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From 9/11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy

Author: Douglas Kellner
Publisher: Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003
Review Published: January 2007

 REVIEW 1: Robert Tynes

September 2006: A Taliban gunman shoots and kills the chief of the woman's affairs in Afghanistan. It is early morning. Four bullets and a pistol. The Afghan official, who focused on human rights, dies in the streets of Kandahar [1].

In the same month the governor of Paktia Province is assassinated. Then, at his funeral, seven people are killed, and another forty are injured by a suicide bomber attack. Elsewhere, in the Pashmul region, eighteen people are killed and sixty are wounded from three separate suicide bomber missions. Many of the victims are children. Four NATO soldiers die as well [2]. Meanwhile, somewhere out in the world Osama bin Laden remains at large, an almost enigmatic presence.

The US war on terror began five years ago. Douglas Kellner's book, From 9/11 to terror war: The dangers of the Bush legacy, sets the scene: "On Sunday, October 7, just short of one month after the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration unleashed a full-scale military assault on Afghanistan. The stated goal was purportedly to annihilate the bin Laden network and to destroy the Taliban regime."

Today, the Taliban regime no longer exists, except as a violent underground social movement. But al Qaeda is still a threat, and bin Laden is purportedly "out there" -- an almost enigmatic presence.

Douglas Kellner's book, From 9/11 to terror war: The dangers of the Bush legacy, is a detailed, critical history of the events just prior to and one year after the September 11th terrorist assaults in the United States. The author provides in-depth coverage of the war in Afghanistan, and at the same time outlines many of the key domestic happenings, specifically the Enron scandal and media coverage of the war. It is an excellent assemblage of American history -- an account of counterterrorism foreign policy initiated in south Asia -- that might have been easily forgotten. Many chapters of the book are essential for understanding how America decided to confront the new threat of international terrorism. Unfortunately, Kellner's baroque-like diatribes distract the reader from the facts, which are powerful enough on their own.

Kellner has several basic interrelated arguments. His most prominent claims are: the Bush administration's unilateral and militaristic reaction to international terrorism is "highly flawed and potentially disastrous in its short- and long-term effects" (2); the invasion and bombing of Afghanistan is creating more rather than less enemies; the Bush administration used the climate of fear post-9/11 to "push through a hard-right domestic agenda that constitutes a clear and present danger to U.S. democracy" (6); and finally, the U.S. is being led down a very dark path, "the road to an Orwellian future in which democracy and freedom will be in dire peril and the future of the human species will be in question" (7). These are strong claims, and the core position -- that the Bush administration's aggressive policies have been consistently wrong -- appears to be true. America has followed the dark path that winds through Afghanistan and ends up as a cul de sac called Iraq, a place where U.S. troops are wedged in the interstices of an intractable civil war.

Kellner's book was published in 2003, which means that his insights were predictions. Now, however, they are the reality. Things are worse. The war on terror is not "winning the hearts and minds" of the Muslim world. Good is not extinguishing evil. (In fact, evil has turned out to be much too elusive a foe.) And negative jihadist movements are bountiful. A recently declassified U.S. government report -- the National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism trends -- finds at least four reasons for the proliferation of the jihadist movement:
    (1) entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; (2) the Iraq "jihad;" (3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and (4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims -- all of which jihadists exploit [3].
According to the report, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have "disrupted the leadership" of al Qaeda; nonetheless, the movement is growing. Despite the portrayal by the Bush administration that the hunt for bin Laden would be swift and successful, a veritable jaunt through Afghanistan wherein the "evil" leader would be plucked from his cave, the U.S. military intervention was just a beginning, not the end. Kellner's historical tracing of the year after 9/11 is a portent of this negative course of events.

The theoretical support for Kellner's argument is the concept of blowback. A term invented by the CIA and then expanded on by Chalmers Johnson [4], blowback refers to the "unintended consequences of unwise policies" (Kellner, op cit, p. 30). For example, in the 1980s, U.S. covert operations in Afghanistan were supporting Islamic fundamentalists in an attempt to bring down the Soviet-backed government. Eventually, the Soviets left and a civil war ensued. But the U.S. did not stay to help build a strong government. Instead, the first Bush administration withdrew support. Finally, the Islamic fundamentalists took over. Enter the Taliban.

Osama bin Laden had also been a part of the drive to bring down the Soviet-backed government. Theoretically, he was on the same team as the U.S. during the 1980s. That changed in the 1990s though. U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia angered bin Laden and other fundamentalists. The American military was tromping on Islamic Holy Land, and U.S. officials ignored bin Laden's complaints. And in 2001, George W. Bush's administration gave the Taliban over $100 million in "humanitarian aid." This was the same regime that was hosting al Qaeda. Finally, on September 11, 2001, the constellation of fundamentalists and regimes and charismatic leaders turned round and round and then spun out of control, via several suicide terrorists in four commercial airlines down into American soil. That's blowback. And for Kellner, the subsequent invasion into Afghanistan, toppling of the Taliban, and chasing after bin Laden was yet another unwise policy that will create blowback.

The first post-9/11 campaign against terrorism was called "Operation Infinite Justice." It was to be U.S. troops chasing down bin Laden in Afghanistan. It was "our calling," said President Bush, "the time to draw the line in the sand against the evil doers" (quoted by Kellner, p. 76). But the hunt was more than just a trot on horseback in search of select prey. Rather, it turned out to include bombings of communities, civilian casualties, and a "devastating firestorm" over a village (78). These bombings continued for weeks, and the accuracy had not improved. Yes, some military targets had been destroyed, but so had a Red Cross and U.N. supply depot, and so had more civilians and their homes, and so had Afghan children. Even though the war had been billed as "just," the Muslim world was not seeing it as such.

