By Steve Chapman: Syndicated columnist
We knew we had won World War II when the Japanese signed surrender documents on the USS Missouri.
We knew we had won the Cold War when the Berlin Wall fell.
But it’s hard to think of any single event that would tell us we have won the war against al-Qaida. Which raises the question: What if we already have?
This is not a possibility entertained by either the Bush administration or its critics. The president’s aggressive policies on surveillance, interrogation and war crimes prosecutions rest on the assumption that we are engaged in an all-out war against a formidable enemy.
The critics, on the other hand, are not interested in conceding that the president who has failed so badly in Iraq may have succeeded quite impressively elsewhere.
But five years on from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the most striking event is the one that didn’t occur. There has been no attack on American soil linked to Osama bin Laden and his colleagues. On that one day, they were able to hijack four airplanes, kill nearly 3,000 people and strike fear in every American. And in all the days since, they have been unable to do anything remotely comparable.
Hardly anyone expected such good fortune. Back then, President Bush warned the country that the war would not produce “a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion.” Americans, he said, “should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign.” The challenge we faced then was often compared to the Cold War, which lasted nearly half a century.
It’s understandable that we expected a titanic struggle and additional attacks. Al-Qaida had an ambitious mission — to conduct a global jihad against the United States and its allies to free Muslim lands from the “crusaders” — and it was willing to kill as many Americans as needed to achieve that goal. Its war against us had escalated to a new level, and we assumed it would stay there.
Bin Laden may have thought so, too. As it turned out, though, he didn’t ignite an Islamic war against the United States — he only provoked the wrath of the world’s greatest military power, which proceeded to crush his little band like ants.
What makes our success hard to perceive is that bin Laden’s disciples have spilled so much American blood in Iraq. Supporters of the war say it has served as “flypaper,” attracting militants whom we otherwise would be fighting here. But surely al-Qaida could spare another 19 fighters from Iraq to slaughter Americans on their home soil. There is no reason it couldn’t confront us in two places at once.
The simplest explanation is they are hitting us in Iraq because they can’t find ways to hit us here. Our presence is certainly creating new terrorists there, but it doesn’t appear to be creating them elsewhere.
Why not? The administration argues that we have been spared because it has made a priority of pursuing the terrorists. Though critics adamantly resist that conclusion, it is undoubtedly true. And some of the president’s more controversial policies may have played a significant role in that success.
But even the most competent administration couldn’t hope to pitch a no-hitter. There is more to the story.
The other explanation is that, as Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller puts it in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, “the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists — like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after that — has been massively exaggerated. Is it possible that the haystack is essentially free of needles?”
We are told that a protracted lull is no grounds for complacency, since al-Qaida has often waited long periods between operations. In fact, it carried out three major attacks on American targets (the embassy bombings, the strike on the USS Cole and Sept. 11) in the space of 37 months — a stark contrast to the experience since then.
The difference is that for many years, it was fighting an adversary who was not really fighting back. In the fall of 2001, al-Qaida found, to its shock, what it was really up against.
At the time, the Sept. 11 attacks looked like the opening salvo of a formidable foe. By Sept. 11, 2011, we may see them as the last spasm of doomed fanatics. That may sound overoptimistic. But judging from the last five years, optimism looks like realism.
Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: