Where do we stand as a country, 15 years removed from the 9/11 attacks? In terms of national security and foreign policy, what has been the effect of 9/11 and what are its lessons going forward?
One thing is certain: 9/11 has had huge and long-lasting effects on America and the world: an economic downturn in the United States, retaliatory American strikes and a ground war against Al-Qaeda and their Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan and Pakistan happened in the immediate aftermath. And then in 2003, an American-led invasion in Iraq for the second time in twelve years, alongside of which came a number of profound changes in domestic policy and our civil society, including the creation of huge new bureaucracies and institutional structures in the government, homegrown lone-wolf terrorists, and controversial intelligence gathering capabilities both inside the United States and worldwide.
That the federal government’s footprint in American society is considerably larger than it was just 15 years ago, in no small part because of 9/11, shows up in the public fisc, starkly: the Middle East wars total at least $4.8 trillion and maybe more, as against gross federal debt now over $19 trillion (up from $5.8 trillion the day Bush 43 took office). On 9/11/2001, the debt-to-GDP ratio stood below 60%; today it is over 104%, unprecedented in American history and now at an ominous level that historically has meant sclerosis in job and income growth, and stagnant or even declining living standards.
Adding all this up, what have the last 15 years taught us about how best to move forward?
The Cheneys’ Critique of the Post-9/11 World and Our Current National Security Challenges
The staunchest defender of America’s post-9/11 warfare and counterterrorism strategy has been former Vice President Dick Cheney, and his views can be taken as a useful baseline from which to judge the aftermath of 9/11 in terms of efficacy. Last weekend, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Cheney and his daughter Liz (now running for the congressional seat in Wyoming) continued to promulgate the theme of their recent book: America is an exceptional nation of destiny, mandated by history to be a “global policeman” and civilization’s defender and arbiter in a hostile world populated by multiple forces of malevolence including, most recently, radical Islamic groups bent on terrorizing the West and the United States. According to the Cheneys, radical Muslims “hate us for who we are and the freedoms we enjoy,” and 9/11 was a manifestation of this hatred and desire to conquer.
Further, in their view, the Bush 43 Administration’s terror war strategy and approach were working via strong application of military power, but President Obama has, for the Cheneys, squandered the gains:
President Obama has been more dedicated to reducing America’s power than to defeating our enemies. He has enhanced the abilities, reach, and finances of our adversaries, including the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, at the expense of our allies and our own national security. He has overseen the decline of our own military capabilities as our adversaries’ strength has grown.
[. . .] When Mr. Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, Iraq was stable. Following the surge ordered by President Bush, Al-Qaeda in Iraq had largely been defeated, as had the Shiite militias. The situation was so good that Vice President Joe Biden predicted, “Iraq will be one of the great achievements of this administration.
The Cheneys level several other attacks against the Obama Administration’s national security strategy: they claim that the current situation in the Middle East is the result of American weakness which manifested itself through premature American withdrawal from the Iraq war, non-intervention in Syria, confusion of purpose in Afghanistan, and the nuclear deal with Iran. In short, they say the current administration made “concession after dangerous concession” and, thanks to parallel American weakness vis-à-vis China and Russia, the world now seems aflame.
For the Cheneys, the key lessons from 9/11 and its aftermath are simple: the American presence in the Middle East and defense spending have not been nearly great enough, and the threat faced by the United States today is at least “equal” in severity to the one faced in World War II. They demand an end to any budget sequestration and want renewed spending on our armed forces in all service branches, as well as a willingness to fight what they concede is a “long war” on multiple fronts. In a similar vein, senior Bush 43 advisor Paul Wolfowitz, appearing this past Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, refused to concede that the legitimacy of the Iraq War could even be questioned. He argued that removing Saddam Hussein was “likely a good thing for the world,” intoning that had the “surge” strategy been employed earlier, the war would have ended much sooner.
Their ultimate insight from the September 11 attacks is that the declining presence of America on the global stage breeds global instability. And, should the United States not fully embrace its role as global policeman, existential threats would be operationalized against us.
Alternative Insights from 9/11 for the Future of Our National Security Policy
Vice President Cheney and Mr. Wolfowitz have staked their careers on warfare in the Middle East going back more than 25 years; objectivity in their analysis is perhaps not to be expected. But, regrettably, the lessons they have chosen to see in 9/11 and its aftermath are not merely errant; they are wildly so, and devoid of any respect for either history or current realities. Further, neither of them ever address the costs of managing a Pax Americana nor the historic levels of fiscal debt and unfunded liabilities that are, at the moment, driving America toward a literal bankruptcy and economic collapse.
