A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East

By Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman
Professor of War Studies and Vice Principal

When war comes, choosing an enemy is normally the least of the government’s problems.  The choice tends to be obvious.  Speaking after the “unprovoked and dastardly” Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, “a date that 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 Harbour.  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 Centre 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?”

 Published by Public Affairs, U.S. 2008