Paul Pillar

The Decade-Long Diversion

The raft of retrospectives and stock-taking assessments as the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches is hardly surprising, given the impact that single event had on the national consciousness. But the enormous, and enormously narrow, preoccupation that the retrospectives reflect ought itself to be a subject of reflection. How could the most powerful nation on earth have tied itself in knots for so long over a single act of a band of hijackers? At an emotional level the response was understandable. If one can set aside the emotion, however, and soberly consider the interests of the nation, the forces shaping the contemporary world, and the ways in which those forces affect the national interests, then the national response to 9/11 has been a huge overreaction.

One would think from the response that as of September 11, 2001, there was suddenly a huge threat to the nation that had not been there before. But eight years earlier some terrorists of similar ilk had attacked the World Trade Center. Their technique did not prove as effective as the later attack, but their objective was at least as ambitious. The difference in physical results came down to technical matters such as the effects of burning jet fuel on steel girders. The national reaction to the attack in 2001 had much less to do with substantial new dangers in the outside world than with how we ourselves react to highly salient, highly distressing events. And yet, discourse about U.S. national security in the ensuing ten years has revolved around the notion that the world had changed so fundamentally that the nation's strategy, policy and priorities had to change as well in a way that centered them all on a single perceived danger centering on transnational terrorists.

Guided by that notion, the United States over the past decade has expended immense resources, significantly compromised some of its most basic values, and diverted attention from other serious problems to a degree that could never be justified by any well-reasoned assessment of the threat in question and what it can and cannot do to the nation. This observation is valid even without counting the single most self-destructive thing the United States has done over the past ten years: the Iraq War. That expedition was so far removed from any connection to 9/11 that to consider it part of the response is only to play into the war makers' propaganda about it being part of a “war on terror.” The Iraq War, which requires its own separate balance sheet of damage to U.S. political and economic interests, was instead a callous exploitation by the war makers of national anger and grief to build political support for their project.

Among the redirections over the past decade that have been more genuinely linked to 9/11, some have been disturbingly counterproductive. This has been true of some of the application of military force overseas, with all of its consequences and implications regarding the nurturing of negative images of (and hostility toward) the United States. Also counterproductive in a similar way has been some of the compromise to American values involving civil and human rights—and being a compromise of American values is reason enough for regret. The compromises have included unchecked assertion of executive power in ways that intrude on individual privacy, and they reached an extreme with the resort to torture. Changes in the political winds during the course of a decade have resulted in backing away from the worst excesses, but it is scandalous that the excesses ever went as far as they did.

The overwhelming priority given to the single issue of counterterrorism has distorted America's relationships with countries around the world in ways that have worked to the detriment of many other U.S. interests. Every country, even a superpower, has only a limited number of chits to use in getting other countries to act in ways conducive to the first country's interests. The more chits that are burned on behalf of any one objective, the fewer are left to be used on behalf of other objectives. Similarly, as Anne Applebaum notes in a perceptive column, the narrow, peremptory focus on counterterrorism has burned up a disproportionate amount of one of the nation's most scarce resources, which is the time and attention of its leaders. A result has been insufficient attention to some leading developments overseas as well as neglect and missed opportunities with a host of other important issues both home and abroad.

This all happened not only because of an amygdala-driven response of shock, fear and anger that policy elites might associate mainly with the unwashed masses. It also is due to something even more prevalent among the policy elites than the masses: a yearning for simplifying, all-encompassing themes that define eras and provide the basis for grand strategies. 9/11 had been preceded by ten years of the “post-Cold War era,” an unsatisfying concept that left politicians and the intelligentsia itching for something defined in terms more distinctive than merely that it had followed some other era. Along came 9/11, and they finally had the defining characteristic they were looking for, expressed most frequently as the “war on terror.” Such yearnings are not new, and neither are the dangers and detriments associated with them. The Cold War long served as such an era-defining and strategy-driving theme. Among the detriments of preoccupation with that overarching theme was entry into the Vietnam War.