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Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton Paved the Road to 9/11 (Part 1)

In the decades before 9/11, our political leaders failed to recognize that war had been launched against us and that the enemy is Islamic totalitarianism. They managed only to appease and encourage the enemy’s aggression.

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The attacks of September 11, 2001, shocked the world. The road to 9/11, however, stretched back decades, and it is still widely misunderstood nearly a generation later. Why did our political leaders and their advisers fail to comprehend the growing threats against us? It was fundamentally an intellectual-philosophic failure, implicating both Democratic and Republican administrations. That’s what I argue in this opening chapter from Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), which retraces key milestones on the road to 9/11. We’re pleased to reprint this essay, with permission, in New Ideal. Part 2 will appear on September 9.

The theme of Winning the Unwinnable War — that irrational philosophic ideas undermined America’s response to Islamic totalitarianism — is further developed in the 2021 book Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: What Went Wrong After 9/11, which is available in PDF for free and on Kindle.

The Road to 9/11

By Elan Journo

No Stone Left Unturned?

One evening about eight years ago, a group of men sat lounging around their camp in the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan. Their leader had told the men to expect something big, soon. Among their few possessions the men had a satellite dish and television set. That night they tried to pick up a broadcast signal but couldn’t get much more than static. One of them fiddled with a radio and tuned in the BBC World Service in Arabic. They sat, and they listened.

“A newscaster was just finishing a report when he said there was breaking news: A plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York! The members of Al Qaeda, thinking that was the only action, cried in joy and prostrated themselves. But bin Laden said, ‘Wait, wait.’” Moments passed. Another jet had rammed into the World Trade Center. The leader wept and prayed to Allah. Then, before “his incredulous companions, bin Laden held up three fingers. . . . When news came of the Pentagon strike, bin Laden held up four fingers to his wonder-struck followers” signifying United 93 (which crashed into a Pennsylvania field, rather than its intended target, the U.S. Capitol).1

Add to this macabre scene a few items from the paper trail — notably the passport photos of the nineteen suicide-hijackers and the airport security footage — and you have many people’s idea of the force behind 9/11. The hijackers, a kind of vanguard, were minions of the reclusive master-terrorist, Osama bin Laden. It’s a straightforward picture of what we’re up against — but is it right?

The landmark investigation into the attacks, the 9/11 Commission, definitely left that impression. The commission was celebrated for its bipartisan makeup: five Republicans, five Democrats. The panel correctly felt itself obligated to leave no stone unturned. And, above all things, it was painstaking, if crudely undiscriminating in its focus. The investigation sucked in an ocean’s worth of facts about the attacks: some 2.5 million pages of documents were sifted, and there were interviews and testimony from more than 1,000 individuals, including scores of officials from intelligence, aviation, border control, and a host of other government agencies. Practically every significant bureaucrat, cabinet member, and elected official was hauled in to be drilled with questions.2

In its tone and attention to the tiniest details, the commission’s final report suits the approach you might expect from a police crime-scene investigation. CSI teams painstakingly sweep for fingerprints, scrape up bloodstains for DNA sampling, and calculate a bullet’s angle of entry. So from the commission’s report we learn — to take some examples at random — the biography of each hijacker, where he went to school, what he majored in; we learn about Al Qaeda’s hopscotching from one base in Sudan to another in Afghanistan; we are offered a by-the-minute recounting of the flight path of each jet, with diagrams, from takeoff to crash; we learn how the FAA and NORAD handled the crisis. On it goes, for pages — 585 to be precise, including three appendices and 119 pages of source notes.

The report offered many concrete policy recommendations on sharing data between U.S. intelligence agencies; on biometric identification of travelers at border checkpoints; on disrupting the flow of money to terrorist groups; on fortifying homeland security; on locating and shutting down terrorist sanctuaries; on funding emergency preparedness for future terrorist atrocities; on public diplomacy (to name just a few). In Congress the enthusiasm to act on this advice was palpable. And why not? Laid out before the nation, in legalistically specific detail, we had an official yet bipartisan account of what happened, and what we must do next.

Except that the commission skirted the fundamental issue, the one on which our security crucially depends.

An investigation into the events leading up to 9/11 is essential. We need to understand the origin and identity of the enemy that carried out the attacks against us. Without that knowledge, we cannot tell what to do going forward; how we define the enemy (or neglect to define it) necessarily shapes the actions we should take in response. If we classify the attackers as criminals, for example, the obvious implication is to round them up, along with any accomplices, and put them all on trial (the remedy taken after the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center). By contrast, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was recognized as an act of war carried out by the imperialist Japanese regime. So the United States responded — on the waves, in the air, and on the land — with a devastating retaliatory war.

The cardinal responsibility of the 9/11 Commission was to figure out the nature of the force that struck us. But the panel’s investigation occupied itself with microscopic details — to the exclusion of the most important object of inquiry. That is evident in the commission’s focus on Al Qaeda as the chief foe and in the blinkered view of 9/11 as occurring in a historical vacuum. In the commission’s report, we learn that Al Qaeda had carried out a few attacks prior to 2001, and that the organization proved itself a formidable threat with the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But missing is a recognition of the much longer progression of attacks predating even the formation of Al Qaeda in the early 1990s. Missing also is an assessment of the U.S. policy response to three-plus decades of persistent aggression — and the effect of that policy on the morale of the aggressors.

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These conspicuous omissions reflect a kind of cognitive myopia. It’s symptomatic of a prevalent approach to the formulation and practice of U.S. foreign policy, afflicting both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. This myopic outlook spurns any serious concern for the past — on the idea that no lessons from the past can have a bearing on the new situation, event, or crisis of the moment. Each crisis stands apart from what came before, and it is dealt with in isolation. This approach yields conclusions that ignore deep-rooted problems while grasping for surface-level fixes. And so, true to form, the 9/11 Commission told us that America’s intelligence agencies had failed to piece together their data and recognize that an attack was imminent. The solution adopted was to unify them under the new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. But the ones ultimately culpable for failing to recognize the long-standing threat against us were our political leaders and their advisers.

This charge goes way beyond the damning fact that prior to 9/11 President George W. Bush shrugged off intelligence briefings warning of imminent Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil. It also goes beyond the bitter recriminations against President Bill Clinton for failing to bring bin Laden to justice when attractive opportunities presented themselves (e.g., capturing him when he was within grasp in Sudan). When we consider the attacks of 9/11 in context, it becomes clear that they were a part of a trend, an escalating pattern of attacks. They were salvos in a war — a war prosecuted by a particular enemy.

The abdication of our leaders today correctly to identify that enemy is in keeping with the ingrained practice of U.S. foreign policy. Since America’s first confrontation with that enemy, it has gone unidentified and therefore unopposed.

But connect the dots, and the enemy comes into sharp focus: Islamic totalitarianism, an ideological-political movement seeking a global regime under Islamic law (or sharia). Its modern origins lie in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood; the movement’s paramount exponent, financial backer, and intellectual inspiration is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Islamist movement holds that achieving its moral-political ideal requires a holy war, or jihad. The regime in Tehran exemplifies this totalitarian ideal in its domestic rule and in its militant quest to export the rule of sharia internationally. Islamists have long been hostile to the United States (reviled by Iran as the “Great Satan”) and they attacked us as part of their jihad. (We will return to examine the motives of Islamic totalitarianism in chapter 2.)

Facing the Islamist onslaught, our policymakers aimed, at most, to manage crises with range-of-the-moment remedies — heedless of the genesis of a given crisis and the future consequences of today’s solution. Running through the varying policy responses of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton there is an unvarying motif. In the four major episodes that we will explore (one in the tenure of each president), our leaders failed to recognize that war had been launched against us and that the enemy is Islamic totalitarianism. This cognitive failure rendered Washington impotent to defeat the enemy. Owing to their myopic policy responses, our leaders managed only to appease and encourage the enemy’s aggression.

