The Self-Destruction of American Power
Washington Squandered the Unipolar Moment
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 not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could not have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating.
At the start of the new millennium, America’s future was overbought. Today, it is oversold. The frenzy of the war on terror has already largely passed, the Great Recession will eventually end, and in the long run the strengths of the country’s open society and economy will reassert themselves and the weaknesses of its international competitors will become manifest. But the way back to the straight and narrow path will be difficult. Historians are likely to wonder at the detour, at yet another march of folly. On the tenth anniversary of the attacks, we offer this collection of articles from Foreign Affairs, together with essential primary source documents, to help explain what happened.
CHALLENGE AND RESPONSE
For the past several decades, the central challenge for U.S. foreign policy has been straightforward: consolidate, protect, and extend the liberal international order that emerged in the West after World War II and began to spread globally after the Cold War. This order has been the framework within which local economic, social, and political development has proceeded, to the lasting benefit of both the United States and the world at large. Generations of policymakers in Washington and allied capitals have nurtured and guarded their precious offspring, keeping at bay a host of dangers—war and aggression, economic nationalism, disruption and chaos.
In the 1990s, as the threat of great power conflict receded and globalization took off, many within this order began to take their safety and prosperity for granted. Those who continued to pay attention moved their focus up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: from survival to security, security to development, even (as in the case of Europe) from development to transcendence. Western policymakers’ major concerns were how to keep progress on track where it was already occurring, jump-start it elsewhere, and prevent potential spoilers from making trouble.
In this context, terrorism posed a growing problem. Historically a secondary concern, it gained new importance as ever-increasing waves of goods and people flooded across borders, presenting both targets and cover for nontraditional extremists simultaneously appearing on the scene. Experts used to say that terrorists wanted to see a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. This was true back when most terrorists pursued limited political objectives and feared retribution. It was not true, however, when religious radicals, crazed loners, or millenarian cults got into the game, as they did with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, and the 1995 release of nerve gas in the Tokyo subway.
Some observers recognized that a critical issue of the day was how to police the flows of globalization so as to reap the economic, social, and political benefits of openness while minimizing its costs and dangers. Others recognized that the most likely source of those dangers was a violent strain of Islamism, an activist movement devoted to purifying the Muslim world, overthrowing “apostate” regimes there, and restoring the glories of the medieval caliphate. On September 11, 2001, these concerns merged when a score of radical Islamists from a group called al Qaeda hijacked four civilian jets and flew them into targets in New York and Washington, killing thousands.
It was inevitable that the attacks would make the fight against al Qaeda and other jihadists the top priority of American policy. And given the complexities involved, it was inevitable that this fight would last a long time and present many controversial policy choices along the way.What was not inevitable was that the attacks would also produce a major shift in America’s approach to the world, the launching of a costly war in an unrelated country, and an enduring state of siege. Those happened because Washington could not keep its head.
WHAT WENT WRONG
There are several reasons why the George W. Bush administration overdid it after 9/11. One was basic human psychology, a cognitive version of Newton’s third law of motion. The attacks were so shocking, so transgressive, so catastrophic that they were almost bound to produce an equal and opposite reaction. Restraint would have required almost unimaginable discipline and self-control.
It would have been difficult for any administration to make discretion the better part of valor, to calibrate its responses to the attacks carefully. But it was even more so for the Bush team, because that would have meant facing up squarely to its own earlier mistakes. The despised and contemptible Clintonites, after all, were the ones who had been harping about the dangers of freelance jihadist terrorists such as al Qaeda—and the ones associated with narrowly targeted responses. The new administration, in contrast, had chosen to concentrate its attention on other security issues, such as Iraq, China, and missile defense.
Given the desultory approach of Bush officials to the jihadist terrorist threat during the spring and summer of 2001, they might have responded to the attacks with chagrin and self-recrimination, conceding (at least tacitly) that their initial national security priorities had been incorrect. If they had done this, they would still have undertaken a military campaign against al Qaeda and its unrepentant Afghan hosts, strengthened global counterterrorist operations and intelligence gathering, and paid more attention to homeland security. But they would not have situated these policies in a politically divisive framework at home and abroad, and they would not have gone to war with Iraq (because there was no good reason to believe it had been connected to 9/11 or would be connected to similar attacks in the future).
