Tehran to the World Trade Center

“Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”
Frederick the Great of Prussia

“The Americans will always do the right thing…..after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”
Winston Churchill

America has suffered from a malady of guilt and shame since its Vietnam experience. Whether out of some deep-seated distrust over the use of unilateral American power, or remorse over past American actions, or even some innate pessimism that the use of American military power was somehow malevolent, post-Vietnam foreign policy paradigms came to discourage the use of the American armed force to protect American national interests, favoring instead its use purely for humanitarian missions like the interventions in Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia.

As a consequence, in the 25 years that have elapsed since the hostage-taking crisis in Tehran, both Democratic and Republican administrations have chosen to appease a succession of terrorist provocations rather than confront them. Such issues, it was felt, were best adjudicated as a matter of law rather than settled by war. America came to fear what the enemy could do to it, more than what it could do to the enemy. This was especially true in American dealings with the Arab world. While US leaders talked about “never giving in to terrorist blackmail” and “never negotiating with terrorists,” they did both in the hope of avoiding further confrontation.


The change was not due to any lack of wealth or military resources, but rather to a deeply ingrained assumption that America should not retaliate – a hesitancy al Qaeda perceives and plays upon to this very day. Meyrav Wurmser, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Hudson Institute summed up this approach: “We have spent a decade trying to solicit Arab good will. We sent troops to Somalia to end starvation. While we denied solace and assistance to endangered Christian communities in Sudan and Lebanon, we interceded in Bosnia to put an end to (the Muslim) genocide and used our power to block the Serbs from further harming the Kosovars. We distanced ourselves from our “special relationship” with democratic Israel to be a neutral arbitrator with the Palestinians. We turned a blind eye to money flowing from the Arab world to various radicals in Europe and Muslim extremists around the world. We sent our wealth to rebuild Muslim societies, not only in the war-torn Balkans, but also in places like Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. Yet, we still find that the Arab world holds us in contempt and hatred.” (1)

The reasons for this “contempt and hatred” become evident when one studies American foreign policy in the Arab Muslim world from the Carter administration to the Clinton administration (although similar questions have now arisen concerning President Bush’s actions and reactions to current terrorist provocations). During this period, America sought to make peace by supporting regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Syria who had the most to lose from reform in the Middle East. Washington’s view was that, as long as it pumped Arab oil, the United States had little interest in trying to change Arab ways. It was a foreign policy that led to the incubators of Islamic terrorism and was based upon what is known as the “realist school” of American foreign policy.

The Realist School of Thought

The “realist” school, being more or less indifferent to the plight of the oppressed, essentially provided that what goes on inside the borders of another country was something about which the United States could and should remain indifferent. It was shaped by two related concepts. The first was that in international affairs, stability was paramount, and stability (so the theory went) could only be achieved through a balance of power. This was based upon arrangements that traced their origins back to the 16th century when a balance of power was necessary to keep warring Catholic and Protestant powers in relative peace with one another. According to the principles then laid out, the internal character of a sovereign state was strictly its own affair, and only when that state acted aggressively by crossing its borders, did the matter become the business of another state.

As a result, those who followed the realist school of thought (then as now) had (and still have) no qualms about using force so long as that force was used only in repelling another state’s aggressive effort to upset a previously stable balance of power. But to make war for “regime change” or to take pre-emptive action against an enemy preparing for war (ie: the Bush Doctrine) was considered to be foolish and dangerous in so far as it represented a dramatic shift in the status quo. (2) In effect, concrete interests superceded broad democratic ideals. Post-Vietnam cynicism dictated that American power was an evil force and any attempt to spread freedom and democracy was pure arrogance. The “realist” school of thought created an atmosphere of cynicism by callously disregarding the principles upon which America was based – whether in Tiananmen Square or in watching Saddam Hussein gas, massacre and otherwise seek to exterminate his own people. That policy secured neither the respect of the Arabs, nor their stability, but only the scorn of Arab populations. In effect, American foreign policy makers (prior to 9/11) refused to see any connection between Middle East tyranny and Middle East Islamic terrorism.

It was a foreign policy that placed trust in international institutions and tactics; a foreign policy that had consistently failed at least since the Iranian Islamic Revolution and certainly since the fall of the Soviet Union and included such aspects as devotion to the UN, belief in the usefulness of international law, nostalgia for Cold War alliances and an unshakable belief that despots and dictators could be trusted to keep their promises.

While ideological and religious differences remain a dominant element in explaining the true nature of our war against Islamic terrorism, perceptions of continuing American weakness became provocative for the Islamists. American inaction (or insufficient reaction) in defending its citizens and its strategic interests abroad time and again led to a perception of weakness and vulnerability. In the Arab world, only power (and the use of it) is respected. In that part of the world, for a nation to show weakness in the face of adversity is tantamount to a death sentence.

