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How 9/11 influenced politics

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and today I’m talking with Nick Bisley, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University. Thanks for joining me Nick.

Nick Bisley:

Thanks Matt. Good to be here.

Matt Smith:

You’re here today to talk to me about the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the war on terror. It’s been ten years since the event happened and the attacks on the World Trade Centre were an iconic event. Do you remember what you were doing at the time and what were your impressions of it?

Nick Bisley:

I can remember it very clearly. I had landed in Melbourne – I was living in England at the time. I’d just finished my PhD and was coming back for a couple of weeks holiday before I was going to start my first academic job, back in the UK. I landed on September 11 at around 8 pm and went out to dinner with some friends and was spending the night with a friend, a couple, both of whom are pilots for QANTAS. As we were driving back from dinner, they both started getting text messages on their phones from pilot friends, saying, you know, you’ll never believe this thing is going on and I’m kind of in that semi jetlagged state that you are after a long haul flight and was kind of going – oh, it’s a load of… and then asking Mark, my friend the QANTAS pilot, I said, this guy’s not like this, he wouldn’t be pulling stunts and this sort of thing. Anyway, we go home and turn on the TV and lo and behold, it’s all happening. And then we proceeded to watch it, of course, with these two people who the next morning have to get on an aeroplane and fly it. It was really surreal for a whole bunch of reasons, on top of all of the other layers of weirdness that the whole thing brought with it, this personal connection I had with it. It was a bit strange – I’d lived in New York as a kid, my brother was living in New York at the time, I had close friends in Lower Manhattan, lived within about three or four hundred metres of the World Trade Centre and knew people who worked there and that sort of stuff. You felt you had a very personal touch with what was going on.

Matt Smith:

It would have really brought it home to you at the time.

Nick Bisley:

I think there was a sense that a lot of people had, that this just can’t possibly be true. This just incomprehension, watching it all happening and then as the buildings fell down and then trying to call people who you knew, you couldn’t get through to them. It did have an immediacy, watching it all through the eyes of a highly jet lagged person… I remember waking up the next morning, thinking, you know that sense you have that it probably wasn’t true. And then as reality sinks in as you wake up and you kind of just go, jeez, it actually wasn’t a bad dream, it was this bizarre set of events and trying to make sense of what it would all mean.

Matt Smith:

I remember when I first found out about it, I got home from the movies after seeing Jurassic Park III and my dad… don’t knock it, good movie, not as good as the first one…

Nick Bisley:

Or the second for that matter…

Matt Smith:

Better than the second one… I think there was a big sense of disbelief around the world that something like this could happen. Did America think that it was untouchable?

Nick Bisley:

I don’t think that it felt that it was untouchable. I mean, the continental mainland of the United States hadn’t been attacked by a foreign power since 1812. So that it didn’t believe that it was completely invulnerable, but it sort of felt that this was off the menu, if you like. I think the major reason that, from an American point of view this was something that they just hadn’t comprehended. For all of their defence planning and expenditure and all this sort of stuff, which was all designed to see off a particular kind of threat, no one had contemplated, or at least seriously contemplated this kind of activity. Plenty of other states and societies around the world had been victims to terrorism. I was living in Britain and there were no litter bins in public trains and train stations because of the IRA bombing campaign which was still going on when I first moved to Britain in ’96. Spain, Japan, you know, plenty of developed countries had had it. America had never had it, at all. That sense of a kind of complacency about that, not that America would ever be attacked, I mean, cold war posture of American defence was that America was going to be attacked by the Soviets, and to this day, you know, they expect to be attacked, militarily, but of course since September 11th now they are just completely obsessed with the terrorist threat. I mean, over obsessed with it.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, it’s really heightened things there now, hasn’t it?

Nick Bisley:

