This column will be my last “Letter From Ground Zero.” The series will be succeeded by another, “Crisis of the Republic.” Until recently it seemed possible to trace the main developments in the Bush Administration’s policies back to that horrible, fantastical day in September 2001, as if following an unbroken chain of causes and effects. Now it no longer does. The chain is too entangled with other chains, of newer and older origin.
The war against Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had his headquarters and support from the ruling Taliban, was, for better or worse, a clear response to the attack on the United States. The Patriot Act and the reorganization of the national security apparatus likewise were responses to September 11. But with the launch of the Iraq War, the subject was already beginning to change. The political support for the war still flowed from 9/11, but the Administration was already veering toward other objectives. For one thing, we know that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others had wanted to attack Iraq since their first days in office, and, for that matter, even before. For another, the war proved to be a kind of test case of a far more sweeping revolution in American foreign policy, soon outlined in the White House document of 2002, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which set forth American ambitions for nothing less than global hegemony based on military superiority, absolute and perpetual, over all other nations. Many friends of this policy frankly and rightly called it imperial.
The Iraq test case has failed; in doing so it has tied down forces that otherwise might have been given further aggressive missions. The imperial plan stalled, as the nuclearization of North Korea without an effective American response, among other things, attests. Nevertheless, the Administration’s international ambitions had a scarcely less sweeping domestic corollary, for which no master strategic document was supplied: a profound transformation of the American state, in which, in the name of the “war on terror,” the President rises above the law and the Republican Party permanently dominates all three branches of government. That project had even less to do with 9/11 than did the Iraq War. Its roots can be traced at least as far back as the election of 2000, when the Supreme Court improperly interjected itself into the electoral dispute in Florida and a majority consisting of Republican-appointed Justices awarded the presidency to the man of their own party. Or perhaps we need to look back even further, to the attempt by the Republican-dominated Congress to knock a Democratic President out of office by impeaching him for personal misbehavior accompanied by a minor legal infraction. (If those standards were still in force, President Bush would have been impeached eleven times over by now.) Obviously, these events had nothing to do with 9/11 or the Iraq War. Their roots are older and deeper. To arrange all the new developments, domestic and international, under the heading “Letter From Ground Zero,” as if it all began with Osama bin Laden, would therefore be misleading. It would be a kind of lie.