The Consequences of Denial

For years, American foreign policy towards the Arab world was based upon the political assumption that what it didn’t acknowledge couldn’t hurt it. If the price of stability meant tyranny, then so be it. As long as dictators signed on the dotted line and kept up the oil supply, America felt that it was secure. US foreign policy usually returned to a strategy based on the paradigm that if it did not bother the terrorists, the terrorists would not bother America; that the oceans would protect it, and that (if all else failed) its advanced technology would short-circuit any attempt to commit acts of terrorism on American soil. That paradigm died on September 11, 2001 along with 3,000 Americans.

Prior to that day, however, decisions to use force were consciously avoided to prevent a confrontation with the Arab and Islamic world and Muslim sensitivities and in the naive hope that acts of terrorism could be resolved by non-military means. America foreign policy strategists failed to understand that by not responding forcefully to numerous acts of terrorism over many years, they were sowing the seeds for future disasters.

Astute Middle Eastern analysts have made much of the United States’ post-Vietnam loathing for foreign adventures and America’s enemies listened. Over a period of thirty years, America would maintain a policy of appeasement, although it would come to be known as “détente” (under Richard Nixon) and “accommodation” (under Jimmy Carter). Carter’s protestations that Soviet communism was nothing to fear won him the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Arab oil embargoes, while his much vaunted “human rights” campaign was answered with the creation of a murderous theocracy in Iran. (3)

The tragedies of 9/11 really began in the late 1960s and 1970s when Yasser Arafat taught the world the “benefits” of hijacking civilian airliners and he was rewarded with UN resolutions, international speaking engagements, and Observer Status at the UN. At the same time, the US gave him respectability, multiple White House visits and several meetings with President Clinton. So it should come as no surprise that the current Palestinian leadership looks back with nostalgia to “the good old days” and realizes that if terrorism got the Palestinians international credibility and attention, an escalation of terrorism (like suicide bombings) could only assist their cause.

The Carter Debacle

Long ago, President John F. Kennedy said of the Soviets: “We dare not tempt them with weakness.” (4) But later generations of Americans would forget the adage. America foreign policy during the Carter years was replete with instances of inadequate responses to terrorist provocations against Americans and American strategic interests abroad. On November 4, 1979 radical students took over the American embassy in Tehran and held some 90 American hostages for 444 days. Initially, the Carter administration went out of its way to support the new regime in Tehran by lifting a ban on the sale of arms and materiel to Iran and dusting off a 1954 presidential finding during the Eisenhower years reaffirming Washington’s commitment to defending Iran against Soviet or other threats, but when pleading for the release of the hostages on humanitarian grounds failed, his administration became paralyzed.

What especially surprised Khomeini was that Carter and his aides, notably Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, rather than condemning the seizure and the treatment of the hostages as a barbarous act, appeared apologetic for unspecified mistakes supposedly committed by the United States and asked for forgiveness and magnanimity. The surprising show of weakness from Washington encouraged the mullahs and the hostage-holders to come up with a fresh demand almost each day. The episode soon led to a demand for the United States to capture and hand over the shah for trial. When signals came that Washington might actually consider doing so, other demands were advanced. The United States was asked to apologize to Muslim peoples everywhere and, in effect, change its foreign policy to please the ayatollah. (5)

As Americans tied yellow ribbons around trees, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini disclosed that he had no fear of an American army marching on Tehran. “Our youth should be confident that America cannot do a damn thing,” Khomeini told his followers three days after the embassy takeover. “America is far too impotent to interfere in a military way here. If they could have interfered, they would have saved the Shah.” (6) The ayatollah was right. Jimmy Carter contented himself with imposing ineffectual diplomatic and economic sanctions that included an embargo on Iranian oil and a break in diplomatic relations. Finally, after nearly five months of dithering, Carter attempted an ineffective rescue mission, but the pathetic Eagle Claw expedition had to be aborted on April 25, 1980 after two aircraft collided at a rendezvous point code-named Desert One.

He rejected suggestions to invade Iran, or at the very least, to seek UN support, to stop the importation of Iranian oil, to freeze Iranian assets or bombard Iran’s major military assets or its main government buildings or even capture its oil facilities and other important targets. This, he feared, would lead to the hostages’ being killed. Carter saw the decision as pragmatic. America’s enemies saw it as weakness. By dangling and then retracting the hope of releasing their hostages, Carter looked weak and overmatched. Once Reagan won, the Iranians quietly let the hostages go. Dick Morris has noted that as Reagan was sworn in, the hostages “were flying home and Carter was frantically handling the wire transfers of funds to pay their ransom.” (7)

Military deterrence and the willingness to use force against evil in its infancy usually ends up, in the terrible arithmetic of war, saving more lives than they cost. But such was not to be the case. In the end, Khomeini ordered the US flag to be painted at the entrance of airports, railway stations, ministries, factories, schools, hotels and bazaars so that the faithful could trample it under their feet every day – the ultimate insult. (8)

The Reagan Dilemma

Throughout much of the 1980s, numerous terrorist acts were committed against Americans. The Reagan administration would occasionally arrest a few of them with one notable exception – President Reagan’s air strike against Tripoli, Libya. But, generally speaking, the policy of the Reagan administration centered on the prosecution of such individuals in the courts.

