Twenty years have passed since jihadists carried out attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., killing almost 3,000 Americans. That fateful Tuesday in September marked an inflection point for the United States, which responded with military operations in Afghanistan and later Iraq. Nearly a generation later, American combat forces are set to withdraw from both places, without victory in either. Nor have jihadists relented; they’ve continued to carry out attacks.
For twenty years after 9/11, ARI intellectuals voiced a distinctively Objectivist analysis of the Islamist threat and how to define and pursue America’s self-interest. Moreover, they predicted that prevailing ideas about morality, unless rejected, would undercut U.S. foreign policy and cripple us in action. Unfortunately, those predictions have proven correct.
Many of these arguments are set out in an upcoming ARI Press book, Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: What Went Wrong After 9/11, by Onkar Ghate and Elan Journo. The book collects ARI essays and articles on foreign policy spanning four quite different presidential administrations, underscoring the profound impact of philosophic ideas in foreign policy, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
In the following interview, which was completed before the fall of Afghanistan, Ghate and Journo discuss 9/11, the U.S. response to the Islamist threat, and the repercussions today. This interview appears in the upcoming edition of the Institute’s quarterly publication Ayn Rand Today, which is being mailed to donors and will be available to them online as well.
Q. Let’s start by rewinding to that Tuesday morning in September 2001. You both were working for ARI. Tell us what it was like that morning and those first few weeks and months.
OG: I remember that day vividly. The news of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers brought the country to a standstill. No one knew if there were more hijacked planes heading toward other targets. I lived five minutes from LAX; I remember the silence and the empty sky. I watched the news coverage for a few hours and then decided that I had to go into work because we at ARI needed to speak. I called Yaron [Brook, ARI’s then-executive director], who lived about an hour from the office; he was already on his way in. Normally my drive to the office meant enduring LA’s infamous traffic, but that morning it was a ghost town. I met Yaron, Elan, and our media director there, and we started sending out press releases to try to land interviews on radio and other media.
EJ: It’s difficult to capture the mood in the days and weeks afterward. One reaction was everywhere: people spontaneously draped the Stars and Stripes from their homes, from their car windows—and especially people who, previously, had never thought of displaying the American flag. There was a palpable sense of shock and fear, but also a healthy desire for justice. It was the issue on everyone’s mind.
Q. Why did ARI spend so much time addressing American foreign policy after 9/11?
OG: We knew it was critical to formulate an Objectivist response and make sure it was heard. As Elan said, it was the issue on everyone’s mind. If philosophy couldn’t guide you toward a proper analysis and response to so important an event in American history, of what use were philosophical principles?
We put a great deal of energy into formulating the fundamentals of a proper response because the stakes were high—9/11 was a preview of what to expect unless American policy changed—and because there was also a unique opportunity to showcase Objectivism’s intellectual power and to steer people toward a rational conception of American interests, toward a better foreign policy. We knew that if the pragmatism, altruism, and increasing religiosity that had been crippling American foreign policy in the twentieth century were left unchallenged, the U.S. response to 9/11 would prove a disaster.
EJ: That last point you mentioned comes out forcefully in an essay by Dr. Leonard Peikoff, “End States Who Sponsor Terrorism,” which was the centerpiece of ARI’s initial response to 9/11. The opening line, which echoes in my memory, reads: “Fifty years of increasing American appeasement in the Mideast have led to fifty years of increasing contempt in the Muslim world for the U.S.”
I strongly encourage everyone to read, or reread, that essay. We’re pleased to feature it in the book Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism. Dr. Peikoff stresses the importance of properly conceptualizing the enemy’s ideological nature and targeting the state-sponsors—notably Iran, which is central to the Islamist movement.
Q. How did ARI promote Dr. Peikoff’s essay?
EJ: With the support of our donors, we arranged for Dr. Peikoff’s essay to appear as a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post and then in the New York Times. It may be difficult to appreciate how big a deal that was, now that most of us read the news on a screen.
In 2001, such ads were a news-making event. And the essay, which we also posted to ARI’s website, certainly caused a stir. Traffic to ARI’s website spiked soon after, and along with press releases and op-eds that we were publishing, there was a strong demand for ARI intellectuals to appear on TV and radio interviews. All of that media visibility, a torrent which lasted several years, helped elevate the public profile of Ayn Rand’s ideas and of the Institute.
Q. You mentioned some of the impact of ARI’s commentary after 9/11. What kind of reactions did you see?
OG: Our analysis was unique. Objectivism is a radical philosophy, and its applications to political-cultural issues lead to controversial views. We stood at odds with everyone: progressives, libertarians, conservatives, and the George W. Bush administration, which was influenced by neo-conservative thinkers and conventional conservatism, including “born-again” Christianity. While many people regarded Bush’s policy as vigorously pursuing American interests, we demonstrated that it was in fact self-sacrificial and empowered our enemies.
