The Washington Times

We are all Americans, “Nous sommestous Americains,” was the headline in France’s Le Monde five years ago today, as the world began to take stock of the shocking attack the day before. The sense of solidarity, with scores of thousands of people turning up at U.S. embassies around the world to express sympathy, was undeniably a comfort in a time of great distress.  It was also short-lived and in fact fully dissipated by the halfway point between then and now, over Iraq. Some have suggested that the solidarity expressed then was something the United States could have sustained over the long haul and therefore should have worked overtime to achieve, for the benefit of an international environment more trusting of U.S. actions and motives.    

Yet the ephemerality of the sense of solidarity, to me, seems more an indication of its artificiality than of squandered sustainability. The United States, in the post-September 11 world, would be going places where few would be able to follow even if they were inclined to do so, starting with Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan was a quick success in terms of ousting the Taliban government and scattering al Qaeda to the four winds, people tend to forget the “graveyard of empires” analysis that swirled around the notion of dispatching the U.S. military to undertake “regime change” there. People also tend to forget the early reports of a bogged-down operation.     

All in all, the United States adopted almost immediately the post-September 11 intention of upsetting applecarts around the world on an as-needed basis in order to deal with the threat of stateless terrorists. An essential element of this was the decision to hold governments accountable for aiding and abetting. I don’t know if that’s a decision any U.S. administration at all, Republican or Democrat, would have reached in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Democrats don’t have much trouble assuring us (including themselves) that they, too, would have had the nerve to take down the Taliban. But decisions running counter to short-run international stability, i.e., U.S. risk-taking, are simply not popular worldwide, not in the sense of promoting full solidarity. Even the Clinton administration’s pre-September 11 variety of intermittent unilateralism got on people’s nerves.     

That said, I think the Bush administration, in addition to getting a great deal right following the attacks of five years ago, made three specific mistakes in the early going that unnecessarily damaged the position of the United States.     

The first was to sideline NATO for the Afghanistan operation. Following the September 11 attacks, the Atlantic alliance quickly decided for the first time ever to invoke Article 5 of the
Washington treaty, which declares an attack on any member of the alliance to be an attack on all members. The administration, wanting to act quickly against the
Taliban, thought working through or with NATO would be an unacceptable and unnecessary hindrance. So Article 5 went by the boards.     

Now, as it happens, there is solidarity of the sentimental sort, which is touching, and there is solidarity of the hard security sort, which is when allies are willing to fight your war with you. The latter is a big deal. It would have been worth the trouble to figure out how to involve NATO from the early going, especially since the administration was, quite rightly, making broad claims about September 11 as an attack not just on the United States but also on the modern world itself.     

The second mistake was essentially rhetorical, when Mr. Bush declared that you are with us or you are with the terrorists. What he meant, I think, is that the United States would judge others based on their actions, looking favorably upon those who were acting effectively against terrorism and unfavorably upon those who were supporting, aiding or abetting terrorists. He was also rejecting the proposition that one may be neutral in response to this new threat.     

But to others, his statement sounded like an ultimatum: mandatory solidarity with U.S. policies or else. This was simply unacceptable. Solidarity and support are something freely given or not at all, which is to say, spurned in response to a demand or merely a product of coercion. Mr. Bush thought by “us” he was referring to the whole of the civilized world; others construed him very differently.     

The third mistake was in the treatment of detainees from the earliest days. In an effort to retain maximum flexibility in pursuit of an elusive enemy, the administration adopted a maximalist reading of executive authority that was simply unsustainable in the American political system.     

The eagerness with which the administration declared settled treaty law up for grabs raised for others the old question of whether, for the powerful, might makes right. I think this approach did more damage to the United States, on balance, than the decision to remove the Saddam regime.     

Avoiding these three mistakes would have entailed costs, but the benefits would certainly have exceeded them. Yet even with these mistakes, let us recall, the United States, its allies and other countries besides are cooperating very well five years into this long struggle.