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What the 9/11 Commission Report Says About Syria

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Monday, September 2, 2013 at 3:00 PM

As we approach the twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, it seems like an appropriate time to highlight several passages from the 9/11 Commission Report, which turn out to be instructive for today’s discussions of Syria.

In addition to the question, expertly covered on Lawfare, of whether the President was required to or should have sought congressional authorization to use force in Syria under international law and constitutional principles, there is the pragmatic question of whether intervention is in the United States’ national security interests. There are strong arguments that it is, but it does not sound as if the Administration has made that case yet to Congress, or to the public.

In short, punishing the Syrian regime by means of military force, and more broadly, intervening in the Syrian civil war, is in the United States’ national security interests because the world is watching. And what the world, and particularly those governments or terrorist organizations that act contrary to U.S. interests will see in our actions, our resolve, will affect their behavior in the future. Accordingly, it is in our interests:

  • For the Syrian civil war to resolve, sooner rather than later.
  • For the Syrian civil war to not spread further and destabilize what is left of governments with whom we can at least have an open dialogue on Middle East issues, such as Jordan.
  • To send a message to the world’s rogue regimes-like North Korea and Iran-that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.
  • To demonstrate to the Arab street that we have compassion for their children, too, and that we will back that compassion with strength to defend and protect the most vulnerable.
  • To see that the Assad regime falls, and that we have deeper insight into who will make up the new leadership of Syria, and that we will have a channel through which to dialogue and work with that leadership.

So, how do these factors relevant to Syria relate to the lessons of 9/11? To start, the 9/11 Commission stated:

Our enemy is twofold: al Qaeda, a stateless network of terrorist that struck us on 9/11; and a radical ideological movement in the Islamic world, inspired in part by al Qaeda, which has spawned terrorist groups and violence across the globe. The first enemy is weakened, but continues to pose a grave threat. The second enemy is gathering, and will menace Americans and American interests long after Usama Bin Ladin and his cohorts are killed or captured. Thus our strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al Qaeda network and prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist terrorism.

The report was issued in 2004. As of 2013, much progress has been made against the first enemy: the al Qaeda, as led by Bin Ladin, of 2001. But the second enemy remains. It is in our interests to prevent radical Islamist terrorism from taking root in the Syria of the future. That could happen in several ways. It could happen if the rebels fighting the Assad regime become dominated by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-inspired fighters. It could also happen if Syria, after Assad, encounters a leadership vacuum, where al Qaeda or other Islamist terrorist networks can take root. And, it can happen if younger generations of Syrians and throughout the Middle East see the United States as abandoning innocent Arab civilians from future aggression by the Syrian regime, when we could have acted to prevent it. On this point, the 9/11 Commission is also instructive. It stated: “In the twentieth century, strategists focused on the world’s great industrial heartlands. In the twenty-first, the focus is on the opposite direction, toward remote regions and failing states. The United States has had to find ways to expand its reach, straining its limits of its influence. Every policy decision we make needs to be seen through this lens….”

Developing a long range plan for dissuading the next generation of Islamist terrorists was identified by the 9/11 Commission as an important goal. It is probably the one we have achieved with the least success, and, arguably, the least effort, in the last twelve years. The President mistakenly thought when he took office that speaking, as he did in Egypt in 2009, would go a long way towards achieving the goal of promoting dialogue and mutual respect. But those efforts were about as successful as the Clinton administration’s outreach to Iran, for example, by publicly acknowledging in 2000 the U.S. Government’s role overthrowing the Iranian government in 1953.

Actions mean more than words. The 9/11 Commission offered as a recommendation:

The U.S. government must define what the message is, what it stands for. We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring with our neighbors. America and Muslim friends can agree on respect for human dignity and opportunity. To Muslim parents, terrorist like Bin Ladin have nothing to offer their children but visions of violence and death. America and its friends have a crucial advantage—we can offer these parents a vision that might give their children a better future. If we heed the views of thoughtful leaders in the Arab and Muslim world, a moderate consensus can be found.

Allowing a Syrian government to go unpunished after releasing chemical weapons on its own people is not possible for an America that wants to demonstrate to the world moral leadership. And what becomes of Syria does, for at least the reasons outlined above, matter to U.S. national security interests.

Government leaders, in considering whether it is appropriate to take action in Syria, and to what degree, should, this week in particular, reflect on the advice and observations provided by the 9/11 Commission. I think they will find that the takeaway is, to borrow a phrase that is of the moment, don’t blink.

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