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9/11 and US foreign policy

Published:Sunday | September 11, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Ian Boyne, Contributor

It's 10 years after those fateful September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America which claimed just under 3,000 lives and which traumatised and horrified Americans and outraged the civilised world. Ten years on, the US Congressional Research Service estimates that the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq wars have cost the US$1.3 trillion.

A cost-of-war project at Brown University estimates, "conservatively", that 137,000 persons have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and that the wars there have created more than 7.8 million refugees in these states. Brown University actually feels that the actual cost-of-the-war projects, including interest payments and veterans' care, is actually closer to US$4 trillion. Defence spending has climbed from US$304 billion in 2011 to US$616 million in 2008, and the US budget went from a surplus of US$128 billion to a deficit of US$458 billion. Also, US debt held by foreign governments has moved from approximately 13 per cent of GDP at the end of the Cold War to nearly 30 per cent at the end of the Bush era.

Foreign debt

US trade deficit with China moved from US$83 billion in 2001 to US$273 billion last year, and total US indebtedness to China jumped from US$78 billion in 2011 to US$1.1 trillion in 2011. Foreign debt, as a percentage of GDP, increased from 32.4 per cent in 2001 to 53.5 per cent in 2009. Much, indeed, has changed since September 11, 2001. But scholars dispute whether 9/11 was decisive in terms of foreign-policy action, or that it was a historical turning point.

Richard Haas, president of the highly influential Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and former director of policy planning under Bush, wrote in Project Syndicate last week that, "September 11, 2001 was a terrible tragedy by any measure, but it was not a historical turning point. It did not herald a new era of international relations in which terrorists with a global agenda prevailed. On the contrary, 9/11 has not been replicated."

In an issue devoted to analysis of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor of History Melvyn Leffler says, "There was and there remains a natural tendency to say that the (9/11) 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 ... was less transformative than contemporaries thought. Much of it was consistent with long-term trends in US foreign policy and much has been continued by President Barack Obama."

George W. Bush, however, did squander a great deal of the goodwill and solidarity which the international community and people of goodwill lavished on America in the aftermath of those horrific and barbaric attacks on innocent civilians and defenceless people. I remember the leading French paper Le Monde declaring the day after the attacks: 'We Are All Americans'. Bush bucked that wave of support and sentiment by his vulgar unilateralism, his doctrine of pre-emption and his arrogant contempt for liberal internationalism. It was precisely what not to do.

But the doctrine of pre-emption, or preventive war, called the Bush Doctrine, was nothing new in US foreign policy. What was new was its elevation as central strategy, coupled with the Bush administration's disregard for multilateralism and soft-power strategies. But as Leffler points out in his Foreign Affairs article, when President Franklin Roosevelt justified his resort to preventive action against German ships in the Atlantic prior to America's entry into World War I, he said famously, "When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him."

But there were other cases in US history when preventive strike, or anticipatory self-defence, was flatly rejected. In 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower was presented with a plan to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union in those early days of the Cold War: "All of us have heard of this term preventive war since the earliest days of Hitler," Eisenhower said. "I recall that is about the first time I heard it. In this day and time ... I don't believe there is such a thing and frankly I won't even listen to anyone that came in and talked about such a thing."

Two months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Leslie Groves, overseer of the Manhattan Project, expressed views about controlling nuclear proliferation that were similar to the Bush Doctrine. "If we were truly realistic, instead of idealistic, as we appear to be, we would not permit any foreign power with which we are not firmly allied and in which we do not have absolute confidence to make or possess atomic weapons. If such a country started to make atomic weapons, we would destroy its capacity to make them before it has progressed far enough to threaten." President Harry Truman rejected the proposal out of hand.

And in 1961 during the Berlin Crisis, some of President John F. Kennedy's key advisers discovered that the Soviet Union's nuclear forces were far weaker and more vulnerable than had been previously thought and proposed a pre-emptive strike. It was rejected.

