Courtesy Reuters
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: The U.S. vs. al Qaeda
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The War on Terror in Retrospect

Anatomy of an Overreaction

In the late 1990s, American national security experts were concerned. The prospect of great power war had diminished, but terrorism seemed a real and growing danger. Nuclear proliferation loomed in the Persian Gulf and South Asia, Israelis and Palestinians were squabbling, global trade talks were stalled. The United States’ ability to manage its own problems was doubtful, as a weakened Democratic president clashed with hostile Republicans in Congress.

A dozen years later, much remains the same. Great power war is still remote, but the threat of terrorism persists. Nuclear concerns in the Gulf and South Asia, Israeli-Palestinian squabbling, sluggish global trade negotiations, and U.S. political dysfunction all continue. But now the world appears a much darker place than it did before, and the country is mired in fear, anger, and depression. Many think America’s best days, not to mention its global hegemony, are behind it.

What changed? The 9/11 attacks, of course, and the “war on terror” that followed. The costs of the attacks and the responses to them were staggering—not only in blood and treasure but in psychological stability as well. A decade on, with Osama bin Laden dead and al Qaeda discredited and on the run, the terrorists clearly did not win. But neither did we.

Having spent much of the 1990s ignoring the world, the United States spent the following decade raging against it, to even worse effect. George Kennan would have understood, having called the play half a century in advance. American democracy, he noted, is

. . . uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he

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