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Book Review: Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump

27 Apr 2023
Reviewed by John Chiddick

Did the Forever Wars borne out of the War on Terror produce the administration of Donald Trump? According to the author, they did, and until such peace is pursued, they will continue to produce radical administrations that will fan the flames of dissension and conflict. 

Spencer Ackerman is an American journalist with a long-standing interest in national security questions. Initially, he supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but was soon disillusioned through his observations of the sorry consequences of that egregious misadventure. Since then, Ackerman has been a regular critic of what he terms the Forever War, which he identifies with the War on Terror, the phrase preferred by the Bush administration and its supporters. He was also one of the team of journalists whose coverage of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance activities, as revealed by Edward Snowden, resulted in the award of a Pulitzer Prize to The Guardian in 2014.

In the book, Ackerman provides a sustained critique of the War on Terror, making no pretence of a neutral or even-handed position on the issues it raises. The structure is basically chronological, tracing developments from the September 11 attacks to the Donald Trump presidency, but with separate chapters dealing with the responses of various sections of the American political spectrum to the actions of the Bush and Obama administrations. Ackerman’s central argument, as stated in his introduction, is that the “Forever War eroded the legal, political, cultural and economic armor surrounding American democracy.” To this he attaches the somewhat different claim that the War on Terror was the “seeding ground” for a figure like Trump, who was the war’s lagging indicator, “the promise of what George W. Bush unleashed and what Barack Obama sustained.” The former of these assertions seems to me well supported in the body of the book, the latter rather less so.

Chapter 1, titled “9/11 and the Security State” and covering the period 2001-2003, offers an at times harrowing account of the forms of the War on Terror in its initial stages. A central failure which, in Ackerman’s view, “doomed the war from the outset,” was the lack of clarity concerning the identification of the enemy. The very term “War on Terror” lent itself to expanding its targets beyond al-Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington. Therefore, the ambiguous terminology meant “you can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein when you talk about the War on Terror,” thereby allowing the Bush administration to create the common belief that Saddam Hussein was complicit in the 9/11 atrocity. This was despite the lack of evidence for any such claim, and indeed Bush himself did not directly allege that there was.

Equally serious was the disregard for fundamental rights manifested in indefinite detention without trial and the use of torture on suspects. The latter was often accompanied by preposterous attempts to redefine the term “torture” so as to claim the practice was not actually being employed. In many cases, suspects were sent to “black sites” in countries outside the United States where torture could be conducted more freely. Absurdly, such “rendition” was often accompanied by assurances from notoriously authoritarian regimes that those handed over would not be tortured.

Ackerman’s treatment of the Obama administration’s handling of the War on Terror is critical, although he acknowledges that he did pursue “a more progressive and ambitious agenda” than his predecessor. Barack Obama did condemn the “dumb war” against Iraq and promised an end to the mindset that produced the war. Ackerman laments, however, that the president did not sufficiently clarify what that mindset was or how it should be disposed of. Obama maintained that, in contrast to Iraq, the al-Qaeda network was an appropriate target for American military action, a view that Ackerman regards as disputable, though preferable to Bush’s ideological definition of the enemy. Similarly, Ackerman notes that while Obama formally abolished the CIA’s torture apparatus, there was no attempt to prosecute those responsible for it, and the president was to take a fairly relaxed view of the CIA’s record of useless brutality and mendacity revealed in the document known as the Panetta Review.

The Obama administration’s dealings with the Middle East were complicated by developments in Libya and Syria. The former involved attempted regime change, the actual effects of which were civil war, destabilisation, and an accelerated exodus of refugees and migrants. This led to the increase of radical right anti-immigration politics in various European countries. In the case of Syria, Obama called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down in the early stages of the insurgency, presumably in the belief that his overthrow was inevitable – a serious misjudgment. In both instances, it is possible to detect the influence of Hillary Clinton, a Secretary of State who displayed a more sympathetic view of the kind of military adventures that both Obama and Trump regarded as “dumb.”

It is in its treatment of Trump’s relationship to the War on Terror that Ackerman’s analysis arouses most doubt. His central claim here is expressed in the very subtitle of his book, which boldly states that the 9/11 era “produced Trump.” In his introduction he maintains that while the Forever War continues, and continues to produce neither peace nor victory, it will “remain the soil from which to cultivate more and worse Trumps.”

How plausible is this? It is true that many of Trump’s actions were fully in keeping with precedents established by earlier administrations. Ackerman quotes the columnist Ramzy Baroud as noting that “Yemeni lives suddenly matter” when the man taking them is Trump. But this is some way off establishing that the War produced Trump. While acknowledging in passing that other factors contributed to Trump’s rise to office, Ackerman shows little interest in assessing their comparative weight. Developments such as the 2008 financial crisis and the general decline of working-class security helped to stimulate resentment against wealthy elites, as did the growing distance between the ideological preoccupations of fashionable liberals and the concerns of traditional Democrat voters. Further, there appears to be some evidence that Trump did well with his denunciation of the “big fat mistake” that was the Iraq war in those states that contributed the largest numbers of fighters to that misbegotten enterprise. This puts Trump’s relationship to the War on Terror in a complicated light. This criticism notwithstanding, Ackerman’s book deserves to be read as a comprehensive and frequently disturbing treatment of this moment in American history.

This is a review of Spencer Ackerman’ s Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Penguin Books, 2022) ISBN 9781984879790

John Chiddick is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Department of Politics, Media & Philosophy, La Trobe University

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.