On April 18, 1983, a 400-pound suicide truck-bomb attack destroyed the US Embassy in Beirut killing 63 people and leaving 120 injured. Among the dead were 17 Americans – the entire roster of CIA station chiefs in the Middle East. It was the most devastating attack ever mounted against the American intelligence community. Hezbollah, with financial backing from Iran, was responsible for the attack. America protested.

On October 23, 1983, at 6:22 a.m., a large delivery truck drove to the Beirut International Airport where the Marine Barracks were located. After turning onto an access road leading to the compound, the driver rushed through a barbed-wire fence, passed between two sentry posts, crashed through the gate, and slammed into the lobby of the barracks. The Hezbollah suicide bomber then detonated the equivalent 12,000 pounds of TNT. The explosion crumbled the four-story building, crushing 241 American service personnel to death as they slept. The attack was again carried out by Hezbollah with the help of Syrian intelligence and financed by Iran. America protested.

At the March 2003 civil action by the families of the marines killed in the October 23, 1983 Marine barracks bombings in Beirut, evidence emerged as to the existence of a National Security Agency (NSA) intercept sent from Iranian intelligence headquarters in Tehran to Hojjat ol-eslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian ambassador in Damascus. The intercept directed the Iranian ambassador to contact Hussein Musawi, the leader of the terrorist group Islamic Amal, and to instruct him to take a spectacular action against the United States Marines. No special precautions were taken despite the intercept. After the attack, President Reagan demanded retaliation on the Hezbollah training facility in Baalbeck, but Washington officials dithered and the opportunity was lost. Within a month, America was out of Lebanon and the terrorists had learned a valuable lesson – the U.S. failure to retaliate was a cover for weakness.

On March 16, 1984, Hezbollah kidnapped the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, and beheaded him on June 3, 1985 after extracting whatever information they could. America protested.

In September 1984, the US embassy annex in East Beirut was attacked by Hezbollah killing 23 people including 2 Americans. Reagan tried covert proxy retaliations by Lebanese intelligence agents, but the plan backfired when 80 bystanders were accidentally killed. Again, America protested.

In December 1984, Hezbollah struck again. This time, a Kuwaiti airliner was hijacked and two American passengers employed by the US Agency for International Development were murdered. This time, t Reagan administration replied by offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the hijacker-criminals.

In June 1985, Hezbollah then hijacked TWA flight 847, and held it in Beirut for two weeks. In the process, they murdered American naval officer Robert Stethem aboard the plane and dumped his body on the tarmac, while the world stood by aghast. An eyewitness described Stethem’s killing: “They singled him out because he was American and a soldier. . . . They dragged him out of his seat, tied his hands and then beat him up. . . . They kicked him in the face and kneecaps and kept kicking him until they had broken all his ribs. Then they tried to knock him out with the butt of a pistol – they kept hitting him over the head but he was very strong and they couldn’t knock him out. . . . Later they dragged him away and I believe shot him.” Rather than sending in the Marines to clean up the swamp, hundreds of terrorists held by Israel were released (on demand of the terrorists) in exchange for the release of the other passengers. (9) America did nothing.

In October 1985, the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, was hijacked by a group under the leadership of the PLO’s Abu Abbas, working with the support of Libya. One of the hijackers threw an elderly wheelchair-bound American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, overboard. When the hijackers attempted to escape in a plane, the United States sent Navy fighters to intercept it and force it down. Klinghoffer’s murderer was eventually apprehended, and sent to prison in Italy, but the Italian authorities let him go. Washington protested. (10)

In February 1988, Hezbollah’s top agent in Lebanon, Imad Mugniyeh kidnapped Lt. Col. William Higgins (the US Marine who replaced Buckley) and transferred him to Tehran. Intelligence data indicated that Higgins too was tortured to death and his remains are buried in a cemetery in northern Tehran. In February 2005, a grave marker was placed for Higgins at Quantico National Cemetery near the Marine base in Quantico City, Virginia, to stay there until the day his body is returned.

Throughout the 1980’s, terrorist hostage takings became a very clear strategy. Seven American citizens had been kidnapped in Lebanon by extremist Islamic terrorists who had connections with Iran. Some were held in Lebanon for several years in inhuman conditions, paid a heavy psychological cost, and were finally released when their countries paid a huge ransom; some died in captivity. The kidnapping chapter in Lebanon ended only when Iran forced Hezbollah to desist in return for Western support for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iraq as the aggressor in the Iran-Iraq War.

Reagan provided the Iranian mullahs with arms and in so doing made a mockery of America’s traditional policy of not dealing with terrorists. But the deal turned out to be an insult; America delivered thousands of missiles to Iran for use against Iraq and Iran released just three Hezbollah-held hostages!