EJ: It’s worth saying that ARI’s arguments were controversial even among some of our supporters. But time has vindicated our philosophic analysis of the issues.
Q. How so?
OG: We argued that properly conceptualizing the enemy—identifying its character, its goals—is necessary in order to defeat it. Terrorism is one tactic, a means to an end; the enemy is defined by its ideological ends. The enemy is Islamic totalitarianism—a religious movement long inspired and funded by patrons such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and, above all, Iran. But our foreign policy—from Bush through Obama to today—has evaded the nature of the enemy, unable to conceive of an ideological motivation and unwilling to understand the connection between faith and force. The destructive consequences are obvious.
EJ: We also argued that a proper war is one fought in self-defense to protect the individual rights of Americans, by eliminating objective threats to our lives, using all necessary retaliatory force. But in fact, our political leaders directed the military to engage in “nation building,” to lift up the poor and oppressed of the Middle East, while subjecting our soldiers to self-sacrificial battlefield constraints.
There are lots of other examples of what a proper philosophy enabled us to foresee; let me offer just two more. We argued that the Bush administration’s crusade for democracy in the Middle East would empower jihadists across the Middle East. It did; take a look at the consequences of various elections in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt, the Palestinian territories. We argued that the self-effacing battlefield rules of engagement would encourage the Iraq insurgency and the remnants of the Taliban. That’s what happened. Tragically, our analysis—articulated in countless articles, essays, media interviews, talks—has proven correct.
Q. To mark the 20 years since 9/11, you’ve created a second edition of Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism. What’s new in it?
EJ: We decided to bring out an expanded edition—it’s about 100 pages longer than the first edition—because the fundamental problem, the failure to face the nature of Islamic totalitarianism, has been compounding. And it’s wreaking havoc. One major consequence is a climate of fear. In addition to sporadic jihadist attacks that everyone hears about, what’s under-appreciated is that jihadists have managed to weaken the West by undermining a pillar of free societies: the secular principle of freedom of speech.
We live today in the shadow of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo; and before that, the crisis over Danish cartoons of Muhammad; and even before that, the Iranian fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie for insulting Islam. There were many other incidents, large and small, and in each case, political leaders and intellectuals in the West failed pathetically to uphold freedom of speech, and consequently, they encouraged the Islamists.
OG: And if you look more widely at today’s culture, whatever lip service is given to freedom of speech, in practice almost everyone opposes it. Almost everyone wants to coercively impose their ideas on others, whether through government control of K-12 education, or of colleges and universities, or of social media via antitrust and other forms of intimidation. There is virtually no one other than ARI, and some other Objectivists, who understands and defends the freedom of speech on principle and across the board.
Q. How does ARI’s commentary on 9/11 connect to its mission to train new intellectuals?
OG: Ayn Rand called for “New Intellectuals” to champion the ideals of reason, egoism, laissez-faire capitalism. In her view, a new intellectual is not cloistered in an ivory tower, but engaged with the world, actively working to understand and conceptualize the events and issues of the day. Intellectuals should be—as she put it—the “eyes, ears and voice of a free society”; it is their job, she said, “to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the men in all the other fields.” Naturally, this shaped our response to 9/11 and shapes our curriculum at the Objectivist Academic Center.
The work we at ARI have done on foreign policy since 9/11 is a concrete example of the kind of work we hope to see OAC-trained intellectuals doing in the future—on a vast array of issues of cultural importance. We’ve been talking today about foreign policy, but ARI has written and published extensively on a range of issues: threats to free speech, the financial crisis of 2008, the inequality debate, to name just a few. There’s a desperate need for competent Objectivist intellectuals and the writing and other work they produce.
Q. Closing thoughts?
EJ: Tying in to the point about the training, Onkar and Yaron Brook trained me as a thinker, writer, speaker, and over those many years, I’ve benefited immensely from that. And it’s worth pointing out that they themselves were both students of Dr. Peikoff, who taught advanced courses on philosophy through ARI.
Before we close, I want to thank ARI’s supporters. We work as their agents in the world, introducing people to Ayn Rand’s books and ideas, championing the ideals of reason, individualism, and capitalism.
OG: Yes, I’d like to second Elan’s thank-you to ARI supporters. Their support, and the ideals we hold in common, make our work possible. And as Elan said, it goes all the way back to first being a student in ARI’s programs. I’m deeply appreciative not only of the graduate-level instruction I received from Dr. Peikoff, but also the writing seminars that Peter Schwartz led and the philosophy courses that Harry Binswanger taught for many years.
Q. Where can people learn more?
EJ: I’d encourage readers to take a look at Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: What Went Wrong After 9/11, which is available for free as a PDF and for a nominal amount as a paperback and Kindle edition.
OG: And if you haven’t already done so, download ARI’s Ayn Rand University app and take a look at all the incredible content you can access on your smartphone.
Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash