debacle of our Afghanistan occupation doesn’t make our initial decision to topple the Taliban unwise. The moral failures of our interrogation program doesn’t mean that we were wrong to take a generally aggressive posture toward Al Qaeda and its satellites. Setting out to destroy the Islamic State’s caliphate rather than seeking stable coexistence was a correct and successful call.

In each of these cases, the achievement of something relatively basic — preventing terrorist groups from existing in the kind of comfort required to pull off another Sept. 119 — required much more maximalist strategies than, say, the Clinton administration undertook in the 1990s. Reportedly that kind of cruise-missile minimalism is what Bin Laden expected from America after Sept. 11 as well. And not only was it a good thing we didn’t give to him, we couldn’t really have avoided escalation: A restraint that allowed for frequent repetitions of Al Qaeda’s 2001 triumph — for mass-casualty terror as a consistent fact of American life — would have been politically untenable and would have eventually yielded an even more disproportionate response.

A similar logic applies to Israel’s response today. You can’t have a strategy that seems to privilege caution over the goal of making it functionally impossible for Hamas to conduct operations on this scale again, because to ask a democratic electorate to accept repetitions of these massacres — which by themselves may be enough to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s long years of power — is to to potentially sign your political death warrant while guarantee escalations down the road.

That doesn’t mean you need to send 300,000 soldiers into Gaza tomorrow. But as we’ve seen in just the last few days, it’s not as if a strategy of airstrikes doesn’t carry sustained moral and strategic risks, and offer Hamas ample propaganda opportunities regardless of whether any given horror is actually Israel’s fault. And if there is a longer-term option other than invasion, it has to account for these risks while promising success comparable to what the Bush administration did achieve — again, amid all its failures — after Sept. 11, in terms of dismantling Al Qaeda and forestalling organized mass-casualty attacks, and what the Obama and Trump administrations achieved in their destruction of the Islamic State.

Then if invasion is your only option, America’s post-9/11 experience also counsels for a certain degree of maximalism in the numbers committed and the plans for occupation. We were wrong to invade Iraq but once the die was cast, we would have been better off invading with a larger army than the lighter footprint that we initially chose, and we were able to salvage only a modicum of stability from the disaster because Bush added more troops when most of his wartime critics were against it. The supposed Napoleonic admonition, “If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna,” applies to Gaza as much as it did to post-Saddam Iraq; if you must invade and occupy, make sure you’re prepared for a true occupation, as Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon conspicuously was not.

Of course the core reason Rumsfeld preferred a light-footprint strategy that he didn’t want responsibility for actually governing Iraq. And that points to the inescapable challenge for the Israelis now: Demolishing Hamas’s terrorist capacities, with or without a full invasion, requires demolishing their capacity to rule in Gaza, and someone has to rule in Gaza.

We struggled in Iraq and failed in Afghanistan because we couldn’t easily stand up a legitimate successor regime. Conversely, we were able to demolish the Islamic State because at that point we had regional allies willing and able to govern Mosul and Raqqa.

Someone has to rule, period: We’ll let that stand as a final post-9/11 lesson, and the dilemma for which Israel’s Gaza policy has no clear answer yet.

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