Fueling a Spiral of Aggression

Episode one began on a November morning in 1979. The diplomats and guards at the American embassy in Tehran saw a crowd gathering outside the gates, chanting. The vehemently anti-American slogans were commonplaces in revolutionary Iran. Some in the crowd wore placards, suspended with string around their necks, bearing pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini was the wildly popular spiritual leader of the Islamist movement in Iran. It looked like yet another demonstration, no different from the many previous ones, a run-of-the-mill affair. But on this occasion the crowd of demonstrators stormed the embassy compound. Breaching the gates and security fence, they engulfed the grounds and got into the office buildings. They took the diplomats and guards hostage.

To invade an embassy is to flout a bedrock convention of diplomacy. It is tantamount to invading the sovereign territory of a foreign country. It is an act of war. To hold more than fifty Americans in captivity and subject them to torment is unconscionable. The hostages endured a living hell. They were, by turns, humiliated, threatened, beaten, terrorized.

Take just one incident. The captors dragged a group of male hostages into a room, lined them up against a wall, forced them to pull down their pants and stand before a firing squad. They were made to stand there, waiting, wondering if the next few breaths would be their last. Would the firing squad follow the gruesome practice of some groups in the Middle East? Would they spray the hostages with bullets, starting from the feet and working upward slowly — to prolong the agony of the victims as they bleed out to a certain death? Imagine standing, waiting for the bullets to pierce your flesh, waiting for the gunmen to take aim, waiting — until, suddenly, instead of a burst of gunfire, the guns are put away. This was a mock execution. The terror was real.3

The hostage-takers justified their actions, in part, as reprisals for America’s past support for the deposed shah. For many years Washington had worked to keep the shah in power. The regime was brutal, but it was also aligned with Washington, and backing the shah appeared to some policymakers to be a useful, even if morally questionable, arrangement. After leaving Iran, the shah was allowed to enter the United States for medical treatment, and the militants demanded his expulsion. Yet they evidently had a larger agenda for which the shah served as a pretext. It may well be true that they chafed under his oppressive regime, but the cause animating their violence was not liberty but the quest for an even worse form of tyranny: Islamic theocracy. Whether the militants invaded the embassy at Khomeini’s explicit command remains open to question. But it was clear that Khomeini, who was working to solidify clerical rule, gave the hostage-takers his blessing and reaped benefits from the crisis.

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How did Washington respond to this outrage? If there were any truth in the critique of U.S. policy as assertive and calculatingly self-interested, the Iranian hostage situation, if it had arisen at all, would have ended within days. Who, after all, would dare affront a fearsome giant capable of squashing your cause underfoot; who would venture to magnify the insult by rubbing Washington’s nose in the dirt as the hostage-takers did? A nation single-mindedly committed to protecting the lives of its citizens would be expected to have immediately threatened, and if necessary deployed, military force to release the hostages. Taking such action would affirm its reputation as a nation that none dare menace. But what America in fact did had the opposite effect.

The response from Washington was foreshadowed by orders given to the American guards on the day of the embassy takeover. Facing the invading militants, the guards were instructed not to fire their weapons — lest they anger the mob.4 Such reluctance to stand up to aggression pervaded the response of Carter’s administration. When Carter took office, America was still reeling from the unhealed wounds of the war in Vietnam. That trauma, a painfully drawn-out campaign, lacking a clear purpose, had demoralized the nation, sapped its self-confidence, and left many in government with the fallacious conclusion that military self-assertion, as such, should be taken off the table as an option. With the specter of Vietnam looming in the background, the Carter administration quickly sidelined military options.

The prevailing fear was that a self-assertive military operation would upset the Iranians. A rescue mission, reports one of Carter’s policy advisors, was deemed to involve unacceptably high risks of civilian casualties, and might prompt the Iranians to kill the hostages. (Not taking this step, as history would show, cost far more American lives in the following decades.) The worry was that a retaliatory strike might be seen as punitive, rather than simply a means of releasing the hostages (as if retaliating against such aggression were an illegitimate goal). There was talk of mining Iranian harbors and even imposing a military blockade. But these and similar steps were to be held in reserve as “sticks” that might be brought out, if and only if all non-military avenues were exhausted. The main thrust of the administration’s approach was to tempt Iran with diplomatic “carrots.”5

Diplomatic engagement is one name for that policy; a more honest name for it is appeasement.