America has always placed its security above everything else. But what George W. Bush and the neoconservatives underplayed was the importance of collaborating with other nations in the fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism. He neglected what that brilliant Harvard professor, Joseph Nye, has called "soft power", and, more recently, "smart power" (See his 2011 book, The Future of Power).

The Obama administration, happily, has rejected unilateralism and has overturned the hypernationalism and muscular foreign policy which characterised the Bush era. (Not that he is diffident about using force). Barack Obama put it well in his inauguration address: "Our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

These things are anathema to the Republicans and the Tea Party. But it is precisely their kind of fetish for hard military power and aggression which have fuelled so much hate and resentment toward America in the Middle East.

A history of American support for corrupt authoritarian regimes and disregard for human rights when those inconveniences stood in the way of American interests has alienated many from America and fanned the flames of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

But make no mistake about it: America was right to set its face against terrorism and radical Islam's anti-democratic and repressive face. It was a just mission to destroy al-Qaida, not just for America's sake, but for the sake of democracy and the international community. It is good that there has been no repeat of the 9/11 attacks in the US.

For all our criticisms of the Bush administration, we must agree with Loffler that its record included "important accomplishments", for "they kept the pressure on al-Qaida and other terrorist organisations and may well have prevented other attacks on US soil and citizens."

Time to reflect

Leffler hits the nail on the head when he concludes his Foreign Affairs essay by saying: "Ten years after 9/11, it is time for Americans to reflect more deeply about their history and their values. Americans can affirm their core values, yet recognise the hubris that inheres in them. They can identify the wanton brutality of others, yet acknowledge that they themselves are the source of rage in many parts of the Arab world. Americans can recognise that there is evil in the world ... and they can admit ... that force has a vital role to pay in the affairs of mankind. But they can also recognise that the exercise of power can grievously injure those whom they wish to help and can undercut the very goals they seek to achieve."

Al-Qaida's ideology has been rendered largely redundant in significant sections of the Arab world not because of aggressive foreign-policy action. Barack Obama might not be impressive in domestic action, but in foreign policy he has been a blessing to America. There can be no complete celebration in America today which does not acknowledge his role in changing the Ugly American image abroad. Obama's progressive foreign policy - which has not been unmindful of the important role of military force, mind you - has rebuilt respect for America's ideals, or at least has staved off strident criticism.

The fact that America did nothing to help its former dictators in Egypt and Tunisia and that, rhetorically, it has backed the Arab street's campaign for democracy, freedom and civil liberties has worked in America's favour and should - at least for now - neutralise Islamic extremism.

Enemies near and far

It would be in al-Qaida's interest if America were seen as backing its client states and their dictatorships against the people's revolt. But America is seen, even if rhetorically, as standing with those protesting for freedom and human rights. Al-Qaida has always talked about the 'far enemy' - the United States - while it has criticised the 'near enemy', those right-wing states not following Shari'a law. Now the far enemy is standing afar from its traditional clients, allowing them to fall.

In a well-argued essay in the summer 2011 issue of the journal Washington Quarterly ('The Battle for Reform With Al-Qaeda'), Juan Zarate and David Gordon note: "The Arab Spring represents a significant opportunity for US counterterrorism efforts. This is a strategic moment for the United States because for the first time Washington's values, long-term interests and counterterrorism goals against al-Qaida neatly align with events in the region.

"The Arab spring represents what US policymakers have argued and hoped for in countering al-Qaida's ideology - organic movements for democracy, individual rights and liberties in the heart of its Sunni Arab constituency." This strategic window was, of course, helped by the killing of bin Laden.

"There can be no return to the innocence of September 10th, 2001 - and, sadly, no end to the vigilance," concludes the Economist's editorial in its 'Ten Years On' edition (September 3-9).

America has its profound weaknesses but I prefer a world in which it is strong enough to put away evil men like our own Dudus Coke, to one dominated by an authoritarian Great Power like China, which nurtures corrupt and brutal regimes.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and