As L. Paul Bremer noted in an interview with Frontline: “The decision to essentially buy our hostages’ freedom from Iran was a real failure. We had more American hostages being held at the end of the process than at the beginning of the process, because as soon as it became evident that the United States was willing to pay for the release of its citizens, for every American walking around in Beirut, the price on his head went up. As anybody who’s dealt with blackmailers could have foreseen, therefore, the policy failed…..It made us look hypocritical to the people around the world, our allies we were trying to deal with, and of course it made us look weak to the terrorists.” (11)

The First Bush Administration

During the first Bush administration, the Left put forth the idea that there was no real standard by which to assess third-world criminality. After all, “one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter,” so who was to judge? As a consequence, the Left helped create a climate that left America ill-prepared for the hatred of the madrasses. Arab monsters like Saddam Hussein sensed that there would always be useful fifth columns in America to march on his behalf if it came to a choice between a third-world butcher and a democratic America. In the early 1990s, he tried to persuade Arabs and Muslims of US weakness. He interpreted US efforts at reconciliation as “proof” that Washington feared confronting him. By evincing no strong reaction to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, threats against Israel, outspoken anti-Americanism, or ultimatum to Kuwait, US policy actually helped precipitate the first Gulf War, if only by omission. In a February 24, 1990 speech to an Arab summit, Saddam Hussein told Arab leaders that America feared military confrontations and losses. It had shown “signs of fatigue, frustration, and hesitation” in Vietnam and Iran and had quickly run away from Lebanon “when some marines were killed” by suicide bombers in 1983. (12) Experience had shown, he concluded, that if Iraq acted boldly, the United States would do nothing. He also reportedly distributed hundreds of copies of the “Black Hawk Down” movie (about the American retreat in Somalia) to his fedayeen forces as motivational and training tools prior to the US invasion.

After Operation Desert Storm concluded in the early 1990s, the first Bush administration signed a cease-fire agreement with Saddam Hussein that left the Republican Guard and their armed helicopters intact. Bush should have ended the regime once and for all, but US foreign policy gurus failed to understand that such an enemy must be vanquished if only to avoid a future war. Instead, Bush I chose to proclaim victory, then stood back and watched as Saddam’s Republican Guard exacted its retribution by massacring the Kurds and Shi’ites whom America had encouraged to revolt. This deceit merely served to convince the Arab populations that once America and its allies had secured the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the people of the Middle East were expendable. This act of betrayal would be remembered by the Shi’ite majority in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Saddam may have been wrong in thinking that he could take over Kuwait and that America would stand by and do nothing, but he was right enough in his judgment of America to still have been in power a decade after making what should have been his final miscalculation of “American weakness.”

The Clinton Years

And President Clinton fared no better than his predecessors. Terrorists were criminals who were to be understood, not punished and America (not its enemies) was at fault for their misbehavior. US foreign policy in the Arab Muslim world consisted of Bill Clinton desperately seeking a legacy, craving the Nobel Peace Prize, running America by opinion polls, sending cruise missiles to blow up empty tents in the Afghan desert and pharmaceutical factories in the Sudan, signing agreements with dictators based on the belief that America would somehow be “safe,” and seeing attacks and provocations as nothing more than a series of separate and unrelated criminal acts rather than an assault on our way of life. Islamic terrorism was fought with indictments and press releases. According to Clinton, it was morally wrong, selfish and arrogant for America to decide unilaterally to use its overwhelming military might to protect its own interests. The result was a paralytic foreign policy of self-doubt and appeasement when confronted with real threats to its interests. He unilaterally surrendered in the weapons-inspection “stand-off” with Iraq and restrained America’s own weapons inspectors in order to avoid antagonizing Saddam Hussein on the grounds that the U.S. did not have the international support necessary for military action.

As David Horowitz aptly summarized these years in FrontPageMagazine: “Underlying the Clinton security failure was the fact that the Administration was made up of people who for twenty-five years had discounted or minimized the totalitarian threat, opposed America’s armed presence abroad, and consistently resisted the deployment of America’s military forces to halt Communist expansion…..During its eight years, the Clinton Administration was able to focus enough attention on defense matters to hamstring the intelligence services in the name of civil liberties, shrink the US military in the name of economy, and prevent the Pentagon from adopting (and funding) a “two-war” strategy, because “the Cold War was over” and in the White House’s judgment, there was no requisite military threat in the post-Communist world that might make it necessary for the United States to be able to fight wars on two fronts. Inattention to defense also did not prevent the Clinton Administration from pursuing massive social experiments in the military in the name of gender and diversity reform, which included requiring “consciousness raising” classes for military personnel, rigging physical standards women were unable to meet, and in general undermining the meritocratic benchmarks that are a crucial component of military morale.” (13)

In February 1993, following the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center, Clinton went to court, not to war. He warned against over-reaction. Repeating the Beirut error of ten years earlier, in October 1993, America left her dead lying in the streets of Mogadishu. Al Qaeda, in a further insult to the American infidel, dragged a dead American soldier through the streets in an act calculated to humiliate America and the American people. It succeeded. There was no proportional military response to the humiliation. And despite the fact that Bill Clinton was the most accommodating and multilateralist president one can imagine, we know that al Qaeda began planning the Bojinka Project that led to 9/11 precisely during his presidency.