Oh yeah. You’ve sort of swung from one extreme to the other, where you’ve had that sense that terrorism was someone else’s problem, to this is our number one threat, which it palpably isn’t. That sense of striking the right balance between preparedness and the kind of totally paranoid over-the-top reaction that is now the norm in the US. They’ve never been able to strike that right balance. And America is worse off for it. I think when you visit America, just at an individual level, the sorts of just minor intrusions into your privacy that you get now that you never used to get. The minor indignities of being frisked getting on to a plane, when everyone knows any well-intentioned terrorist is not going to be caught out with this stuff and there’s a real sense that there’s this sense of what some people have called the choreography of security, you have to be seen to be doing the security just to put out a sense that there is a greater sense of vigilance. And yet, everyone agrees that their ability actually to see off a well-intentioned terrorist or some other ne’er do well has really not much improved by all this stuff. I mean, you have these stories of airline pilots having toenail scissors taken off them. To this day you get on QANTAS flights, at least in economy class, you have plastic knives. In business class they give you metal knives. September 11 hijackers of course all travel in first class in the front of the plane. It all seems a little peculiar, in my mind a real contrast that you have visiting in the US now where I used to go fairly regularly, prior to September 11 – as a visitor you really see that degree of, I think it’s paranoia, about this threat. You can sort of understand where it comes from, but it’s surprising it’s still there, ten years on.

Matt Smith:

George Bush stood at the ruins of the World Trade Centre – he stood with a bull horn…

Nick Bisley:

I can remember the image, I can’t remember what he said. That quite striking image.

Matt Smith:

How much did 9/11 define his presidency from then on and did it save it?

Nick Bisley:

There’s a couple of fairly obvious things – one is, there’s no question that September 11 absolutely defined Bush. It made his presidency in a lot of ways. He was a guy who was nine months into what was regarded by many as an illegitimate presidency. He’d got in on the back of a Supreme Court decision which effectively said, stop counting the votes in Florida and give the presidency to Bush. And it was an awful decision for a bunch of reasons, least of all of which was that the judges all voted along clearly partisan lines and constitutional lawyers in America, regardless of their own narrow partisan views really shake their heads when you talk about that decision. So he was a fairly illegitimate President, or at least one who was struggling with legitimacy, he had a fairly unremarkable set of policies, America had entered a minor recession, you know, there was a sense that this was a presidency that was kind of flagging a bit. He was not especially charismatic and then this happened. Initially I think, the reaction from the President was ordinary in that, you might recall, he jumped up on an aeroplane and then no-one saw him for about three days, because there was this sense that they had to keep him secure. There was this notion that America was under attack and the standard operating procedure for an attack on the United States was that the President was to get in a plane and fly away from the combat zone. It was all predicated around a nuclear attack. So if Washington suffered a nuclear strike, the President gets in a plane and flies to the Rocky Mountains or somewhere in the Midwest and the machinery of government can continue to function. So they sort of followed that, but for a little bit too long. Like, come on, this is not a nuclear attack – you need to get out there and be seen. So there was a few days of, what’s going on? And then the show got on the road, and they got out and about and went down to Lower Manhattan, talking to rescue workers and various others. I don’t think everyone believed it – opinion polls and things were just astonishing – within America and globally – the degree of sympathy with the President, with the United States and with the course of action that something has to be done. You know, there was a famous headline on Le Monde, the left wing Parisian newspaper, not known as a bastion of pro-American sentiment. The front cover just said “Today we are Americans” on September 11th. So you had this wellspring of popular opinion in support of America going after these guys. And that of course led to Afghanistan. But Bush absolutely from a domestic electoral point of view, put the war footing as his central policy platform. If you look at his re-election campaign in 2004, it was overwhelmingly about America and security and the war on terror, and if you put these guys, ie the Democrats, in charge, it will go to hell. And there was that truly awful image where the Democrats realised they were on this campaign which had to be fought on Bush’s terms, and you had that awful image of John Kerry, who was a genuine Vietnam War veteran, appearing at the Democrat Convention doing this cringe-making kind of salute, saying “I’m John Kerry, reporting for duty” and attempting to kind of militarise the campaign, and it just went down terribly. But also the Bush legacy as President was one of, you know, it will be remembered historically for launching the two big wars, both of which were much longer and much more expensive and much less decisive than they ever imagined they would be, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also oversaw a huge increase in the American budget deficit problems. So whilst we tend to think of the deficit as an Obama problem, the big deficits started with the military expenditure in 2003-2004. It was exacerbated by a series of budget cuts, something for which I think history will probably be kind to Bush about, and that was, he was the President who was in charge when the GFC hit and it was on his watch that the first big bale-out plans and the stimulus package happened. You know, the negotiations between the White House and Wall Street. His legacy is very much one in which September 11th is the event with whom his presidency will be most closely associated, and it will be that which made him a compelling political story, but also which was the particular ways to which they reacted to September 11th will be things for which I think he will probably be judged fairly harshly in the longer run.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that without the catalyst of 9/11, the war on terror wouldn’t have happened?

