France's 9/11

Will Europe learn from America's mistakes?


There are many different American contexts in which one might hear the bellicose patriotic warning, "The red, white, and blue is coming to get you." A speech by a Muslim religious leader at a Brooklyn candlelight vigil is generally not one of those contexts.

Yet that's what I heard from Mohammad "Mo" Razvi, the executive director of a Muslim community group called the Council of Peoples Organization, at an interfaith ceremony in Carroll Park on November 15. It was two days after gunmen and suicide bombers ripped a bloody hole through the heart of French civil society, massacring 130 people in attacks at a rock concert, a soccer stadium, and several restaurants. We were gathered with more than 100 people in my neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, which has become the Brooklyn capital of French expatriates (including my wife), in part due to the dual-language program at the public elementary school across the street.

"We pray to God for justice and for these individuals to be taken off this earth," Razvi said, in what was by far the most saber-rattling of the remarks various local religious and political leaders made that evening. "If it's going to take our communities coming together and our governments to come together internationally, so be it."

Razvi's comments defy the stereotypes that were common back when Rep. Walter Jones (R–N.C.) was known not as the anti-war stalwart that he is today but as the congressional progenitor of the shameful "freedom fries" micro-moment, in which french fries were renamed in congressional cafeterias because America's oldest ally was seen as too cravenly pacifist to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not only is the French Socialist government now leading the global coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), but some of the "moderate Muslims" that hawks are always urging to denounce Islamic terrorism are sounding more hawkish than many modern Republicans.

So much has changed in the world since 2001, and so much of it for the worse, that Americans have had a hard time fully grappling with the reality that this was France's 9/11. An international terrorist organization, in a protectorate carved out from a failed state (in ISIS' case, several failed states), reportedly coordinated and took credit for a brutal and deadly act of war designed to inflict maximum civilian casualties in the cultural heart of a successful civilization. The French reaction—and foreign policy challenge—is directly analogous to how America faced Taliban-era Afghanistan in September 2001.

The American discussion about France's choices has mostly clustered around two poles: hyperinterventionism and noninterventionism. Donald Trump, who has as good a claim on America's id in 2015 as any politician (God help us), vowed in early December that "I would knock the hell out of ISIS, I would hit them so hard," adding: "When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families."

Representing the other pole, Sheldon Richman declared in a November piece at that if "Americans and Europeans want safer societies, they must discard the old, failed playbook, which has only one play—more violence—and adopt a new policy: nonintervention."

A third way, represented most by the Obama administration, muddles somewhere between the two extremes: air strikes against ISIS, but not nearly as many as were deployed in prior Mideast conflicts, and no "boots on the ground" (except those worn by special-operations types, who are somehow exempt from the cliché). "This is a worldwide fight and America must lead it," Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton declared the week after the Paris attacks. And yet, "If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission."

When people talk about "lessons learned" over the past 15 years of unhappy U.S. foreign policy, there is a kind of reverse Goldilocks effect. That is to say, one group of people thinks the lesson is that we shouldn't have intervened militarily in the first place, the other group thinks that our military should have stayed longer and fought harder, while those who actually hold power occupy a middle ground that satisfies precisely no one.

But when thinking about France's 9/11, it's worth remembering the choices we made about our own. Only one member of Congress voted against authorizing military force on September 14, 2001, in a resolution that was universally understood as greenlighting the Afghanistan war. That member was not Walter Jones, not even Ron Paul, but the liberal Berkeley Democrat Barbara Lee. And early on, the Bush administration made the commitment—first in Afghanistan, then in the non sequitur of a follow-up war in Iraq—to follow what has come to be known as the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.

The United States broke the Taliban's grip on Afghanistan in less than three months. Since then, more than 2,200 military servicemen and women have died in that wretched country, while taxpayers have poured more than $800 billion into the increasingly ineffective effort to build a post-Taliban state. Cities the Marines took in November 2001 were slipping back to Taliban rule in fall 2015. The country we have broken is not worth owning.

Another road not taken is easy to see in hindsight, though it wasn't very popular at the time and has been strangely undiscussed in the context of France and the Islamic State. That is: Break it, declare victory, and go home. Leave the nation-building to the members of said nation. And put the world on notice that if you control territory, and nurture from within that territory an act of war against another country, your control of that territory is imperiled.

ISIS controls territory in Syria, Libya, and Iraq that roughly equals the land mass of Greece or Nicaragua, and contains an estimated population of 8 million. As of press time, the French government of President Francois Hollande has upped air strikes against the Islamic State and won military support from allies such as Germany and Britain while so far ruling out ground troops. So, no nation-building, but rather an attempt to change control on the ground through air power above. Something perhaps more like the Kosovo campaign in 1999 than the pre-Paris anti-ISIS muddle.

But there are potential drawbacks to this approach, to put it mildly. Air power, as the Obama administration has demonstrated with its drone assassination program in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, tends to kill more innocents than combatants, radicalizing those near the flak. The Islamic State is designed to disappear within civilian populations, then reappear when Western attention wanders elsewhere. Slobodan Milosevic, unlike ISIS, had no pretensions of leading or inspiring a global network of crusading jihadis against the West. And the most recent example of breaking a country without owning it—in Libya, in 2011—was a foundational event in ISIS's creation.

Meanwhile, France is engaging in the kind of civil liberties crackdowns—massive surveillance, arresting people for speech, closing down mosques—that would make Dick Cheney blush. As in our 9/11, the prospects for erroneous overreaction are high.

"The situation in France was a horrible tragedy," said Walter Jones soon after the Paris attacks. "ISIS is evil and they need to be defeated." Certainly easier said than done.

NEXT: 6 Reasons Obama Is Untrustworthy on Guns

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  1. ‘There are no comments.’

    A metaphor.

    There are no words.

    /bows. Quietly walks off stage. Trips, falls, breaks neck.

    1. It’s usually better to keep it that way and, incidentally, let’s hope all European governments will rapidly take advantage of the new atmosphere to criminalize as much trigger-speech as they can. They can look to some of our own legislation and path-breaking trials for models. See, for example, the documentation of America’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

    2. Who could sypmpatahiize wiith with them? Fuck them! fucck you.

  2. Should we have stayed longer in Iraq? The answer is on the front pages. We are going back.

  3. Wow. Only three comments – two from this loser – on France’s 9/11?


    1. ***Comments to up the number***

  4. So…France, not exactly famous for respecting individual liberties before now, will be cracking down even further, and we can expect poor strategic decisions from French politicians? Slow news day?

  5. My first job out of High School was at St Paul and over the next 5 years Iearned so very much. Seeing the hospital torn down tears a small piece of my heart out. The Daughters of Charity and the doctors and staff of St Paul Hospital will always be with me.

  6. What we should have learned but didn’t:
    o Afghanistan is a war we should have fought. BUT, we should have fought it differently.
    – It was/is an unconventional war, so we should have used unconventional tactics and troops.
    – We should have let the Generals conduct the war; instead we let politicians run it, as the politicians have done
    ever since and including Korea. (All of which we have “lost”.)
    o Iraq was not a war we should have fought.
    – AND THEN we withdrew troops from Afghanistan to support this war we should not have fought.
    o When the United States goes after terrorists, overseas, then the military action is unconventional, search and
    destroy; it is a military action against foreign CRIMINALS. We do not conduct a “war” against a country, because
    terrorists are NOT A COUNTRY!

  7. Good and comprehensive article by Matt but I think he’s trying to reserve his highest place in hell. He made a lot of good points but he didn’t seem to have any concrete suggestions about what to do for both us and France. I have some. These people kill each other at high rates when left to their own devices (look at Saudi Arabia and Iran now), let them do so. How about a simple rule? If a person is allowed into France or the United states and kills people they don’t know for religious or political reasons, then no migrants and no visas from that country until we feel it won’t happen again. Afghanistan was a huge waste of time. They have no oil money and are not geopolitically important. We need to play some offense. Use intelligence to look for people from these countries that have the intent and ABILITY to harm the west. In those cases drone strikes and special ops are appropriate and that is all we need in Afghanistan. Trying to control a whole country because there are 1000 people there who might be terrorists is a fools game. And if we do intervene, be Machiavellian about it. The Kurds are obviously a more western friendly force in that area. If we do go into Iraq (and that was a mistake too) give as much of Iraq and as much oil wealth in Iraq to the Kurds to create a new Kurdish state. The current state of Iraq was defined by a British beauracrat in a hurry 150 years ago.

  8. My first job out of High School was at St Paul and over the next 5 years Iearned so very much. Seeing the hospital torn down tears a small piece of my heart out. The Daughters of Charity and the doctors and staff of St Paul Hospital will always be with me.

  9. ‘…who are somehow exempt from the cliché’
    Adventures in typography!

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