Laying the groundwork for that appeasement, Carter assured the Iranians that “the United States has done nothing and will do nothing that could be used to justify violence or imprudent actions by anyone.”6 What followed was an embarrassing game in which America acted on the (self-deluded) premise that its adversary was not an aggressor, that it had not committed a flagrant act of war, and that it could be bought off. The administration would not denounce Iran or commit itself publicly to any retaliatory steps, beyond meekly repeating its expectation that Iran live up to its assurance to release the hostages unharmed. Even from Carter, known for his submissive foreign policy, one would have expected at least the expulsion of Iran’s ambassador, in protest and in rebuke. But that was far too bold a step: Carter’s administration requested that Iran reduce the size of its staff (it was deemed desirable to keep this line of communication open). Months would pass before the United States broke off official diplomatic relations. Carter did freeze some Iranian funds in U.S. banks, and impose some trade sanctions, such as an embargo on shipments of military products — but not on food.7

Carter’s team of advisers and strategists scrambled to come up with proposals to give Iran a face-saving way out of the crisis. In the initial stages, Washington took the astonishing step of reaching out to the Palestinian Liberation Organization for assistance. Yasir Arafat’s terrorist group, which had ties to Khomeini, was asked to serve as a go-between. The PLO, it must be remembered, was an outlawed organization in the United States, stained with the blood of American victims. Why should it help? There was apparently no formal quid pro quo offered to the PLO, but it was winkingly understood that Washington would remember this favor later, when it was time to pressure Israel to make concessions to the PLO. Thus, Carter’s team sought to bribe this band of killers to open doors for us so that we could then bribe Tehran. This conduit to Iran, however, proved fruitless. Another proposed idea entailed asking the U.N.’s secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim, to approach television networks and have them film a one-hour presentation by the militants, effectively giving them an international stage from which to denounce the West and justify their aggression. Fortunately, this scheme did not get far.8

The back-room negotiations, for a while through the PLO and, later, other intermediaries, went in fits and starts. Predictably, with time Iran’s position hardened. There was even, late in the game, an abortive U.S. military rescue mission. It was a failure and an embarrassment. Soon the diplomats returned to the negotiating table. And after the fifty-two American hostages had endured imprisonment in Iran for 444 days, the crisis finally ended without bloodshed. They were released as part of a diplomatic bargain.

This seemed like a win-win resolution. We got what we wanted — the hostages back, alive. The Iranians got what they wanted — the unfreezing of some $7 billion in funds held in U.S. banks; respect for their new theocratic regime; a promise to revoke American economic sanctions; a promise to drop legal action against Iran for damages or breaches of contract resulting from the revolution (an international tribunal would handle such claims).

Advocates of engagement saw this as a triumph. The diplomats, not the Marines, had carried the day! Warren Christopher, deputy secretary of state at the time, wrote to the Algerian foreign minister who mediated the final settlement, celebrating the resolution: “You and your government have demonstrated an inspiring commitment to humane values, and have provided the world with a singular example of the art of diplomacy.” Harold H. Saunders, who served in the administration’s crisis group, echoed that sentiment: “Indeed, the entire experience had ‘provided the world with a singular example of the art of diplomacy.’”9 Carter had wanted to demonstrate the superiority of solving crises through non-violent means. Behold the proof.

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But it was Khomeini and his underlings who drew the correct lesson. Like all acts of appeasement, the vaunted triumph of diplomacy was a total victory for the aggressor, Iran.

Washington followed a pseudo-sophisticated policy calibrated to send Iran the right carrot-and-stick message. Our people would dangle just enough carrots while also mumbling empty hints at the presence of a stick — even as they went out of their way to accommodate Iran. Epitomizing that sham toughness, Carter feebly warned that “the authorities in Iran should realize, . . . that the availability of peaceful measures, like the patience of the American people, is running out” — this, after the hostages were in captivity for five months.10 Such timid threats were abundantly refuted as the coward’s bluff by the fact that our willingness to appease never ran out.

