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What If 9/11 Never Happened?

The Good News Is 9/11 Never Happened. The bad news?
Andrew Sullivan blogs from a parallel world

September 1, 2006, 7:32 a.m.
After a somber beginning, the president finally found his voice last night. It’s been hard for him to connect viscerally to the public, and the formality of a congressional address doesn’t exactly help. He remains awkward, stiff, emotionally detached. That strange interlude in the 2004 campaign, when he finally seemed human enough to be elected, has evaporated again—just when he needs it most. His approval ratings still haven’t gotten past the mid-fifties—and it doesn’t help, of course, that he lost the popular vote the one time it counted. Karmic payback, I suppose.

But the facts are on his side. As he amassed the evidence for WMD materials and hundreds (possibly thousands) of trained terrorists in Afghanistan’s camps, as he made the case for what he calls “aggressive defense” against the Taliban, as he linked this threat to the newly belligerent regime in Tehran, he gained a certain logical and emotional traction. At least I hope he did. This is what he ran on, and although it’s taken him almost two agonizing years to get to this moment, he still gets credit in my book. Yes, it took aerial photographs of alleged chemical factories in Kandahar to get him to closure. But he got there—which is more than Bush ever did in four years.

With Defense Secretary Lindsey Graham in the chamber, Gore also has some Republican cover. The neocons, alas, don’t count anymore. Bush’s 2002 backdown over China and his almost pathological caution about war in the Middle East—like father, like son—put the Weekly Standard crowd in the wilderness long ago.

Osama bin Laden has warned of “devastating” consequences if we act. The isolationists on the right (and far left), of course, are pointing to this as a reason to—yes—back down. In a column decrying “another Democratic war,” Patrick Buchanan played the Jewish card against Lieberman again. Michael Moore is accusing Gore of “Democratic treason” for an oil pipeline. Unhinged, as usual. But this act of “aggressive defense” is supported by Britain, China, Russia, Germany, and blocked in the Security Council only by France. They’re all in on the conspiracy? Please.

Yes, there are grave risks of acting, but the fact remains that Al Qaeda has attacked U.S. interests at little cost for years now. From the USS Cole to the bombings at the embassies in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Spain, and Turkey, they have been sending a message of global threat. Each blast killed more and more. I believed Secretary of State Holbrooke’s presentation at the U.N. We have no idea what Al Qaeda has been able to get its hands on these past few years. Do they have secret contacts in Pakistan as well as Iran? Do they have nuclear material?

September 14, 2006, 11:16 a.m.
“We have nothing to fear, as President Roosevelt said, but fear itself. History teaches, as President Reagan proved, that wars begin when our enemies believe the price of aggression is cheap. We stand at a crossroads in history—to hand the future of humankind to religious extremists at home and abroad, or to fight for our values and our Constitution and our security as Americans. I do not regard this as a partisan matter, or as a political matter. The security of the West is at stake, and we must act now, before it is too late.”

That’s the president, from the Oval Office last night. The air strikes began this morning. Next stop: ground troops?

September 23, 2006, 1:12 p.m.
The Joint Chiefs chairman says all the “critical” terrorist targets in Afghanistan have now been hit. The major air campaign is over. But Al Qaeda still runs the country. Now what? We’ve mobilized for ground troops (finally), but Gore is dithering again. The NYT predicts a “quagmire.” They always do.

October 23, 2006, 10:36 a.m.
AMERICA ATTACKED—that’s the headline on Drudge. world attacked would be more accurate. Write this date down now: October 23, 2006. It’s the day we finally slipped into the reality of the world many of us have feared for several years now. The Islamofascists—maybe that term won’t be so stigmatized in polite circles any longer—have struck.

The synchronization—five Western cities, if you include Tel Aviv and Moscow, within one hour of each other—suggests a sophisticated operation. There are poignant reports on CNN of text messages sent from the subway cars in the few minutes before the gas killed the passengers. They finish mid-sentence. London seems to be the worst hit so far. Given that the attacks happened at rush hour, and we don’t even know how many there were—ten? Twenty? The BBC is sticking to “more than a dozen”—it’s impossible to know how many people may have died. I’m seeing experts on Fox saying the swiftness of the deaths suggests cyanide. But how were the chemical weapons unleashed? Maybe we’ve just seen the first suicide bombings in the West.

We now know one thing: The Islamists were far too smart to attack prematurely. They could have pulled off a major domestic attack like this years ago. (I wonder how Bush would have responded if they had. Probably with the same deer-in-the-headlights rigidity with which he handled the economy.) Al Qaeda used the time to develop their WMD networks, their training camps, their ground troops. We thought our attack on Afghanistan was at a time we chose. We were dreaming. We didn’t realize they were merely waiting for an excuse, in order to rally the broader Muslim world against us as “aggressors” and “crusaders.” Now they have one. But we shouldn’t buy the propaganda. We didn’t want this conflict. They do.

