20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance
Virtually everyone has a 9/11 story. On that seemingly average morning, I watched from my Pentagon City apartment as flames and smoke suddenly marred a clear blue sky. In graduate school at the time, I ran across the street to the medical facility where my wife worked. The beds there would soon be needed for a flood of injured, we were told, and I stood by to help out somehow. No one ever arrived. Most in the Pentagon, it turned out, were killed in the blast or escaped injury. Instead, as smoke billowed past the windows, we looked at television to watch the world change.
My story is hardly exceptional, and that’s the point: 9/11 touched not just the thousands who lost their lives and the families who grieve for them, but the many millions of other Americans who lived through it. The attacks generated, perhaps, the greatest national trauma since the Civil War: 19 hijackers threw America and its foreign policy off balance, a balance it has struggled to regain ever since.
Washington saw huge successes after 9/11, in preventing another mass-casualty attack on the homeland and reorganizing the government to deal with terrorist threats. It also engaged in terrible overreaches, ranging from detainee torture to the war in Iraq. It rightly elevated counterterrorism as the most acute threat to U.S. national security, and then wrongly made it the organizing principle of American foreign policy. Through it all, balance was the element so often missing.
Afghanistan illustrates the problem.
After its initial post-9/11 invasion, the United States toppled the Taliban and focused on midwifing a government that could instill basic stability. Once Iraq assumed Washington’s primary focus, however, Afghanistan became a secondary theater, where the United States would neither commit massive forces nor negotiate with the enemy. The surge brought in precisely those massive forces, but alongside a commitment to withdraw them all by a date certain. Then, as America’s position weakened, Washington grew serious about negotiations, ultimately withdrew its troops and, today, the Taliban rules just as it did 20 years ago. Never did the United States match realistic objectives to the means necessary to attain them.
In Iraq, the United States sent troops in, withdrew them all, watched a terrorist sanctuary of historic proportions emerge, and then sent troops back. China was a pre-9/11 focus, quickly became relegated to second-tier focus after the attacks, and is now the overwhelming preoccupation of U.S. foreign policy. The United States launched a global war on terror, tried to dial back after the killing of Osama bin Laden, engaged in a multinational military campaign against ISIS, and now worries about resurgent al Qaeda and ISIS sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Too often, over the past 20 years, the United States has tried to close the book on threats that haven’t gone away, solve problems that can only be mitigated, and focus on a singular issue — like terrorism or China — to the detriment of others. America’s foreign policy has, in a word, lacked balance.
That points the way to a post-post-9/11 foreign policy: Balancing America’s interests, values, presence, engagement, and efforts — on multiple issues in multiple places — should be the watchword of the new era.
A balanced foreign policy would recognize that the United States is a global power, not a regional one, and that it must focus not only on the Indo-Pacific but other areas in which interests endure, like Europe and North America and the Middle East. It would recognize the need to fight terrorists, not only in defense of the homeland but also to avoid their distorting effect on other American priorities. It would emphasize sustainability, rather than embrace the in-and-out nature of U.S. presence across the greater Middle East. And it would aim not to solve intractable problems, whether it is terrorism or North Korea or the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but rather to produce better outcomes short of ultimate solutions.
Twenty years after the fateful day, much in that fearful era is increasingly relegated to history books: the predictions of additional attacks, the anthrax mailings, the daily government “threat matrix,” Camp X-Ray and the black sites, the invasion of Iraq and now, perhaps, the war in Afghanistan. But its ripple effects remain in evidence across nearly the entire swath of America’s engagement with the world.
Anniversaries are symbolic, but they focus the mind.
After all we’ve learned over two decades, let us use this anniversary to direct our gaze toward the entirety of American engagement in the world. In so doing, a little balance will go a long way.
Richard Fontaine is chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security and served as a foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain.