The price we paid for the war on terror

On Sept. 11, 2001, the post-Cold War era that had begun so euphorically on Nov. 9, 1989, came to an abrupt end. The “long decade” that stretched from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the World Trade Center was marked by military spending cuts, domestic political scandals and a general sense that American foreign policy was adrift. President George H.W. Bush spoke of the “New World Order” but had no policy to fit the clever phrase. President Bill Clinton had a clutch of policies, but he never found a neat way to describe them.

In the wake of al-Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington, an organizing principle suddenly presented itself. Like the Cold War, the “war on terror,” as it instantly became known, clearly defined America’s friends, enemies and priorities. Like the Cold War, the war on terror appealed to both American idealism and American realism. We were fighting bad guys, but the destruction of al-Qaeda also lay clearly within the sphere of our national interests. The speed with which we adopted this paradigm was impressive, if somewhat alarming. At the time, I marveled at the neatness of this new New World Order and “how like an academic article everything suddenly appears to be.”

The events of Sept. 11 reverberated through American life, but nowhere more profoundly than in U.S. policy toward the outside world. Creaking and groaning, the supertanker that is the American foreign and defense establishment turned itself around as Americans prepared to face new enemies. We created a vast security bureaucracy, encompassing some 1,200 government organizations, 1,900 private companies and 854,000 people with security clearances, according to a Washington Post investigation last year. We launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We organized counterterrorism operations in such far-flung places as the Philippines and Yemen, and we changed the culture of our military. We sharpened our focus on al-Qaeda and imitators. We spent, according to one estimate, some $3 trillion.

And we were, in the terms defined by the war on terror, successful: Ten years after 9/11, al-Qaeda is in profound disarray. Osama bin Laden is dead. Fanatical Islam is on the decline. Our military remains the most sophisticated in the world. And yet, 10 years after 9/11, it’s clear that the “war on terror” was far too narrow a prism through which to see the planet. And the price we paid to fight it was far too high.

In our single-minded focus on Islamic fanaticism, we missed China’s transformation from a commercial power into an ambitious political power. We failed to appreciate the significance of economic growth in China’s neighborhood. When President George W. Bush traveled to Asia in late 2001, he spoke to his Malaysian and Indonesian interlocutors about their resident terrorist cells. His Chinese colleagues, meanwhile, talked business and trade.

We also missed, at least initially, the transformation of Russia from a weak and struggling partner into a sometimes hostile opponent. Through the lens of the war on terror, Vladimir Putin looked like an ally. As Russia’s president, he, too, was fighting terrorists. Though his battles in Chechnya were a different war against quite different terrorists (and not only against terrorists), for a brief period he convinced his American counterparts that his struggle and their struggle were more or less the same.

Thanks to the war on terror, we missed what might have been a historic deal on immigration with Mexico. Because Latin America was irrelevant to the war on terror, we lost interest in, and influence on, that region. The same goes for Africa, except for those countries that have al-Qaeda cells. In the Arab world, we aligned ourselves with authoritarian regimes we believed would help us fight Islamic terrorism, despite the fact that their authoritarianism was an inspiration to fanatical Islamists. If we are viewed with suspicion in Egypt and Tunisia, that is part of the reason.

Finally, we stopped investing in our infrastructure — think what $3 trillion could do for roads, research, education or even private investment, if part of that sum had simply been left in taxpayers’ pockets — and we missed the chance to rethink our national energy policy. After Sept. 11, the president could have declared an emergency and explained to the nation that wars would have to be fought and paid for — perhaps, appropriately, through a gasoline tax. He would have had enormous support. In 2001, I could fill my gas tank for about $20. At the time, I’d have been happy to make it $21 if it helped the Marines in Afghanistan. Instead, the president cut taxes and increased defense spending. We are only now paying the price.

Plenty of other mistakes have been made, abroad and at home, since Sept. 11. Plenty of people will use this anniversary to re-argue Iraq, Guantanamo or wasteful homeland security spending. But our worst mistake was one of omission. In making Islamic terrorism our central priority — at times our only priority — we ignored the economic, environmental and political concerns of the rest of the globe. Worse, we pushed aside our economic, environmental and political problems until they became too great to be ignored.

Let me repeat: The U-turn that American foreign policy made after Sept. 11 was not a failure. But under President Bush, we narrowed our horizons, stopped thinking in broader strategic terms and paid little attention to future competitors and domestic weaknesses. President Obama, dealt a bad hand to start, hasn’t had the energy, resources or willpower to do much better. Ten years on, could it be that the planes that hit New York and Washington did less damage to the nation than the cascade of bad decisions that followed?

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