Instead of engaging in self-reflection, however, the administration plunged forward. It clung to many of its earlier views and incorporated Iraq and other issues (such as defense transformation and revived presidential powers) into a new foreign policy framework designed not simply to respond to the attacks and attackers but, as the president put it a few days later, to “rid the world of evil.”
Still, psychology alone would not have been enough to trigger the policies that emerged. Those required a larger intellectual and structural context, one offering a broadly accepted motive and opportunity for the deployment of U.S. power abroad. This is where Middle Eastern politics and American hegemony come into the picture.
Some violent actors, such as the Unabomber or Aum Shinrikyo, are isolated from the societies and polities around them. Al Qaeda was different. It was part of the radicalized fringe of a broader ideological movement with clear roots in the social, political, and economic dysfunction of the modern Middle East. The true relationship between violent and nonviolent forms of Islamism, and between both of them and secular life in the contemporary Muslim world, will be debated for a long time. In the wake of the attacks, however, one could make a plausible argument that radical Islamism was best understood as a developmental disease, a product of modernizing societies in wrenching transition in a particular cultural context. A corollary to this argument was the notion that the threat the jihadists posed to the United States would never be fully dealt with until the countries of the greater Middle East managed to overcome their various problems and offer their populations freer, better, more satisfying lives.
It just so happened, moreover, that the attacks occurred at precisely the moment when the United States had amassed the greatest relative power of any state since Rome. The country’s strength had been rising for more than two centuries, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington found itself alone at the top of the international system. And then, contrary to all expectations, in the decade that followed, the United States pulled even further ahead of the rest of the pack. This massive power potential was bound to express itself eventually in a comparably ambitious world role, although just when and how remained to be seen.
The combination of all these factors meant that the 9/11 attacks had the psychological effect of Pearl Harbor and the geopolitical effect of the 1950 communist invasion of South Korea. They instilled fear and a desire for revenge, loosened the domestic constraints on the deployment of American power, and led not simply to increased counterterrorist efforts but to a grand campaign to achieve total security by fundamentally transforming a broad swath of the world.
This seemed to go well at first. Within months of 9/11, all members of the organization responsible for the attacks had been killed, captured, or driven into hiding. The government that had given the attackers shelter and support was overthrown, with a pro-Western regime installed in its place. And new measures to improve security and intelligence were set up in the United States and beyond. But the ball kept rolling.
The Bush team’s lowered tolerance for risk, combined with a desire to act vigorously in the Middle East, led it to settle on Iraq as its next target. To justify its actions, the administration developed a new doctrine of preventive war, deployed exaggerated and deceptive rhetoric, and turned a debatable policy choice into a starkly politicized clash of patriotic boldness versus treasonous cowardice. The president himself set the tone early on: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
The invasion of Iraq proceeded smoothly, but the venture ran into trouble when it turned out that the administration had done little practical planning for the post-Saddam era. A gradual, agonizing descent into chaos ensued, made even more unpalatable by the revelation that Saddam’s vaunted prohibited weapons programs had been largely notional. Revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, meanwhile, in conjunction with widespread use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” domestic surveillance, rendition, and covert operations, fed suspicions that the United States had abandoned its ideals in the quest to protect them.
By the end of Bush’s first term, the president’s eponymous doctrine was a dead letter, with each of its three pillars—“preemption,” regime change, and neat division between good friends and bad enemies—discredited and discarded. The soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address masked the fact that a Thermidorian reaction had already set in, with most of the administration’s hard-liners and their policies having left the building. Apart from a bold course shift in Iraq that helped turn the tide of the conflict there, foreign policy in Bush’s second term was a caretaking effort with little ventured and little gained. Bush’s final months in office saw a financial collapse that sent the country and the globe into deep recession, deepening the gloom. Barack Obama inherited an economic catastrophe, a divided country, and two ongoing wars, one of which was heading in the wrong direction. He kept in place the basic elements of his predecessor’s second-term counterterrorism policies, while devoting most of his attention to domestic priorities.
In the first half of 2011, a string of popular democratic uprisings broke out in the Arab world, and Osama bin Laden was found and killed. But the bitter taste of the past decade lingered, especially since the rest of the world had used its time and resources more wisely, reinforcing a sense of U.S. decline. A country that had entered the new millennium riding high sunk as low as it had been in more than a generation.