Drawing from history, three better – indeed, canonical – lessons from the horror of 15 years ago and its aftermath are as follows:
- Beware of unintended consequences and secondary effects: history did not begin on 9/11. Osama Bin Laden’s letter to the American people, released in the fall of 2002, explained the primary reasons for ordering the attack: he perceived multiple American encroachments in the Muslim world as acts of war needing avenging. Virulently hateful of Israel, he complained of such things as American support for “the Jews in Palestine” and their attacks against Lebanon. He decried American exploitation of oil wealth, and support for retrograde oppressive regimes (e.g., Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia). Most prominently, however, he assailed the Gulf War of 1991 and its aftermath, which entailed both severe economic sanctions on Iraq and the No Fly-Zone War throughout the 1990s, leading to the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi children by 1996 (according to the U.N.), and upwards of one million by 2000 (according to British journalist John Pilger).
It is, therefore, more than likely that had America not intervened in 1991, 9/11 would never have happened: the Saudis, Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians and Gulf States would have had to cede Kuwait to Saddam, or engage in a bloody intra-Arab war that may have consumed Bin Laden (whose offer to fight Saddam was spurned by the Saudis in favor of American troops), thereby weakening all sides to our benefit in precisely the manner of the German-Russian war after 1941.
- Bin Laden’s revealed motives and actions explain the real reason “why they hate us” and the futility of the global policeman role. It’s trite, but true, to recognize that a problem cannot be solved until it is properly understood and framed. For the Cheneys or Mr. Wolfowitz to assert that radical Muslims hate America “for who we are and for our freedoms” is a classic inductive fallacy or at least one of distraction. For Muslims, there is real fear and resentment of what they perceive as longstanding American imperialism in their world (e.g., support for Zionism, the 1949 coup in Syria, 1953 coup in Iran, or ongoing oppressive regimes). The key insight here is that radical Muslims hate the United States far more for its active intervention in the region, spanning decades, than they do because of our Western ways and culture. That is to say, possession of a de facto empire with significant military and naval assets spread across the Muslim world, and a history of intense meddling in the internal affairs of other countries (often leading to detrimental effects for large swaths of Muslim populations), have created paranoia about, and deep resentment for, the United States. Until officials such as Dick Cheney can apprehend this, we will continue to make gross errors in our foreign policy, harming rather than buttressing our national security.
- America must never again fight a “war of choice,” due to the impossibility of unity at home and void of knowledge of conditions abroad and in “enemy countries.” The Bush/Cheney Administration rushed to war in Iraq in 2003 on points of evidence that were, for the most part, ill-considered, unproven, or flatly erroneous. Iraqi connections to 9/11 itself, to Al-Qaeda, and to other terrorist networks around the world in a position to hit Americans were all dubious or non-existent. Iraqi intentions or capabilities with respect to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were totally unknown, with no real way to ascertain the truth. And as soon as several American presuppositions about Iraq were shown to be wildly errant, support for the war effort quickly evaporated, poisoning our politics.
Additionally, Cheney/Wolfowitz’ preternatural confidence in nation-building enterprises in Muslims lands can now only be seen as a multi-trillion dollar mistake of hubris and arrogance. The fact is, the Cheneys and Mr. Wolfowitz are blind to an obvious reality: the Iraq War and more broadly the entire post-9/11 “War on Terror” has been a moral, strategic, and financial catastrophe for the United States, whose negative reverberations must now be dealt with for decades to come.
Incorporating the Lessons of Our Post 9/11 Wars into a Better Foreign Policy
These three key insights have never been apprehended by Bush Administration apologists who have no objectivity about recent history. But we can and must leverage these critical learnings into a comprehensive foreign policy and national security strategy that offers better prospects for success than the impossible global policeman role and “permanent war for permanent peace” strategy demanded by the Cheneys. An astute understanding of these suggests the following policy architecture going forward:
(i). Return American foreign policy to that applicable to a large and peaceful commercial republic, and end the (de facto) pursuit of empire. This theme was articulated by George Washington in his Farewell Address of September 17, 1796: America should avoid entangling alliances, and act as a friend of liberty everywhere, but guarantor only of our own. This would have multiple benefits – financial, strategic, and moral. America could then act as the honest neutral broker before all, and always be seen as seeking justice and peaceful cooperative commerce with all.
(ii). Pay heed to President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex. In another famous Farewell Address, that of President Eisenhower’s on January 17, 1961, he described the “military-industrial complex”, an interconnecting web of institutions, companies, and politicians who collectively benefit from America’s role as global policeman. This provides an impetus to defense spending and overseas interventions that may or may not appertain to our national security: indeed, depending on the analyst, the United States currently spends more on national defense than the next 8 to 11 largest spenders combined, and well more than double the aggregate of our alleged “adversaries” China, Iran, Russia and North Korea.
It must be acknowledged that for a vast majority of our past history, interventions in the affairs of other nations have both failed and been costly in blood and treasure. Vietnam and Iraq are just two recent of many examples: another prominent example was the totally superfluous American involvement in World War I, where the unintended effect was the destruction of the German empire and economy that sent its society into convulsions, precipitating depression, Hitler, and World War II. Going forward, maintaining the foreign policy of a republic as our Founders all wanted, rather than that of an empire, will reap great benefits for the United States and the world.
(iii). The U.S. should leave NATO. The NATO alliance was geared specifically toward a Soviet Union that proclaimed global domination (via revolutionary Marxist ideology) as its goal. Whether or not that was ever really true or possible is moot: the USSR no longer exists. NATO should have been disbanded after 1991, but instead morphed into an agent of the American pursuit of the global policeman role, with consequent disasters in kinetic warfare in the Middle East that has solved nothing and worsened our security situation and finances. The United States should now leave NATO, and offer to supply Western European countries with material and logistical support; this would de-escalate tensions with Russia, and help America re-acquire a moral high ground on the world stage as a progenitor of peaceful even-handed relations and friendly commerce with all.
(iv). Pursue true neutrality in seeking global harmony with and for all. The U.S. has some 800 military and naval bases around the world, and dozens of them in the Middle East, acting as the de facto guarantor of Israeli and Saudi Arabian security, among other things. For both moral and financial reasons, this should end, or at least be made highly explicit. Not to do so raises a host of questions and legitimate concerns about the viability of our long-term strategy, especially if present policies are designed to favor narrow special interests in the alliances with the Saudi regime or Israel. Returning to true neutrality, however, confers, again, moral, strategic, and financial benefits. For example, the U.S. has just agreed to send $38 billion of U.S. taxpayer money to Israel for its defense and similarly aids other rich countries such as Saudi Arabia to the tune of roughly $50 billion every year. This could and should go to zero immediately, and America could then act as a neutral mediator seeking enduring peace and cooperative commerce with all.
(v). Avoid further combat in the Middle East. It would be the height of folly to initiate a war against ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq since they are surrounded by countries or groups who despise them and want them gone. The United States should not only withdraw from this fight and leave it to others to prosecute but also act more effectively as an independent, neutral power, in brokering a long-term peace in Syria that would help Europe address its refugee problem.
(vi). De-escalate with China and North Korea as well. America can afford to withdraw in its function as a great power there, given the rise of strong economies and vibrant societies nearby with whom we are commercial and cultural allies (viz., Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan). This would signal to China that America has no aggressive designs on the region, but could rather be an honest broker to nations seeking peace, commerce, and prosperity - working to accommodate China’s transformation to a more liberal society and ever stronger economy.
In sum, the 9/11 attacks changed the world, and the United States reacted by compounding a long history of prior interventionist errors by diving into new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were unwinnable from the outset. With the exception of the beneficiaries of the military-industrial complex, such policies have been a collective folly that has made America worse off financially and strategically. Bluntly, the Cheneys and Mr. Wolfowitz should not have been listened to in 1991, during the Gulf War; in 2003, at the outset of the invasion of Iraq; or now, as they demand more warfare in the Middle East and global policing abroad.
Let us maintain an impregnable national defense, to be sure, with emphasis on assets and force structure commensurate to current and 21st century threats (e.g., cybersecurity, anti-missile defense), as opposed to those of yesteryear (conventional land warfare in Asia). But let us now stop coddling dictators and intervening where we have no prospect of long-term success. Instead let us assume among the powers of the Earth the historic role of the moral high-ground progenitor of global peace and prosperity, based on liberty and open commerce, acting as an honest broker before all, with magnanimity and integrity, never again to fight an unnecessary war for the benefit of narrow special interests. This will still require a strong and vibrant defense capability and industry, and America can usefully be an arms merchant to good peoples on their guard against evil. But with such a change in policy architecture from empire to republic, no more will the financially destructive and morally corrosive venality of special interests, presciently warned against by President Eisenhower, hold sway inside the Beltway, at the expense of a free, independent, and liberty-loving American people.