September 11 in Retrospect

George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered

The 'Tribute in Lights' shines as the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center is observed in New York, September 11, 2006. Gary Hershorn / Reuters

Ten years after 9/11, we can begin to gain some perspective on the impact of that day's terrorist attacks on U.S. foreign policy. There was, and there remains, a natural tendency to say that the attacks changed everything. But a decade on, such conclusions seem unjustified. September 11 did alter the focus and foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. But the administration's new approach, one that garnered so much praise and so much criticism, was less transformative than contemporaries thought. Much of it was consistent with long-term trends in U.S. foreign policy, and much has been continued by President Barack Obama. Some aspects merit the scorn often heaped on them; other aspects merit praise that was only grudging in the moment. Wherever one positions oneself, it is time to place the era in context and assess it as judiciously as possible.


Before 9/11, the Bush administration had focused its foreign policy attention on China and Russia; on determining whether a Middle East peace settlement was in the cards; on building a ballistic missile defense system; and on contemplating how to deal with "rogue" states such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. At many meetings of the National Security Council, officials debated the pros and cons of a new sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein's dictatorial government in Baghdad; they also discussed what would be done if U.S. planes enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq were shot down. Little was agreed on.

Top officials did not consider terrorism or radical Islamism a high priority. Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism expert on the National Security Council staff, might hector them relentlessly about the imminence of the threat, and CIA Director George Tenet might say the lights were blinking red. But Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were not convinced. Nor was Bush. In August 2001, he went to his ranch for a long vacation. Osama bin Laden was not his overriding concern.

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