Thirteen years have passed since jihadists rammed jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Doubtless the images of the Twin Towers collapsing are indelible, and the toll in human life was achingly massive. In time, though, memory fades. By themselves, our impressions of the past are insufficient to guide our thinking and action. We need consciously to identify lessons from our experience.

What should we learn? Here are three crucial lessons, still unlearned.

Lesson #1: America’s selfless foreign policy encouraged Islamist aggression.

Writing days after the attacks, Leonard Peikoff explained that: “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. The climax was September 11, 2001.” My talk, “The Road to 9/11,” looks at several episodes of pre-9/11 Islamist aggression and the self-effacing responses of the Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations. Standing apart from conventional thinking, ARI advocates for a foreign policy guided by the moral ideal of rational egoism, a policy that resolutely protects the lives and freedom of Americans.

What does that look like? Peter Schwartz’s monograph, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America lays out what an egoist approach looks like in theory and practice (purchase Kindle ebook or paperback). My book, Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism, analyses the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and applies Ayn Rand’s ethics to foreign policy, defining a path to victory against the enemy. (Read the introduction.)

Lesson #2. The enemy is not just Bin Laden, or Al Qaeda, but the Islamist movement.

“Know your enemy” is a necessary condition for figuring out how to defeat the threat. Tragically, neither before nor after 9/11 did American policymakers understand the enemy. It is hopelessly superficial to think of the enemy as “terrorists” (many groups use that tactic) or “haters” or “hijackers of a great religion,” or Al Qaeda, etc. Bin Laden has been dead three-plus years, and Al Qaeda has been damaged — but clearly the threat persists.

After 9/11, Lessons Unlearned

The enemy is the Islamic totalitarian movement. It is a cause that encompasses many factions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, the theocratic regime in Iran, the Islamic State, along with numerous al Qaeda offshoots. What unites them is the common goal of imposing Allah’s laws through conquest and subjugation. Recruits to the movement — from the Middle East, Europe, even the U.S. — embrace it as an ideological cause. Yet American policymakers evasively dance around the task of properly identifying the enemy. Many still see only disconnected dots, rather than the big picture: that we face an ideological movement.

For more on this issue, see the following:

“Disconnected Dots” by Elan Journo

“Jihad on America” by Elan Journo

Lesson #3. America’s post-9/11 military response was self-crippled.

In its power, sophistication, efficacy, and courage, the U.S. military is unequalled. So why did Afghanistan, where we faced Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and beat-up SUVs, become America’s longest war, ever?

Fundamentally, the problem was not military, but political: the philosophic ideas shaping our war policy undercut the military campaign. In my book, I argue that by subordinating military victory to perverse, allegedly moral constraints, Washington’s policy undermined our national security. Instead of seeking to eliminate real threats — notably from the Tehran regime — the overarching policy goal was a crusade for democracy and nation-building in the Mideast. In the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, our military was hamstrung by self-effacing policies that prevented our troops from defeating whatever threats they faced. In its strategic objective and tactical conduct, our war policy was warped by conventional (wrong) ideas about morality.

The following items explain and illustrate the role of philosophic ideas in shaping U.S. policy:

“An Unwinnable War?” by Elan Journo

“Destination Nonvictory” by Elan Journo

“The Real Disgrace: Washington's Battlefield ‘Ethics’” by Elan Journo

“The Forward Strategy for Failure” by Yaron Brook and Elan Journo

“Neoconservative Foreign Policy: An Autopsy” by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein

“What Real War Looks Like” by Elan Journo

“America Is Not Winning the War” by Onkar Ghate

“Looking Back at the Post–9/11 Decade” by Elan Journo

“Obama Whitewashes Iran” by Elan Journo

In a video interview with my colleague Steve Simpson, I expand on a number these points and touch on recent developments in the Middle East.