As an aside, in February 1996, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir wanted terrorism sanctions against Sudan lifted. He offered the arrest and extradition of bin Laden and detailed intelligence data about the global networks constructed by Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, Iran’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas. As it turned out, among the members of these networks were two hijackers who piloted the 9/11 airliners into the World Trade Center. The Clinton administration, however, failed to respond to this overture. (Clinton later admitted that it was the greatest mistake of his presidency). Bin Laden subsequently left for Afghanistan, taking with him Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the former head of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood (the parent organization of Hamas), a future al Qaeda partner in murder and one of the key planners of 9/11.

In the meantime, on a tour of Africa, Clinton apologized for African slavery in March 1998. Four months later, al Qaeda terrorists responded by blowing up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He then went on to apologize for the internment of Japanese Americans, for not saving Rwanda, and for much more. In response, bin Laden had issued his Declaration of War on America in 1996 – at the height of the Clinton administration’s apologetic, good-citizen internationalism: “When tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the street of Mogadishu, you left the area in disappointment, humiliation and defeat, carrying your dead with you. Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal. You had been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear,” he said. (14)

Despite the experience of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the 1993 conspiracy to bomb New York City landmarks, the debacle in Mogadishu, the knowledge of the 1995 Bojinka Project to use American planes to bomb American landmarks; the bombings in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the fatwas of Osama bin Laden declaring war on America, the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, the defunct attack on the USS The Sullivans and the successful attack on the USS Cole in 2000 (not to mention the hundreds of Americans killed in these attacks), the Clinton mindset was one that saw these events as essentially requiring criminal proceedings rather than military responses. When al Qaeda blew up American targets abroad, the FBI flew in and worked the “crime scene.”

Andrew McCarthy (who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing) has written: “In the Clinton years, no matter how many times we were attacked, all the world knew that our approach was to have the FBI build criminal cases. Indeed, Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 39, issued in June 1995, announced that prosecuting terrorists and extraditing indicted terrorists held overseas were signature priorities of the administration. Nearly three years later, after several other attacks and public declarations of war by bin Laden, Clinton issued a press release that both trumpeted as a ringing success his strategy of having terrorists “apprehended, tried, and given severe prison sentences” and announced a new directive, PDD 62. This purported to “reinforce the mission of the many US agencies charged with roles in defeating terrorism,” including by means of the “apprehension and prosecution of terrorists.” The embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed less than three months later. (15)

During these years, America was quiet about almost everything from Saudi blackmail payments to terrorists and beheadings to mass jailings and the disfigurement of women. Political appeasement throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s only emboldened Arab killers. The results were inevitable. This policy of self-deception and appeasement of dictators led to the monstrous growth of al Qaeda, the naive Oil-for-Food travesty with Iraq and the UN, the 1993 Oslo Accords (that resurrected and rearmed Yasir Arafat and his terrorist affiliates), and the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea whereby America proclaimed “peace on the Korean peninsula” in return for allowing North Korea (a soon-to-be-member of the Axis of Evil) food, oil and the wiggle-room necessary to continue making (and marketing) missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and ultimately, its own nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, these strategic errors were not isolated incidents. In 1993, Saddam Hussein plotted to kill the first President Bush on one of his goodwill trips to Africa. In retaliation, Clinton unleashed America’s full wrath……two dozen cruise missiles on an empty intelligence headquarters.

The US government then hatched a plot to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1995 only to pull out at the last minute and leave its Kurdish friends to either cut deals with the dictator, flee, or be killed. (16) In 1998, Saddam stopped cooperating with UN weapons inspectors. In response, the United States and Britain bombed Iraq for four days. None of this made an appreciable dent in Saddam’s dictatorship. This failure suggested to the conspiracy-minded Arab Muslim world either that the United States secretly wanted to maintain Saddam in power for some nefarious purpose, or that it feared the Iraqi dictator. Either way, the vacillating US policy on Iraq signaled a fatal lack of seriousness on America’s part. It was a malignancy that would eventually lead to 9/11.

As a consequence, in 1998, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, insisted there was no need to negotiate with the United States since Tehran had shown that Washington was “too weak to be feared or heeded.” (17) Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mullah often regarded as the Khomeinist regime’s “strongman,” in a sermon on the campus of Tehran University, stated the Middle Eastern view of America with precision – “The US has been exposed as an empty drum,” he said. “Here is our opportunity to teach the Americans a lesson.”

Far from attacking the United States because it is a “big bully,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and others urged attacks to prove that the United States was just a “paper tiger.” Nor did it end there. Even after the failed attack on the USS The Sullivans (because the over-laden explosives boat of the terrorists sank as it approached The Sullivans – not because of any great intelligence coup by America’s spy network) and later the successful al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in Aden Harbor in 2000, America ordered its ships to sea rather than its Marines to shore. (18)

The Arab states and al Qaeda took cognizance of the fact that the US, in the past, failed to respond aggressively to many terrorist attacks, hijackings and kidnappings of its own citizens in Beirut; US dithering while Americans were seized as hostages in Iran; terrorist bombings of its embassies and barracks in Beirut, Tanzania and in Kenya; allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power after the Gulf War (while letting the Shah fall in Iran); and pressuring Israel, its ally, to make dangerous strategic concessions while simultaneously courting Israel’s enemies and allowing its prized Arab-Israeli peace process to be destroyed.

