The war on terror is still not over, and Spencer Ackerman’s new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump is essential reading for understanding why it persists.
Ackerman, one of the best national security reporters of the last twenty years, has traced the post-9/11 growth of the U.S. security state and the expansion of the war on terror that is as endless as it is toxic. He shines a light on the brutality and cruelty of American militarized counterterrorism since 2001, and he is unsparing in identifying the failures of each administration responsible for implementing and persisting in these policies.
Reading Reign of Terror is an infuriating but edifying experience as Ackerman reminds us of the countless outrages of the last twenty years from the invasion of Iraq to the attack on the Capitol. Many of the stories he includes are familiar, but Ackerman’s account helps to tie everything together. While he pays close attention to the death and destruction that the United States has inflicted on numerous countries over the last two decades, he also documents how the war warped our system of government, poisoned our political culture, and both fed off of and reinforced the worst elements of our society. The lesson of the last twenty years is that the war on terror cannot be tamed or civilized. It must be shut down once and for all. Until it is, we will be living under a reign of terror.
One of the defining features of the war on terror is the complete lack of accountability. The people responsible for ordering and carrying out torture never had to answer for their crimes, and the only Americans that ever paid a personal or professional price were those who blew the whistle on outrageous abuses. During the Obama years, it was taken for granted that it was better not to dwell on the wrongdoing in the past and thus give an effective pass to those officials responsible for our government’s use of torture. Instead of punishing the criminals, the Obama administration accommodated them for fear of provoking partisan backlash and hostility from the security state, thus ensuring that the war on terror became “sustainable” by reducing the number of American casualties and normalizing the killing of people with drone strikes. Perhaps the most significant legacy bestowed by Obama’s presidency was in turning the war on terror into a permanent part of U.S. foreign policy.
As the U.S. war in Afghanistan ended in defeat this week, it is useful to remember that there was an opportunity very early in the war to end it on much better terms. Ackerman notes that the Taliban offered terms for a negotiated end to the war in December 2001, just two months after the U.S. intervention began, but the Bush administration wasn’t interested. He quotes Rumsfeld declaring that a “negotiated end” was “unacceptable to the United States.” Ackerman observes, “as a predictable consequence of the United States’ defining its enemy broadly, its focus on ousting the Taliban and installing a new Afghan regime allowed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to flee. This cost the United States its first chance to win the War on Terror, to the degree the war’s conceptional flaws allowed such a possibility.”
As that war went on, it would only get broader and eventually expand under Obama to include “associated forces.” These were groups scattered around the world that could not have had anything to do with attacks that predated their existence. The 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) was construed so broadly that it would even be used to justify military action against the Islamic State, an open rival of Al Qaeda by the time the U.S. started bombing its forces in 2014. “By treating ISIS as indistinct from al-Qaeda,” according to Ackerman, “ [Obama] erased the most salient fact about ISIS.” Now the remnants of ISIS are used by successive administrations to justify open-ended missions in Iraq and Syria.
While President Biden rightly ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, he has since justified the decision in part by pointing to the many other groups in Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere that he thinks Washington should now focus its efforts against in the name of counterterrorism. It is one of the many absurdities of the war on terror that the policy of militarized counterterrorism that began 20 years ago after 9/11 will evidently outlast the U.S. commitment in the first theater of the war. The “logic” of this war, such as it is, ensures that it can never really end because its objectives are and have always been fantastical.
Despite the official rhetoric and denials of the Bush and Obama administrations, the war on terror always has been an intensely anti-Muslim project that has promoted Islamophobia here and in Europe to the detriment of minority communities that did nothing to warrant the abusive treatment meted out to them. The longer the war on terror drags on, the more toxic and hateful it has become. Trump exploited and encouraged that hatefulness, tapping into nationalist and anti-Muslim attitudes of those Americans who wanted to fight the war on terror even more aggressively. At the same time, “Trump successfully positioned himself as an opponent of the War on Terror simply through his derision of the status quo,” Ackerman notes. “None of his escalations, at home or abroad, undermined that narrative in the eyes of either elite media or his supporters.” Trump was a product of the destabilization throughout the Greater Middle East created by the War on Terror, and then he destabilized the country even more as president.
Bush laid the foundations of endless war, Obama institutionalized and normalized it, and Trump exploited it and ultimately turned it against his domestic opponents. Throughout, a cowed and compliant Congress served as a willing rubber stamp for egregious encroachments on civil liberties and a permanent state of emergency that has defined the post-9/11 era.
For the most part, media outlets have served as eager cheerleaders for policies that have heavily militarized our foreign policy, subjected religious and ethnic minorities to harassment and abuse, and broken domestic and international law. The existing culture of elite impunity has only grown stronger as architects of illegal wars and the regimes of torture and indefinite detention face no consequences for their crimes. The war on terror summoned up our worst national demons and has let them run amok for a generation. In the process, our government’s policies have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the displacement of millions, and the destabilization of entire regions. As Ackerman conveys very well in this book, America has been destabilized as well, and we will be dealing with the political fallout for a long time to come. The war has left us with neither peace or victory; but only more violence and devastation.