Iran forcibly kept American citizens hostage, it extorted from Washington a ransom — and we capitulated. The financial cost: roughly $154 million for each of the remaining fifty-two hostages (counting funds in U.S. banks that were unfrozen and doled out to the new regime as part of the settlement). But that price pales in comparison to the moral meaning and destructive consequences of Washington’s surrender. Our first response to Iran’s act of war was to assure the aggressor that we had no intention of taking military action in retaliation; afterward, the settlement acquitted Iran from any guilt and required Washington to abjure any retribution. So Iran was to be held blameless. And by condescending to negotiate with Iran at all, we conferred on it the undeserved status of a civilized, moral equal. The Algiers Accord, spelling out the terms of the U.S.–Iranian settlement, runs to fourteen pages of legal prose. But its import can be summed up simply: it was a license and invitation to further aggression.

Speaking of the hostage crisis, Khomeini famously observed that America cannot do a damn thing. He was half-right: we could, but our policymakers advised otherwise.

Khomeini had additional reasons to rejoice. By the time that crisis was winding down, the Islamist transformation of Iran was building momentum. The rule of clerics took root in the universities and in government. Sharia, or Islamic holy law, crept in. Islamists undertook murderous purges to rid themselves of political rivals.11 Khomeini and his followers were bringing into reality what other elements of the Islamist movement in Egypt, in Pakistan, and elsewhere had never achieved: an actual regime founded on the principles of Islam as a total state. Iran thus embodied the movement’s ideological vision, it proved the feasibility of the political ideal for which jihad was a means, and it provided a model of what the pious could achieve even when taking on better-armed infidels. After having slapped the vastly stronger United States in the face, how potent the Islamic Republic now looked!

The new Iran not only inspired hope of future advances; it was committed to hastening them. Its 1979 constitution states that the army and the Revolutionary Guards Corps “will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.”12 In the ensuing years, Iran has made good on this mission of exporting its Islamist revolution by means of jihad.

A major target of that holy war is America. If Iran could collect a reward for taking Americans hostage, why not try something even more aggressive? In the streets of Tehran, the crowds chanted “Death to America”: the time was now ripe to strike at what Khomeini had vilified as the “Great Satan.”

Eager to be seen as the standard bearer of a global jihad, the Iranian regime was emboldened to escalate from taking Americans hostage to taking American lives.

Continue to Part 2 here

Chapter 1 from Elan Journo, ed., Winning the Unwinnable War, copyright 2009 by the Ayn Rand Institute, is reproduced with permission of Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., through PLSclear.


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  1. Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Knopf, 2006), 357–59.
  2. The 9/11 Commission Report (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004), www.gpoaccess.gov/911/index.html (accessed 2 Jan. 2009). On the scale of the Commission’s investigation, see the preface of the Report.
  3. Mark Bowden, Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam (New York: Grove Press Atlantic, 2007), 346–51.
  4. Matthew L. Wald and James Conaway, “Embassy’s Fall in Teheran: Guns Ready but None Fired,” New York Times, 27 Jan. 1980, 1.
  5. In describing the American policy response to the crisis, this chapter draws in part upon the account presented in Harold H. Saunders, “Diplomacy and Pressure, November 1979–May 1980,” in Warren Christopher, Harold H. Saunders, et al. American Hostages in Iran (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).
  6. Terrence Smith, “Carter, Denouncing Terror, Warns Iran on Hostages’ Safety; Says Blackmail Won’t Work,” New York Times, 16 Nov. 1979, 1.
  7. See Harold H. Saunders, “Beginning of the End” in American Hostages in Iran.
  8. Saunders, “Diplomacy and Pressure,” 78–92.
  9. Both quotations appear in Saunders, “Beginning of the End,” 296.
  10. President Carter’s news conference, 17 April 1980. As transcribed in John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project (Santa Barbara, CA: University of California (hosted), Gerhard Peters (database), www.presidency.ucsb.edu (accessed 2 Jan. 2009).
  11. Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin, Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 93–96.
  12. Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (International Constitutional Law), www.servat.unibe.ch/law/icl/ir00000_.html (accessed 28 Sept. 2008).
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Elan Journo

Elan Journo is a senior fellow and vice president of content at the Ayn Rand Institute. His books include Illuminating Ayn Rand (2022), Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: What Went Wrong After 9/11 (2021) and What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2018). Elan is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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