This perception led the Chinese to conclude: “The United States is a superpower in decline, losing economic, political and military influence around the world,” according to the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Security Review Commission. The Commission also noted that “Chinese analysts believe that the United States cannot and will not sustain casualties in pursuit of its vital interests.” That is, America is “soft.” (19)

And China was far from alone in holding this opinion. America’s perceived decline into weakness and its questionable “staying power” in pursuit of its strategic objectives has served as a call to arms to the monsters of the world. As Max Boot sarcastically wrote in the Weekly Standard: “America was seen as an equal opportunity appeaser.” Its eagerness to avoid war, its readiness to make concessions and its willingness to avoid confrontation all resulted in the exact opposite effect. (20) In July 1999, Secretary of Defense William Cohen wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, predicting a terrorist attack on the American mainland. “In the past year, dozens of threats to use chemical or biological weapons in the United States have turned out to be hoaxes. Someday, one will be real.” But the warnings did not produce the requisite action either by the commander-in-chief or in the media.

Al Qaeda Perceptions

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Al Qaeda slowly evolved from the Maktab al-Khadamat (“The Office of Services”) – an organization started during the Soviet-Afghan War to transport Muslims, primarily Arabs, to Pakistan to join the battle against the Red Army. (21) Seven major guerrilla groups formed to resist the Soviets, and the United States enthusiastically joined the fray with arms and economic support. The resistance fighters called themselves the Holy Warriors, the mujahadeen. Embraced by the US government, they traveled the United States calling the Soviets “foreign devils” and “infidels.” America saw it as a just war against Soviet occupation. But few of Ronald Reagan’s political leaders noticed that the mujahadeen used the same terms to describe Americans. In 1989, the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in complete disarray. Not only had they lost the war, but also the Soviet Union soon found itself in a state of collapse. The mujahadeen saw the fall of the Soviet Union as a sign of total victory. The Soviet Union had not collapsed under the weight of political, economic, social and military factors, but in the minds of the mujahadeen, it fell by the hand of Allah. (22) The Soviet retreat was a sign of Allah’s power over Satan, and if Allah could bring down the Soviet Union through the work of the mujahadeen, other evil nations (like the US) were doomed to destruction as well.

One of the mujahadeen leaders who fervently believed in this world-view was a Saudi from one of the wealthiest families in that country. His name was Osama bin Laden. In an interview on CNN in 1997, he declared that “the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind, but in the minds of all Muslims” when the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan. Indeed, in an interview a year earlier, in his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans,” bin Laden cited Washington’s Somalia retreat: “You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew. The extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear” and, in so doing, he belittled the United States as compared to the Soviet Union. “The Russian soldier is more courageous and patient than the US soldier,” he said: “Our battle with the United States is easy compared with the battles in which we engaged in Afghanistan. When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” (23)

Judging magnanimity as decadence, the half-educated in al Qaeda embraced the concept that America was soft, decadent and unable or unwilling to defend itself. This perception of American weakness became provocative. Its enemies and Middle Eastern “friends” alike sneered at its self-flagellation. The perception grew that America not only could not fight, but would not fight. It became viewed as a great power who spoke in principled terms but was adverse to spend blood and treasure in pursuit of them. Al Qaeda and its global Islamic terrorist affiliates came to the conclusion that America’s weakness stemmed from a post-Vietnam conception that wars had to be short, clean and casualty free.

Bin Laden summed up his perception of things in an interview with ABC News reporter John Miller, published in Esquire in 1998: “After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized, more than before, that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows……ran in defeat.” In another portion of that interview Miller quotes Bin Laden as saying: “We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier who is ready to wage Cold Wars and unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours, and this was also repeated in Somalia. We are ready for all occasions. We rely on Allah.”

Later, in a 2000 recruitment video for al Qaeda, he restated what he had come to learn from his experience with the American infidel: “We believe that America is much weaker than Russia; and our brothers who fought in Somalia told us they were astonished to observe how weak, impotent and cowardly the American soldier is. As soon as eighty [sic] American troops were killed, they fled in the dark as fast as they could, after making a great noise about the new international order. America’s nightmares in Vietnam and Lebanon will pale by comparison with the forthcoming victory in al-Hijaz.”

Bin Laden’s continuous challenges to American power and prestige – and America’s failure to respond appropriately – represent a case study in the errors of past American foreign policy in the Islamic world. Continuing a line of inaction that began with the mujahadeen in 1979, al Qaeda operatives organized the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 (that killed 6); unsuccessfully attempted to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels; claimed credit for working with local tribesmen to kill 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993 (driving US forces out of Somalia); drafted the 1995 Manila-based Bojinka Project whereby eleven American airliners were to be hijacked and flown into prominent American landmarks (culminating in 9/11) and attacked a Saudi National Guard facility in Riyadh in 1995 (killing five Americans). On June 25, 1996 an al Qaeda truck bomb blew the façade off the Khobar Towers in the eastern Saudi town of Dhahran, where US crews who flew the warplanes protecting Saudi oil fields were quartered. Assisted by Iran, the attack claimed 19 American lives and left 500 maimed, some gravely. And the bombings continued. Two US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Africa in August 1998 (killing 245 people and injuring 4,585); the al Qaeda attempt to blow up the USS Sullivans in Aden Harbor in 1999 and finally the damaging of the USS Cole less than a year later (killing 17 Americans and injuring 39 others). The US reaction – they left Lebanon; they left Somalia; they tightened security at overseas bases, but in most other cases, America did nothing.

Even before the costliest terrorist strike in history occurred on September 11, 2001, Islamic violence directed at Americans had already killed 800 people – more than were killed by any other enemy since the Vietnam War. Yet, these murders hardly registered on American foreign policy radar screens. As Victor Davis Hanson quipped: “Hezbollah, al Qaeda and the Palestine Liberation Organization were more like fleas on a sleeping dog: bothersome rather than lethal; to be flicked away occasionally rather than systematically eradicated….No one thought that a raving maniac in an Afghan cave could kill more Americans in a single day than the planes of the Japanese imperial fleet off Pearl Harbor.” (24)

In every case, the US government dispatched the FBI to identify individuals for prosecution. “War” and “enemy combatants” were terms that were never mentioned.

The errors of past American foreign policy in the Middle East were confirmed eventually by an admission from one of the highest ranking al Qaeda operatives captured to date – Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – who was the mastermind behind the September 11th terrorist attacks and bin Ladin’s chief of operations. In April 2003, he told his interrogators that America’s tepid military response to terrorist attacks against its interests abroad led to the perception of “profound weakness” by al Qaeda. He cited the limited missile strikes aimed at Osama bin Laden that followed the bombing of two American embassies in East Africa in August 1998. When bin Laden spoke of a “weak horse” and a “paper tiger,” he was speaking of America.

The Bush Doctrine and Beyond

The Bush Doctrine would evolve as an attempt to rectify these perceptions by promoting a paradigm shift in American foreign policy. Under Bush II, America would seek military action and democratic reform to end Islamic rogue states and terrorist enclaves – not because such audacious measures were preferred (appeasement, denial, complicity, self-delusion and the courts were preferable), but because (as Churchill said) all others had failed.

With the coming of the 9/11 tragedies, the American foreign policy paradigm of self-delusion, appeasement and indifference to tyranny appeared to fade into history. The new Doctrine marked the beginning of the robust use of American power, an end to moral ambiguity (“you are either with us or with the terrorists”), defined terrorism as a free floating malignancy, held states responsible and accountable for the terrorists they sheltered, funded and sponsored, asserted a right of preemptive action to prevent rogue states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and confirmed that promoting stability in the Arab Middle East through democratic change would now be fundamental principles of American foreign policy. (Whether Western-type democracies can be superimposed upon the tribal Islamic cultures of the Middle East remains to be seen). In its wake, both the Islamic theocracy in Afghanistan and the secular dictatorship in Iraq fell.

But when the shock and awe campaign in Iraq fizzled in the aftermath of what the Bush administration termed “the cessation of active hostilities,” it became clear to Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his Islamic lieutenants that America had not changed its fundamental nature despite the regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Behind all the rhetoric, they continued to see an American “paper tiger” fearful of expending blood and treasure in pursuit of its national goals. When U.S. forces failed to respond to the looting of Baghdad (for fear of upsetting the local population) or to the murders and decapitations of American civilian contractors; when American forces initially hesitated to take Fallujah for fear of casualties and failed again to take action against the rebel Shi’ite leader Muqtada al Sadr’s continuous challenge to U.S. authority, the Islamic terrorists reasoned that America could be defeated if the cost in blood was high enough. With the invasion of Normandy (when 7,000 American troops died in a single day) now a distant memory to most Americans, Zarqawi’s killers understood the lessons of Vietnam and the importance of American public opinion (not to mention the American media) as a useful fifth column. Zarqawi strategized that if enough body bags could be returned to America and enough members of the Western media and the American Left were on hand to count them, the American spirit could be broken just as it had been broken in Beirut and Somalia. Thus was born the Islamic insurgency in Iraq.

Unfortunately, America has done little to dissipate that image. It continues to be viewed as a great power that is still not prepared to devote all necessary human and financial resources to stabilize Iraq. It has failed to close Syrian borders to Saudi-funded Islamic terrorists, to isolate the battlefield to save American and Iraqi lives, to cut off external sources of support (most notably from Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran) or to vanquish Zarqawi’s insurgents.

