Like stepping through a curtain, the Sept. 11 attacks 20 years ago this week changed our world in an instant. It left us vulnerable in ways we had not previously imagined. Protected by oceans shore-to-shore, and friendly neighbors border-to-border, we basked for centuries in the secure knowledge that we were untouchable. And then on a clear September morning in 2001, everything changed.

Over the Valentine’s Day weekend in 2003, my wife and I were in London watching Secretary of State Colin Powell, previously an opponent of taking American troops into Iraq (he famously warned: “It’s like Pottery Barn—you break it, you bought it”), presented to the United Nations what he called proof of Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

Later that day we happened to be walking by the American Embassy where an unusually public deployment of heavily-armed Marines told us they were prepared for trouble from a large group of anti-war protesters around the corner in Hyde Park. Here’s how the Guardian newspaper in London reported it: “London today became the scene for what appears to be the biggest public rally in British history. Throughout the world, millions gathered to protest at the prospect of a war in Iraq. In hundreds of cities, including Damascus, Athens, Seoul, Rome, Tokyo and Sydney, demonstrators marched, chanted and unfurled banners against conflict in the Middle East.”

This headlong rush to war was the culmination of our response to the 9-11 attacks. A response, that, with the aid of hindsight, we now see as a hugely expensive waste of blood and treasure.

Neo-cons, as the most conservative elements in government and punditry were then called, demanded a nation-building war. Full of themselves after the controversial 2000 presidential victory, they saw 9/11 as the event they needed to remake the Middle East into functioning democracies, beginning with Iraq, which of course had no role in the attacks.

These leftover functionaries from the first Bush regime had tried to talk both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton into an Iraq invasion. They flatly refused, and the neo-cons retired to the backbench, waiting for a better moment. Now they had their excuse.

Ignoring Powell, and New York Times columnist (who cut his teeth in the Middle East), Thomas Friedman’s admonition not to pull the lid off the trash can that was Iraq, for you could not predict what would crawl out, the Bush crowd—VP Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Under Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, and a coalition of strange bedfellows that included Fox News and the New York Times, were all onboard.

But experience is a dear school, and a fool will learn in no other. Unknowledgeable about the neighborhood, and full of hubris and arrogance, we rushed in and lifted that lid. We got a terribly expensive education in the Sunni/Shiite split in Islam, and learned belatedly—and against the warnings of local experts—that Saddam, an unarguably sadistic dictator—was the only thing keeping Iran from controlling the neighborhood. And of course, pulling the lid off that trashcan enabled not just Al-Qaeda but the even more virulent and violent sect of radical Sunni Islam that birthed ISIS.

Hunting down Osama bin Laden and coming home should have been our only goals, but by the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, we had given up on finding bin Laden and moved onto the political desires of the Cheney-Rumsfeld dead-enders.

So where are we, and what have we learned?

We have learned, and hardly for the first time, that elites who never themselves risk life and limb, and who almost never send their own children into battle (Joe Biden and George H. W. Bush being notable exceptions), are quick to sacrifice our children at the altar of their grandiose plans to shape the world to their liking. Men like these see only the glory of engagement and rarely if ever do they consider its costs.

We have learned that wars are easy to start and difficult to stop. Also, not exactly for the first time.

We have learned that our government is willing to spend tremendous amounts of money on weapons of war, yet remains reluctant to spend like sums on our own infrastructure, education, childcare, or healthcare.

You have to hope that we have learned these things once and for all that, and that using our military to impose our will on foreign and disparate cultures never ends the way we think it will. Maybe 20 years in Afghanistan has brought home the lesson that Korea and Vietnam did not.

We were innocents, pre 9/11. Protected and secure in our exceptionalism. History, though, had other plans for us. Let us mourn our losses, and finally take these lessons to heart.

©2021 Jon Sinton for Progressive Agenda LLC

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