A Choice of Enemies

America Confronts the Middle East


By Lawrence Freedman

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It is in the Middle East that the U.S. has been made to confront its attitudes on the use of force, the role of allies, and international law. The history of the U.S. in the Middle East, then, becomes an especially revealing mirror on America’s view of its role in the wider world.

In this wise, objective, and illuminating history, Lawrence Freedman shows how three key events in 1978-1979 helped establish the foundations for U.S. involvement in the Middle East that would last for thirty years, without offering any straightforward or bloodless exit options: the Camp David summit leading to the Israel-Egypt Treaty; the Iranian Islamic revolution leading to the Shah’s departure followed by the hostage crisis; and the socialist revolution in Afghanistan, resulting in the doomed Soviet intervention. Drawing on his considerable expertise, Freedman makes clear how America’s strategic choices in those and subsequent crises led us to where we are today.


Choosing Enemies

When war comes, choosing an enemy is normally the least of a government’s problems. The choice tends to be obvious. Speaking after the “unprovoked and dastardly” Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw no need to elaborate on the meaning of these events: “The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.” The next “unprovoked and dastardly” attack against American territory, on September 11, 2001, was naturally compared to Pearl Harbor. Yet in this case the facts did not speak so clearly. Four commercial aircraft had been hijacked. Two had been flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., while a fourth, probably destined for the U.S. Capitol Building, crashed in Pennsylvania. The immediate cost in lives was higher: 3,021 (including nineteen hijackers) as against 2,382 in 1941. A measure of the traumatic impact, however, is that early estimates suggested that some 10,000 might have died as the two towers collapsed into dust and rubble. Moreover, the enemy had struck from within the United States, and a link with foreign organizations or states could only be assumed. There was no transparent sequence of events with which the attack might be linked: no crisis, no failing negotiations, no ultimatums, no warnings. When the president spoke to Congress about the attacks on September 20, he realized that he needed to address a number of questions that “Americans are asking.” The first was, “Who attacked our country?”1

The apparent culprit was al Qaeda, a terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden, a dissident member of a wealthy Saudi family, who had issued his own declaration of war against the United States. Bin Laden had found sanctuary in Afghanistan, run by the Taliban, a sympathetic regime that was turning the country into an Islamist state. Multiple, spectacular attacks fitted in with the group’s known aspirations and tactics. American targets had been attacked before–embassies in East Africa in 1998 and a warship, the USS Cole, off the coast of Yemen in 2000. The CIA had been warning that al Qaeda was planning something for 2001. Although an obscure Palestinian group tried to take credit, the Agency merely required a look at the passenger lists of the hijacked aircraft to confirm suspicions. The manifests contained the names of people the Agency had been investigating.2

The enemy did not own up. Bin Laden denied responsibility. At first he suggested, somewhat disingenuously, that the attacks seemed “to have been planned by people for personal reasons.”3 He repeated the denial on September 28. “As a Muslim,” he said, “I try my best to avoid telling a lie. I had no knowledge of these attacks, nor do I consider the killing of innocent women, children and other human beings as an appreciable act.” There were all sorts of people who could be responsible, he suggested, “from Russia to Israel and from India to Serbia.” Perhaps it was “the American Jews, who have been annoyed with President Bush ever since the Florida elections and who want to avenge him.” Maybe it was the “intelligence agencies in the U.S.” They “require billions of dollars’ worth of funds from Congress and the government every year” and so “needed an enemy.”4

Bin Laden was not unique in suggesting that this might be a largely manufactured incident. This idea had, and still has, considerable currency around the world, especially in Muslim countries, and even has some credence in the United States. Allegations were soon circulating that the twin towers were felled as a result of a controlled demolition, or that the Pentagon was really struck by a cruise missile, or that there was a quiet exodus from the twin towers of people (Israelis/Jews) who had been alerted to the coming tragedy.5 In the absence of definite proof that al Qaeda was responsible, more fanciful theories could gain ground.

So President George W. Bush’s political task was more complicated than Roosevelt’s, even though the military task in 1941 was bound to have been much greater. Bush had to name the enemy and explain the enmity, as well as set out a strategy for its defeat. He had to do this for a country that was angry, shocked, and fearful of further attacks from unknown sources. His method was a series of carefully scripted statements culminating in the address to Congress and the American people on September 20, 2001, supplemented on occasion by unscripted, sometimes casual, remarks. Much of the rest of his presidency was shaped by the strategy decided upon and described over those days.