Worse, when al Qaeda hears President Bush and his State Department representatives proclaim (as they did recently) that America is “standing with (Libya’s) courageous reformers” – reformers who later ended up in a Libyan prison, or when they see the American ambassador to Egypt fawning over the recent Egyptian “democratic” election which was marred by low turnout, the harassment of opponents, fraud, and the refusal to allow international monitors access to the polls, or when they watch the frivolous efforts made by American and European negotiators to convince Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his pursuit of nuclear weapons is “contrary to the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” and threaten UN Security Council sanctions……they must be amused. UN sanctions. Now there’s a threat. If the Oil-for-Food program is any example of UN sanctions in action, imagine how “terrified” the Iranian mullahs must be at the thought of another set of UN sanctions!

Which brings us back to where we began – al Qaeda’s perception of an American “paper tiger” thrashing about to find “an honorable exit” from Iraq. In Syria, the Bashar Assad regime is not only anti-American, but is a sponsor for terrorists infiltrating into Iraq – and it does so without fear of American retaliation. When al Qaeda (or the Syrian government for that matter) hears Secretary of State Condolezza Rice overrule a military strike against terrorist bases in Syria preferring instead to continue diplomatic overtures combined with hollow threats, the message is one of American procrastination and weakness. After all, the US has done nothing serious about Syria for the past two years except to tell it on numerous occasions that its conduct is “unacceptable.” One would think that fomenting civil war and committing atrocities against Iraq’s Shi’ite population in a state that has become the frontline in the war against Islamic terrorism is a little more than “unacceptable.” Something slightly more dramatic might be in order.

Despite the grandiose proclamations of the Bush Doctrine and the occasional skirmishes on the Iraqi-Syrian border, Syria has yet to be held accountable by President Bush. Damascus has yet to be bombed. Terrorist safe houses in Syria have yet to be raided. Commando strikes are few, support for Syrian dissident groups is small, and economic sanctions have yet to be proven to be effective.

There comes a point in time when verbal threats become meaningless, noble words ring hollow and righteous proclamations become counter-productive. For America, that point has been reached. If the perception of American weakness persists in the minds of these Islamic fascists, then the President will be right about one thing – America WILL be fighting them in its streets and cities – provided, of course, that the next attack will not render them uninhabitable.


    1. Meyrav Wurmser, “Moment of Truth,” National Review, May 24, 2004

    2. Norman Podhoretz, “The War Against World War IV,” Commentary, February 2005

    3. Victor Davis Hanson, “The Wages of Appeasement: How Jimmy Carter and academic multiculturalists helped bring us Sept. 11,” Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2004

    4. Thomas Sowell, “We Dare Not Tempt Them With Weakness,” Capitalism Magazine, September 14, 2001

    5. Amir Taheri, “America Can’t Do a Damn Thing,” New York Post, November 2, 2004

    6. Barry Rubin, “The Truth About Middle East Policy,” The Global Research in International Affairs Center, December 2001

    7. Dick Morris, “Terrorists for Kerry,” FrontPageMagazine.com, June 9, 2004

    8. Amir Taheri, “Americans Can’t Do a Thing,” op. cit.

    9. “The Lebanon Stakes: Hezbollah has a history of killing Americans,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2005

    10. Norman Podhoretz, “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We have to Win,” Commentary, September, 2004

    11. L. Paul Bremer, “Target: America,” Frontline, September 2001

    12. Barry Rubin, “The Real Roots of Arab Anti-Americanism, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2002

    13. David Horowitz, “How the Left Undermined America’s Security before 9/11,” FrontPageMagazine, March 24, 2004. See also Robert W. Tracinski, “A Foreign Policy of Self-Contempt,” The Ayn Rand Institute, October 13, 1999

    14. Norman Podhoretz, “The War against World War IV,” Commentary, February 2005,” op. cit.

    15. Andrew C. McCarthy, “The Intelligence Mess: How It Happened, What to Do About It,” Commentary, April 2004

    16. Max Boot, “The End of Appeasement: Bush’s opportunity to redeem America’s past failures in the Middle East,” Weekly Standard, February 10, 2003, Volume 008, Issue 21

    17. Barry Rubin, “Damn Yankees,” Foreign Affairs, October 29, 2002

    18. Robert D. Kaplan, “A Tale of Two Colonies,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 2003

    19. Claudia Rosett, “When Dictators Blink: By confronting the truth, Bush helps crack Iraq and North Korea,” Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2002

    20. Max Boot, “The End of Appeasement: Bush’s opportunity to redeem America’s past failures in the Middle East,” op. cit.

    21. Reuel Marc Gerecht, ““Not A Diversion: The war in Iraq has advanced the campaign against bin Ladenism,” Weekly Standard, April 12, 20040, volume 009, Issue 30

    22. http://www.wadsworth.com/shared_features/popups/terrorism/booklet.html

    23. Michael Dobbs, “Inside the Mind of Osama Bin Laden: Strategy Mixes Long Preparation, Powerful Message Aimed at Dispossessed,” Washington Post, September 20, 2001; Page A01

    24. Victor Davis Hanson, “The Wages of Appeasement : How Jimmy Carter and academic multiculturalists helped bring us Sept. 11,” op. cit.

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