THE PLAN OF THE BOOK
Hindsight is 20/20. At the time, I shared some of the emotions described above, accepted some of the arguments, and supported some of the policies, as did many others who should also have known better. The Bush administration’s post-9/11 course was not the heroic success story supporters claimed, nor the nefarious conspiracy its harshest critics charged. It was well intentioned, and its enemies were worth opposing. But in the end, it was an overreaction. It cast its net too wide. It took on too many tasks of too great difficulty with too much haste, too much passion, and too few resources. It was a classic cautionary tale of unchecked power goaded into hubris, followed by folly, followed by nemesis. This collection is meant to offer perspective on that tale, bringing together some important parts of the story as they appeared to contemporaries.
It begins with David Fromkin’s classic 1975 essay, “The Strategy of Terrorism,” which explains how terrorism is a form of jujitsu that uses an opponent’s strength against him—and thus why overreacting to it is a sucker’s move.
It moves on to some pieces from the late 1990s that show just how much was known then. Bernard Lewis’ “License to Kill” announces that Osama bin Laden has issued a declaration of jihad against the United States. My own “It Can Happen Here” describes a professional consensus regarding catastrophic terrorism as a growing danger requiring a stepped-up policy response. And Ahmed Rashid’s “The Taliban” notes the destabilizing radicalism of Afghanistan’s fanatical rulers—including their support for bin Laden. Stephen Flynn’s “Beyond Border Control” stressed the need to police the flows of globalization; we’ve included a post-9/11 version of it, “America the Vulnerable.”
The next two articles, written in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, are good examples of the way deeply knowledgeable observers saw matters at the time. Fouad Ajami’s “The Sentry’s Solitude” places 9/11 in the context of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and Michael Doran’s “Somebody Else’s Civil War” explains the extraordinary worldview that could lead someone to fly a plane loaded with jet fuel into a skyscraper full of innocent civilians.
After reading these, it might be useful to turn to the “Documents” section, where you can find key statements from President Bush showing the administration’s take on the situation: his remarks at the September 14 national day of prayer service for victims of the attacks; his January 2002 State of the Union address (where he railed against the “axis of evil”); his June 2002 commencement address at West Point (where he made the case for a policy of “preemption”); and his September 2002 National Security Strategy (which codified the administration’s new foreign policy course).
Coming back to the articles, Sebastian Mallaby’s “The Reluctant Imperialist” shows how even many liberals favored intervention to stabilize and improve problematic areas of the world. (For the liberal case in favor of war against Iraq, see Kenneth Pollack’s “Next Stop Baghdad?” and for cockiness regarding U.S. power, see Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth’s “American Primacy in Perspective.”) John Ikenberry’s essay “America’s Imperial Ambition” critiques the Bush administration’s expansive course.
It was in 2003 that what one might call the “narrow” and “broad” streams of the war on terrorism truly diverged, with the latter branching off into Iraq, the “freedom agenda,” and other issues. Those streams became rivers in their own right, and so to keep this particular volume manageable we have focused the remainder of it on the narrow version—the continued struggle against al Qaeda and other radical jihadists. These articles address three distinct issues: the appropriate legal framework for counterterrorism (Kenneth Roth, Ruth Wedgwood, and Curtis Bradley); the nature and extent of the terrorist threat (Richard Falkenrath, John Mueller, James Fallows, Fawaz Gerges, Paul Pillar, and Jessica Stern); and al Qaeda’s internal dynamics and organizational structure (Bruce Riedel, Leah Farrall, Brynjar Lia, and William McCants).
Finally, Philip Gordon’s “Can the War on Terror Be Won?” sketches out a prescient vision of what things might look like once the situation is under control—once terrorism has returned to being a problem rather than an obsession. Stephen Flynn’s “Recalibrating Homeland Security” shows how far we remain from that goal today.
Less than two months after 9/11, Foreign Affairs put out a collection of essays on the attacks titled How Did This Happen? The introduction to that volume closed with the moral Winston Churchill chose for his magisterial history of the Second World War:
In War: Resolution.
In Defeat: Defiance.
In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.
That remains excellent advice. It seems only fitting to close the introduction to this successor volume with another piece of British wisdom from the same era: “Keep calm and carry on.”