October 23, 2006, 12:52 p.m.
I don’t see any other way to describe what seems to be unfolding but war. The president has issued an emergency freeze on all domestic flights. They’ve targeted airplanes as well? I guess the gas could work just as well in a 737. Up here in Ptown, people are walking about in a daze—and the skies are eerily silent, except for a couple of military planes that just flew ominously overhead. Fox News keeps running the London footage. My brother called to say he’s okay. A work friend of his is missing. The sight of those piles of limp bodies being pulled out of the bowels of Victoria Station is something I won’t easily forget. It’s the Blitz in reverse. When Hitler struck, Londoners went into the tubes to escape the carnage. Al Qaeda has turned that refuge into a mass tomb.

Meanwhile, chaos in NYC. A blogger who was on the path train under the World Trade Center (remember 1993?) has already posted one account: “The first thing I noticed was a weird smell—like almonds. All I could see was blackness and then the coughing and screaming. I wasn’t on the train yet so I simply turned and ran for the exits. I held my breath, but my eyes started watering and I felt as if I was going to puke. A big guy on the up escalator dropped like a professionally demolished skyscraper. Others on the platform seemed to be going into convulsions.”

To recap: We now have reports of up to 30 separate gas attacks in subway systems in New York, D.C., Moscow, and London, and a shower of chemical-tipped rockets directly into Tel Aviv from somewhere in the Syrian-controlled part of Lebanon.

October 24, 2006, 3:14 p.m.
CNN is reporting that the chemical used—hydrogen cyanide—may have been detonated by up to a hundred suicide bombers around the world. They’ve invented this device called a “mubtakkar” that any Islamist teenager can carry in a pocket and detonate at will. It’s their version of an iPod: an iGod that kills. Talk about asymmetric warfare. The experts say the mubtakkars can be detonated remotely as well—so they’ve ordered a curfew until major buildings can be inspected. The use of suicide bombers is therefore ... simply a statement of determination and resolve. Martyrdom as a psychological weapon.

The death count is now estimated in the thousands. Some tunnels collapsed in New York’s and London’s subways, apparently exacerbating the toll. This could change, of course. Remember the first reports from Hurricane Georgia?

November 21, 2006, 6:30 p.m.
Just when you thought House speaker Tom DeLay couldn’t get any crasser, he goes and says this on Fox News:

“Look, we prompted this attack. Yes, the ultimate responsibility lies with Al Qaeda. I’m not denying that. They’re evil. But without the needless provocation by the president, thousands of Americans would be alive today. Containment could have worked.”

And so DeLay does to Gore what he once did to Clinton: undermine him in a critical war. Maybe it’s his increased majority in the House that has made him cocky, but for the record, I think DeLay’s political instincts are completely wrong here. Most Americans understand that the attacks prove how vulnerable we always were. The exit polls show that a clear majority of 2004 Gore voters who leaned Republican or independent saw the carnage in the embassies and voted accordingly. Gore has also neutralized the conservative isolationists by playing the anti-gay card so shrewdly. Campaigning against gay marriage helped him win a sliver of the GOP vote—enough to get him Ohio anyway. But his hawkishness was key. It still is.

November 30, 2006, 12:02 a.m.
The president’s fireside address last night was too FDR for my taste, but the insta-polls show a blip in Gore’s ratings. The country wants to be united, despite the cynicism of the Republican right (and now the defeatist rumblings on the academic far left).

Still: No one in the West is to blame for this. No one. Despite all I’ve said about George W. Bush—his crazed spending habit, his feckless indifference to the Islamist threat, his obsession with China for his first two years until the great “Beijing Betrayal,” his Faustian pact with the religious right—he wasn’t insane for believing the Islamist threat was unserious compared with the economic and military clout of China. Rumsfeld’s geostrategic obsession with Beijing was not irrational. It was merely wrong. It is hard enough to believe that individuals really do want to murder infidels. Who could have foreseen the simultaneous live burial of 10,372 innocent human beings over two continents? It was, as the tabloids put it, a terrorist tsunami. And like the actual one the Christmas before last, we did not have the warning signs to see it coming.

December 12, 2006, 6:41 p.m.
Good news: The Senate vote on ground troops to Afghanistan sends exactly the right message of commitment. But now there’s a new twist in Gore’s and Blair’s rhetoric. Gore is arguing that only by democratizing the Middle East can we win the long-term war. Huh? I can see the broad ideological point: We have to offer an alternative to the medieval despotism now gripping the region. But this is also where my own conservatism kicks in. We’re going to make Afghanistan a democracy? At best, it’ll take decades.

December 13, 2006, 3:15 p.m.
My sources tell me that former president Bill Clinton, even after his recent heart attack, will find the strength to sit behind Gore when he gives his address to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs next Saturday. There are even rumors that both president Bushes will show up—as an effort to convey national unity. Classy of them, especially the younger one. He’s still bearing a grudge from the Ohio recount, but he’s a patriot as well. He knows what’s at stake. Unlike some in his party. Cheney won’t show. Typical.

January 12, 2007, 8:19 a.m.
Reports are coming through overnight that Musharraf has been overthrown in Pakistan in what seems to be an Islamist coup centered in the intelligence services. Not confirmed yet—but it would not be a huge surprise. I’ve no doubt, however, that some Republican partisans (and assorted woolly-minded liberals) will blame Gore’s decision to airlift troops into eastern Pakistan as another needless provocation. But what’s the point of destroying the Taliban if we merely let Al Qaeda escape across the border?

It’s an unholy domestic alliance, this: Tom DeLay and now Jimmy Carter both arguing for “restraint.” Is Osama in Islamabad already, I wonder? The scuttlebutt from the White House is that he isn’t, and the Pakistani generals are bluffing. In fact, some CIA sources just told Novak that the Osama trail is getting hotter. But, alas, over the last five years, Al Qaeda has dispersed its leadership across the globe, from Indonesia to Londonistan. Getting Osama would be emotionally satisfying. I’m not sure it would be militarily significant.

January 20, 2007, 6:20 a.m.
Pakistan’s Islamist military junta says that the global “jihad” has entered a “new phase,” and they’ve listed a series of demands. It’s the familiar litany, the “elimination” of the “Zionist entity” chief among them.

Gore’s pledge to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan to 300,000—and his promise to divert all the proceeds of the new gas tax to adding four new divisions to the military—is exactly the right message to my mind. Chuck Hagel’s tirade against this act of “warmongering” can safely be dismissed. Thank God for McCain.

March 17, 2007, 7:14 p.m.
We got him. Osama wasn’t in Islamabad after all. The air strike that killed him and two of his wives will prove a huge morale boost. Maybe it will even embolden our friends in the Pakistan military to seize back power. The show trial and public hanging of Musharraf might yet backfire as well. And the hideous toll of Islamist rule we’ve uncovered in Afghanistan—the death camps for infidels, the mass graves of “unruly” women and homosexuals—could surely help turn Muslim opinion in our direction.

I’m also encouraged by the extension of the no-fly zones in Iraq. Iraq has been the quiet success story of the last few years—one of the few places where the Bush-DeLay containment strategy makes sense. Saddam has no real WMDs left—the U.N. inspectors proved that over the last three years. But extending the protected zone to the southern marshlands, as Gore now proposes, and allowing that ancient culture to slowly recover from Saddam’s butchery, can only be good PR. I’m glad Bush offered a statement supporting Gore’s decision. They’re even planning elections in Basra, along the Kurdish model. Bit by bit, we’re slowly repartitioning Iraq, and glacially democratizing its de facto mini-states in the south and north, and now southeast. Maybe it will prove more fertile democratic territory than Afghanistan. It could hardly be worse.

July 30, 2007, 11:32 a.m.
Maybe all wars are like this. There are periods of hope, interspersed with bouts of dark terror. Pakistan’s dictator today issued yet another list of “demands,” even more outrageous, including another threat of a “devastating counterattack” if we do not withdraw from eastern Pakistan. What makes this more worrying than in the past is that it was issued in a joint press conference with the newly elected president of Iran, one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I’m still trying to spell his name right. But he seems of an altogether more serious cast than his predecessor. Why the constant allusions to the twelfth Imam in his rant about Kandahar? I guess if Armageddon is a useful rhetorical ploy for James Dobson, we shouldn’t expect it to be ignored by the Shiites.

DeLay, of course, has now called for “consolidation” of the Afghanistan effort in a veiled attack on Gore’s “overreach.” “Pakistan is one nation too far.” In the battle for the soul of the GOP, DeLay does seem to be gaining on McCain.

September 11, 2007, 12:26 p.m.
The NYT reports that U.S. intelligence has picked up signs that Pakistan has funneled nuclear material to Al Qaeda cells in the U.S. The reports come from leaked documents outlining after-the-fact warnings picked up at various ports—specifically San Diego and Philadelphia. I don’t know what to think. It’s a little hard to believe that our only intelligence on this kind of thing is after this stuff may have already been imported. The leak—rather than an announcement—will only make the panic worse. It’s one thing to know that there’s a risk of nuclear material being smuggled into the U.S. It’s another thing to be told we have evidence that it already has.

Gore is due to give an Oval Office address tonight. Suddenly, I get tremors of 10/23 all over again. CNN is showing the freeways out of New York, Philly, D.C., and L.A. jammed to the gills. My bet is that the Zipcar is booked already. I’ll live-blog the speech later. Stay tuned.

September 11, 2007, 9:30 p.m.
Gore called for calm. He had the right words, but this time they didn’t soothe. I kept waiting for his assurance that Al Qaeda didn’t have the capacity to detonate dirty nukes in various cities. But the words didn’t come. He seemed composed himself. But something about his demeanor suggested ... well, it suggested he wasn’t any surer about that than any of us are. And so we wait ... For some reason, I went to the window and took a picture of what lay outside. I wanted some memento of life before. Before what? I don’t know. We’re waiting to know that as well.