- What all this points to is the fundamental misunderstanding the United States has suffered from the moment it was attacked 17 years ago. 9/11 wasn’t the first attack on the U.S., nor was it primarily aimed at destroying the United States. It was simply the event that so galvanized the American people that it moved the U.S. government to action, any action, to make people feel a little bit better about the tragic loss of life that day. Some of that action, such as attempting to rebuild countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, came with noble intentions if impossible goals. Other action, like the United States’ involvement in Yemen, is little more than mission creep gone wild. An initially ill-defined goal has dragged the U.S. into conflicts with relatively little strategic import, and into compromises with the very group that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 in the first place.
The Islamic civil war will continue, and there’s little the U.S. can do about it. That powerlessness was one of the things that made 9/11 so traumatic. That also happens to be what makes terrorism such an effective tactic – the way it manipulates fear and insecurity to warp the actions of its target rather than defeating its target outright on the battlefield. The radical Islamists wielded it particularly well against the United States. The U.S. has been at war for nearly two decades, but there is no battlefield on which the United States can guarantee surrender as it did with Japan, nor a single enemy whose defeat will bring an end to the war. There are, instead, 1.8 billion Muslims in the world trying to figure out what the relationship should be between religion and politics. The U.S. can articulate a position and support those fighting for that vision with either money or military force, but to do that, the U.S. has to realize what the war is about and why it is fighting in the first place, and prioritize its resources accordingly.