On September 11, Bush knew that al Qaeda was probably responsible and was convinced that the country was at war, but he made neither thought explicit. In his very first comments he referred, somewhat awkwardly, to “those folks who committed this act,” as if they might otherwise be friends.6 That evening he was only slightly more authoritative as he spoke about the “evil, despicable acts of terror” that had ended thousands of lives that day, declaring that the United States would not be frightened into “chaos and retreat.” According to Bob Woodward, his speechwriters wanted to include the phrasing “This is not just an act of terrorism. This is an act of war.” Bush scrubbed it out, arguing that the need that evening was for reassurance. It was not until the next morning that he made this statement. Yet that night he did talk about “the war against terrorism” and also made one important statement of policy, after consultation only with Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” The word “harbor” was Bush’s own, since he considered the original “tolerated” or “encouraged” too vague.7

In the context of al Qaeda operating out of Afghanistan with the connivance of the Taliban regime this was not unreasonable. Demands were already being formulated. The Taliban must surrender bin Laden and his close associates, close all terrorist camps, and comply with all UN Security Council resolutions. Soon, General Tommy Franks, the commanding general of Central Command (CENTCOM), was considering how to deal with the lack of plans for invading Afghanistan. The CIA began to develop proposals to engage al Qaeda by working with Afghan warlords opposed to the Taliban.8

In addition to the important tactical and diplomatic issues to be faced with regard to Afghanistan, the most difficult strategic question was whether the campaign could stop there or whether it would have to be extended into other countries. Some extension seemed unavoidable. George Tenet, director of central intelligence, pointed out that al Qaeda agents might be found in as many as sixty countries. “Let’s pick them off one at a time,” said Bush. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld posed a larger question to the National Security Council (NSC) on September 12: “Do we focus on bin Laden or terrorism more broadly?” Secretary of State Colin Powell responded that the goal was “terrorism in its broadest sense, focusing first on the organization that acted yesterday.”

There were no prior deliberations to consider the wisdom of taking on all terrorism. In the fraught and fevered hours after the 9/11 attacks, there was no time to think through the implications of that policy and subject it to any sort of critical analysis. Powell may just have been trying to postpone discussion of future campaigns until the United States had dealt with the matter at hand–al Qaeda and its Afghanistan base. There was at any rate a well established commitment to take on all forms of terrorism. This was not a new departure in American foreign policy. It had been present since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan spoke regularly about the need to “stamp out the scourge of terrorism.” There were regular references then to a war on terror, a phrase that could be interpreted either as a reference to a real war or a rhetorical device to mobilize the nation to address some great problem, akin to the way previous presidents had also declared wars on poverty, drugs, crime, and cancer. Unfortunately, as Grenville Byford observed, and as these earlier campaigns demonstrated, common nouns “never give up” and so cannot be defeated. These were wars against categories with contested meaning and disputed boundaries. It was better to wage wars against proper nouns, “for the good reason that proper nouns can surrender and promise not to do it again.”9 That is what Powell wanted to do. Al Qaeda posed an urgent and demanding challenge, giving focus to all the government’s efforts. Powell had been garnering international support for whatever might have to be done next and was anxious not to put this fragile coalition at risk by extending the fight to places where American allies were less prepared to go.

The broader the definition of the task ahead, the wider the net, leading the United States into a range of conflicts with a variety of groups. Furthermore, as Cheney was keen to point out, one consequence of going after “terrorism,” broadly defined, was “then we get at states.” Rumsfeld was even prepared to skip the intermediate targets of the terrorists and go straight to their state supporters, because “it’s easier to find them than it is to find bin Laden.” To Rumsfeld, the notional leaders of these groups were less important than those pulling the strings. He warned against playing bin Laden up too much, arguing that even if he were eliminated, this would not solve the basic problem of terrorism.10 At a Pentagon briefing on September 13, in response to a question about the broadness of the coming campaign, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made the point publicly when he insisted that the task was “not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism.”11

What states did they have in mind? One potential candidate was Saudi Arabia. Not only was Osama bin Laden a child of one of the country’s leading families, but fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi citizens. Although the Saudis expressed outrage and concern at the time of the attacks, and had already banished bin Laden, there was a long history of the kingdom appeasing Islamists at home by supporting mosques and madrassas (religious schools) abroad. The more Western-oriented members of the Saudi elite kept control of military and economic affairs but allowed the more zealous members of the religious establishment to control the ministries overseeing religion and education. The Saudis followed Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam, named after the eighteenth-century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab. The combination of oil wealth and a creed wary of modernity was toxic and led to a vast proselytizing enterprise, linked to groups of equal severity around the world. This effort was given added impetus in the 1980s, as a counter to the Shia revival prompted by Iran and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. This gave the teachings of radical Wahhabist imams an increasingly political edge. Wahhabism is a form of Salafism. The underlying thesis of Salafism is that Islam was perfect when first formed and that later innovations can only distort the original and true message. Though dogmatic, Salafism is by no means synonymous with militant violence. It is the case that many of those who have embarked on this path have tended to be Salafists.

