9/11 and Historical Consciousness: Response to Nonpartisan

Originally posted by James Livingston on 08/22/07

I agree with George Bush and Dick Cheney on only one thing: their version of 9/11 changed every thing.  It permitted-it did not cause-a radical departure from the principles of American foreign policy.  And it permitted-it did not cause-a radical reassertion of executive power as against Congress, the courts, and the American people.

The moment itself, 9/11 as such, did not cause the Bush doctrine of pre-emption and its predicates in a narrowly military definition of world power and a bellicose repudiation of multilateral approaches to global problems.  Instead, the administration was able to integrate this moment into its prospective, programmatic thinking as a kind of historical evidence-evidence that validated conclusions it had already reached. 


The White House was not a blank slate, in other words, onto which the events of 9/11 were inscribed.  It was already scanning the political horizon for occasions to implement its new ideas and flex its dormant powers when Al Qaeda gave it an opportunity-think, for example, of Cheney’s aggressive assertion of executive privilege in the case of his “energy task force.”

We all know that the so-called Bush doctrine was born in 1992, when Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, both then at the Pentagon, wrote up their ideas for a new world ordered by American military power in the form of a memorandum, “Defense Policy Guidance.”  We all know that the “Project for a New American Century” founded in 1997 by William Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and other so-called neo-conservatives, demanded regime change in Iraq as the condition of peace in the Middle East.  We all know that Cheney came to power determined to resuscitate the imperial presidency destroyed-on his watch in the executive branch-by Congressional (and broader popular) rebellion against the Vietnam War.

What we didn’t know was how ruthless these people would be in pursuit of their imperial and anti-American goals.  We didn’t know they were Bolsheviks willing to cloak the executive branch with “unitary” powers and privileges-willing, that is, to use the president’s capacity as Commander in Chief to eviscerate the Constitution and to disable the procedures that inform democratic debate in the culture at large. 

The “war on terror” was the occasion, in this sense, for a virtual coup d’etat, as John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer, has patiently explained in many public venues, particularly his fatuous book, War by Other Means (2006): the exercise of the “war power” has animated every egregious claim of the executive branch since 9/11.

So it is probably impossible to exaggerate the political impact of the “war on terror”-I mean its impact on the separation of powers, not on the party system.  Under the aegis of Bush and Cheney, it has become the pretext for anything and everything the White House believes it needs in its fight against the heathen abroad and at home.  But a “war on terror” was not the inevitable result of 9/11.  It was the inevitable result of redefining world power as preemptive military power, and of forgetting the multilateral sources of the American century-two moves already made by Cheney & Co. in the 1990s, before Bush took office as president.

I’m neither concocting a conspiracy theory nor ascribing untoward powers to the vice president.  I’m suggesting that 9/11 is an empty cipher, always already waiting for subsequent interpretations that are, by definition, political acts.

Andrew Bacevich is one among many accomplished historians who see continuity in foreign policy from the 1980s into the age of the so-called Bush Doctrine.  I can’t agree because both Bush senior and Bill Clinton were deeply committed to multilateral institutions, agreements, and coalitions; neither could have imagined the war we’ve been fighting in Iraq.  Moreover, neither would have signed on to the “National Security Strategy” statement of September, 2002, which laid out the rationale for preemptive, unilateral military power along the lines proposed by Robert Kagan, Max Boot, and other neo-conservative celebrants of America’s status as the “hyperpower”-the last superpower standing-of the last century, and presumably of the dawning millennium.

The reduction of world power to unilateral military power culminates in the catastrophe we know as the war in Iraq.  So we should not scoff at the correlation between it and the “war on terror” Bush and Cheney keep pressing-they’re right, this is what happens when you embrace extreme empire and its armature in the executive branch.  We’re not witness to extraordinary incompetence; we’re watching the end of the American Century as effected by a radical departure from the principles of US foreign policy as they were invented and implemented in the last century.

But if there is something good that might come of the moment we call 9/11, it is a deepened, and chastened, historical consciousness.  In his great, still unsurpassed book, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951), the late C. Vann Woodward used a prescript from Arnold Toynbee to suggest that, unlike Yankees, late-19th century southerners understood that history had happened to them in their part of the world-they knew they were a conquered people, subdued by a colossal military force from elsewhere.

I’d like to borrow this old-fashioned notion and say that, no matter where you stand on the subsequent “war on terror,” 9/11 taught us that history happened to us in our part of the world.  Our various exemptions from the vagaries and vicissitudes of the past-they are real enough to convince even professional historians that we Americans are somehow “exceptional”-could protect no one on that day.  The world was suddenly turned inside out, as the Other invaded our complacent calendars.

But I would insist, following Woodward, that this invader, this reminder of the past, this marker of history, came from within as well as without.  It is not an inexplicable Other that we now must fear-our own political leaders, then as now, represent a much greater threat to the future of the republic than any number of so-called terrorists from a world elsewhere.


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