Months later, after more and more bombings and battles, the Taliban regime fell. It was hailed as a U.S. military success. Images and proclamations filled the media: "Freedom for women. No more beards. And an open door for democracy." Bin Laden had disappeared, though, possibly escaping across the border into Pakistan, and the threat of terrorism still lingered.

Kellner portrays the Afghan war and subsequent military events as U.S. reactions to terrorism that, instead of dispelling the fear and threat, actually help lead the world, thanks to the leader, George W. Bush, into an era of New Barbarism. Anthrax appears in letters to Congress and the national media. Terrorists behead journalist Daniel Pearl and civilian contractor Nick Berg. The American military brings prisoners from Afghanistan into Guantanamo Bay, clothed in "blacked-out plastic goggles, turquoise face masks around their mouths and noses, knit hats pulled over their heads, ear cups to block out sound, mittens encompassing their hands, and shackles on their legs" (178). Attorney General John Ashcroft becomes an advocate of secret military tribunals.

At the same time, back home, America is economically scavenged by insider trading at Enron, Global Crossing, and ImClone. The Federal Treasury, according to Kellner, is pillaged, thanks to "tax breaks for the wealthy" and the "raiding" of Social Security and Medicare in order to pay for the rising federal deficit. Cronyism, a term often used to describe political systems in underdeveloped states, reaches a peak: "The basic practice of Bush politics is to receive money from contributors and return the favor with political deals and handouts." It's what Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) labels as "cash-and-carry government" (198-199).

The world and the nation are much worse off now; and, Kellner argues, the U.S. media is not helping. No longer the watchdog, the American press becomes more akin to propaganda. Fox news and Bill O'Reilly are the stars. CNN also steps in with patriotic flag collages plastered across the screen before reporting about the war. Negative images and information about civilian casualties in Afghanistan are self-censored off the TV screens. Assertive citizens have to look outside the US (to news venues such as the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, The Guardian, or the Independent) for a clearer picture of the realities of the Bush administration's war on terror. This is what Kellner does, and this is also where he finds much of his evidence for the downfall of American politics.

Overall, Kellner provides an exceptionally detailed synopsis of the war in Afghanistan. Anyone looking for the blow-by-blow of the invasion and bombings should consult From 9/11 to Terror War. The book also offers an important view of the multiple scenarios that intermingled during 2001-2002, from the bombing of caves in Tora Bora, to the tabloidization of American Taliban John Walker Lindh, to the prison uprising near Mazar-I-Sharif, to the public fall of Ken Lay. And don't forget the slips of tongue, such as when President Bush on October 4, 2001 finished a speech about fighting terrorism with, "And there is no doubt in my mind, not one doubt in my mind, that we will fail" (78). His wife, Laura Bush, makes an odd contribution as well. When she decided "to read a 'Curious George' story to second-graders in a Japanese school ... she noted that 'George is a monkey,' and when members of the entourage tittered, she explained that her husband was also named George" (227).

What muddles Kellner's critical history, however, is his use of histrionic descriptions and melodramatic comments. Interspersed between factual accounts are passages framing the Bush administration as "architects of an Orwellian future" (22). He calls the administration the "Bush Reich," the president is labeled the "Texas Fuhrer," and the attorney general is tagged as both the "Talibanesque John Ashcroft" and "Ayatollah Ashcroft" (22, 18, 102, 101, 136). These epithets, which are sprinkled throughout the book, detract from the power of the facts. The final chapter has a similar draining effect on the thesis as Kellner sums up his major points by attacking key players such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft by stating for each, "I accuse ... I accuse ... I accuse." The effect is too over-the-top, almost like a courtroom scene from Inherit the Wind.

Despite these critiques of Kellner's rhetorical style, From 9/11 to Terror War is a worthwhile documentation of an intense and complex year after 9/11. It reminds us that, unfortunately, not much progress has been made since that first invasion into South Asia. Fighting continues in Afghanistan, members of the Taliban set off bombs and execute suicide attacks quite often, and terrorist cells are growing. When asked recently if his country was better off, Afghan President Hamid Karzai skirted the question, saying, "Does Afghanistan need more resources? Yes" [5].

Is the U.S. better off? Both Kellner and I say, "No."

What does America need?

Probably more citizen awareness and individual engagement. Bush clearly seized his "window of opportunity" [6], enacting his own pre-determined preferences. It was a foreign policy ideology that had already been mapped out before 9/11 by the conservative collective People For a New American Century (PNAC). Assuming that the president's choices are right because they are his is a dangerous leap of faith. More critical analysis by the press and the citizens might have slowed down this tunnel-vision style of decision-making. Kellner's historical account will hopefully remind the country that civic debate needs to be increased during times of threat, not turned into follow the leader complacency.

What else does the U.S. need?

Something quite different ... and in a hurry.

  1. Gunmen Kill Afghan Official Who Backed Women's Rights, The New York Times, September 25, 2006.

  2. Day After Afghan Governor Is Killed, a Bomber Attacks His Funeral, The New York Times, September 12, 2006; Afghan Suicide Bombs Kill 18, Including 4 Canadian Soldiers, The New York Times, September 18, 2006.

  3. Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," dated April 2006. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the United States of America; Declassified portions of the document can be found at: http://www.dni.gov.

  4. Chalmers Johnson, (2000). Blowback: The costs and consequences of American empire. New York: Henry Holt.

  5. Karzai questions whether pact will reduce terrorism. CNN.com, September 24, 2006.

  6. John Kingdon, (1984). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Boston: Little, Brown.

Robert Tynes:
Robert Tynes in the PhD program for political science at the University at Albany (SUNY).  <rt873361@albany.edu>

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