There was a particularly important link between Saudi Wahhabism and Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, a group that campaigned against corruption and secularism, in this case with the tacit backing of the country’s military dictator, General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq. It was out of the madrassas in Pakistan, many of which had been preparing militants for the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, that the Taliban emerged. Thus it could be argued (as did a lawsuit) that the Saudis were culpable in creating the ideological climate that nurtured al Qaeda. Craig Unger has argued that George W. Bush was prepared to let the Saudis off the hook because of his family’s close personal and financial links with Saudi Arabia. The major piece of evidence for this allegation was the fact that 142 Saudis, including twenty-four members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the country in a private jet on September 14, without the FBI even screening them to see if terrorists were escaping. This latter point was rejected by the 9/11 Commission, which reported that the FBI’s handling of the flight was thorough and appropriate and that the approval had come from Richard Clarke, then in charge of counterterrorism and later a fierce critic of the administration, and not from the president or vice president.12

A second possible terrorist sponsor was Pakistan itself. Prior to 9/11, the United States had faced considerable difficulty in persuading Pakistan to cooperate in its attempts to extract bin Laden from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency had created the Taliban and kept it supplied since 1996.13 Pakistan was thus one of the few countries in the world to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime. There were also regular reports that ISI, which tended to operate its own foreign policy, had its own connections with al Qaeda and may even have provided some of the funding for the attacks. Islamists were known to be high up in the government. President Pervez Musharraf had been responsible, prior to becoming chief of staff and then mounting a coup, for the unofficial campaign waged against India in Kashmir. Pakistan was already suspected of being lax when it came to controlling the spread of its nuclear technology, although just how lax was not appreciated. There were already disturbing signs that individual Pakistanis were helping al Qaeda pursue its interests in chemical and nuclear weapons. One member of a CIA panel set up in 2000 to review all the evidence on what Pakistan was up to concluded that “the US number one enemy was looking more and more like Pakistan.”14

The 9/11 Commission reported that the Principals Committee on September 13, chaired by Rice, considered the possibility that the United States might still not be able to persuade the Pakistanis to turn against the Taliban, which they had helped create. The conclusion was that if Pakistan failed to help the United States, it would put itself at risk. Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, had already decided there was no time to mess around with Pakistan, and Musharraf had to be told to choose sides. That day, Armitage met with the Pakistani ambassador and the head of Pakistan’s ISI, who was usefully in Washington at the time. According to the U.S. record, Armitage set down the steps required of Pakistan, which involved not only denying support to al Qaeda and the Taliban but also handing over intelligence information and allowing the United States to use Pakistan as a base for the coming military operations, which meant full access to its airspace and borders. According to Musharraf, the message was brutal, or as he put it, “very rude.” He was told by his intelligence director that Armitage said, “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.”15 Armitage denied making any military threats, though his admitted statement that Pakistan must decide if it was “with us or against us,” when put in the context of the time, was not much less brutal.16 Whatever Armitage said, the message was clear. The reply came back almost immediately from Musharraf accepting the U.S. demands, while noting how unpopular this would be with many Pakistanis. This made it easier for the Americans to then formulate the proposed ultimatum to the Taliban.17

From the Hardcover edition.


On Sale
Jul 14, 2009
Page Count
640 pages

Lawrence Freedman

About the Author

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London. Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1995 and awarded the CBE in 1996, he was appointed official historian of the Falklands Campaign in 1997. He was awarded the KCMG in 2003. In June 2009, he was appointed to serve as a member of the official inquiry into Britain and the 2003 Iraq War.

Professor Freedman has written extensively on nuclear strategy and the Cold War, as well as commentating regularly on contemporary security issues. His book, Strategy, was a best book of 2013 in the Financial Times, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East won the 2009 Lionel Gelber Prize and Duke of Westminster Medal for Military Literature.

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