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What If 9/11 Never Happened?


Frank Rich
columnist, New York Times

9/11 Five Years Later

When President Bush returned from Crawford to Washington in September 2001, his poll numbers were mediocre, his one burning ideological mission had already been accomplished (tax cuts), and his administration’s policy cupboard was bare except for Social Security privatization (a nonstarter with Democrats) and vague notions of immigration reform (a nonstarter with House Republicans). Without 9/11 to fill the vacuum of his slacker’s presidency, we’d likely have seen a fast-tracking of the scandal foretold by the Tom DeLay K Street project and an earlier and bloodier culture war: Karl Rove could focus his undivided attention on satisfying his base’s hunger for decisive action against abortion, stem-cell research, contraception, and gay people. (Whether indecency would have been on this agenda depends on the answer to another of history’s great what-if questions: What if Janet Jackson had not had a wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl?) Without 9/11, there would have been no rationale for ginning up hysteria about imminent mushroom clouds emanating from Baghdad and hence no way to pivot to a gratuitous war in Iraq. Besides, Bush had come to office pledged to a “humble” (i.e., minimalist Bush 41) foreign policy and opposed to nation building. Grand neocon delusions would have remained dormant as Rumsfeld instead busied himself on his grandiose schemes for remaking the Pentagon, not the Middle East.

Since the Republicans would have had no fear card to play in the 2004 election, the Democrats, having won the popular vote in 2000, would have won it again, this time benefiting from a backlash against the religious right’s overreach, even if they had neither better ideas nor candidates than the opposition. Once in office, might they too have ignored an intelligence briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”? Maybe, but once the inevitable attack came, they too would have won the war in Afghanistan—and, not being tied down in Iraq, maybe they would have made sure it stayed won rather than let the Taliban regroup in the ensuing years.

The broader culture would have gone its own way, 9/11 or no 9/11—progressing effortlessly from the obsessions of Gary Condit and Survivor in summer ’01 to Brangelina and American Idol in ’06. The Oliver Stone project of August ’06, however, would not be World Trade Center, but, with exquisite timing, Fidel. Mel Gibson, having uncovered no “Jewish” wars to trigger his career self-immolation, would be the obvious choice to star. He would quickly sign on once Stone indicated his intention to make the movie in subtitled Spanish.


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