Nick Bisley:

Absolutely not. There’s clear evidence that there were certainly people within the foreign defence policy establishment who were saying counter terrorism is something we’ve got to take seriously, Al Qaeda is a serious threat to us and our interests, not so much on the homeland, as the main focus, but that was there, but more about sort of action in and around the Persian Gulf. Prior to September 11th, this was all kind of pushed to one side and this was not where the priorities are, and there are a bunch of books that have been written about people saying, we’ve got to take this guy, Osama bin Laden, seriously and all of these things, and just being told, you know, this is not a particular priority. I mean, look, if there’d been no September 11th, it’s impossible to say what might have transpired, whether there’d have been different decisions, but certainly the kind of wholesale shift in attitudes towards terrorism in general within the United States, the development of say, the Department of Homeland Security, and all that sort of stuff, to say nothing of the launching of the two big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they just simply wouldn’t have occurred, without this sort of event.

Matt Smith:

Probably because of economic interests…

Nick Bisley:

And also, how do you sell a war? If you look at the way in which both Iraq and Afghanistan were sold politically within the United States, it’s about counter terrorism, it’s about security and it’s about threats. Now we all know that the link between Iraq and September 11th was pretty tenuous, if there was even a link at all, but those attacks, the absolutely televisually shocking event that it was, meant that all of sudden the rule book was kind of being radically re-written about how you could use force. Remember that America had up until September 11th been increasingly reluctant to use military force, to put its soldiers in harm’s way, particularly for humanitarian interventions and this kind of thing. The famous NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, Clinton made it very clear that there was no way American ground forces were going to be involved in a war. A lot of people felt like, if that’s true, you don’t say that publicly. You don’t signal one of your major strategic decisions to your enemy. But I think that if you’re looking at those two conflicts, they basically wouldn’t have occurred. There’s no question that they wouldn’t have occurred. And I still think that if there’d been a different result in the 2000 election, if Gore had been accorded electoral victory by the Supreme Court, I think almost certainly that there wouldn’t have been a war in Iraq. I think there would have been almost certainly an Afghan campaign, and it could well have been a much bigger campaign for that matter, but the link that the Bush administration wanted to draw between Saddam Hussein and his regime and September 11th was made possible by those attacks and the kind of levels of insecurity that they promoted, particularly in government. I think more than anywhere you saw governments, politicians, political figures, be more strikingly affected by this than almost anyone else. The conviction with which these guys talk about the kind of threat that Al Qaeda presented, you know, these guys believed this stuff, they were genuinely shocked by what had occurred, and genuinely believed that these guys presented a new kind of essentially non-deterrable, violent, utterly inhumane threat that needed to be dealt with in a very severe fashion. I think if the September 11th attacks had been pre-empted and there’s a lot of reports and information out that shows there were lots of opportunities if people had been looking in the right places and the intelligence failures hadn’t occurred, then this attack would easily have been prevented. I think American foreign policy over the past ten years would have been completely different. Completely.

Matt Smith:

Now that we’re ten years on, we’re already looking at the 9/11 attacks in a different light. How do you think they’re now perceived?

Nick Bisley:

I think the attacks are still seen as quite shocking. I think when you watch that footage, there’s that sense of disbelief about it all. The perspective that we bring to bear on it, I think it goes without saying that when we look at September 11th we almost instinctively begin to think about Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think, certainly from my point of view, as somebody who studies international politics, the view is that September 11th was shocking, what was more striking and I think as time goes on this opinion will become more firm, is that how badly wrong the Americans and others got the policy response to it. That is to say, I think the Iraq war was clearly a big blunder, a severe blunder. Everything that people who knew that country and knew terrorism said, why you shouldn’t go into Iraq basically came true, the country will fall apart, sectarian warfare, the place is being kept together by an authoritarian dictator, that you will divert resources away from the war on terror and that will embolden Al Qaeda, it will act as a recruiting… I think the kind of over-reaction that it prompted, but cool heads needed to prevail in the response, and they didn’t, quite the opposite. It was almost as if there was a sense that a kind of revenge catharsis was going to be necessary to deal with this, and I think in many ways an irresponsible policy, just strategically not a smart move, not only about Afghanistan, but then to make the big mistake of intervening in Iraq in the way that they did.

Matt Smith:

That’s all the time we’ve got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Professor Nick Bisley, thanks for your time.

Nick Bisley:

Thank you.

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