The heinous terrorist acts that darkened a brilliantly sunny day on Sept. 11, 2001, are considered the impetus for plunging the United States into what became the longest war in American history.
But the death and destruction we endured that day were likely forecast by a different terrorist attack carried out almost a year earlier. Monday marked the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer whose hull was ripped open when two suicide bombers piloted a small, explosive-laden fiberglass boat into the ship's port side as it refueled in a Yemeni port.
Although U.S. officials initially hesitated, the government later confirmed the bombing, which killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 more, was the work of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's network of killers who would strike again on Sept. 11. As the 9/11 Commission later reported, bin Laden had hoped the Cole bombing would draw the U.S. into the war that eventually was launched in October 2001, after some 3,000 Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. As early as February 2001, the commission's report noted, bin Laden "complained frequently that the United States had not yet attacked" because of the Cole incident, and subsequently he "wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger." We now know that he followed through on that threat.
Bin Laden is gone now, dispatched from this earthly realm in 2011 by the Navy's lethal SEAL Team Six. Yet we remain mired in the seemingly endless fighting in the Middle East, and the rationale for that is in dire need of clarification, if not justification.
We note this because a few days before the Cole anniversary, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the U.S. was abandoning a $500 million program to train so-called moderate rebels in Syria who were to combat the spreading cancer of ISIS.
Carter said the Pentagon was rethinking the plan after it was revealed the first $50 million spent on the initiative had yielded just "four or five" anti-ISIS rebels who were worthy of the task. Five people at $10 million a piece. That's enough to make one long for the days when wasteful Pentagon spending was defined by purchases of $600 toilet seats.
This one program against a band of 20,000 murderous thugs, who admittedly need to be curtailed, is emblematic of the problems we face in the Middle East.
Fourteen years ago it seemed so clear. Despite bin Laden's desires, the Cole bombing itself was unlikely to generate the ramped-up military response the terrorist leader reportedly begged for. After all, the Cole was the deadliest attack on a Navy vessel since an Iraqi warplane fired missiles at the USS Stark in 1987, killing 37 sailors and wounding 21 others. Yet we didn't go to war with Saddam Hussein over that. Instead we eventually settled with the Iraqi government, accepting a $400 million payment in 2011 for the Stark killings and other violence committed by the Hussein regime against Americans before 2004, according to State Department records.
Bin Laden got what he allegedly sought by killing 3,000 people in September 2001, and after 9/11, the mission seemed so clear: Get bin Laden and get home.
Now, however, we are at war everywhere in the Middle East — or so it seems. Our bombers attack ISIS positions in Syria, with planes based in Turkey. Same goes in Libya. Drone strikes occur in Yemen. Military advisers are training would-be allies in Iraq, again to combat ISIS, which now uses our own weapons and equipment against us. We have 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon wants them to stay there. In one place we fight forces aligned with Iran, a supposed arch-enemy that many believe we should attack instead of negotiating with. In another locale we side with Iran to beat back militants it also opposes.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, tells "60 Minutes" that as a nation we're safer because of all this military intervention — which, conversely, Peter Berkowitz, a Middle East scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University recently, and politely, described as "disarray." "Despite President Obama's determination to rebuild America's relationship with the Muslim world ... his administration's empty promises, gross miscalculations and sudden reversals suggest that he and his team have substituted their wishes about how the Muslim Middle East ought to be for the realities of how the Muslim Middle East really is," Berkowitz writes.
That, in essence, is what's needed here: a reality check. For a generation in the Middle East we've spent thousands of American lives, trillions of dollars and, as Secretary Carter noted, we can't get these folks to stand up for themselves, or appear to figure out whom we should help and whom we should kill. Disarray is putting it mildly. But is there anyone who can bring clarity?
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD