Ten Years After 9/11: Big and Small Lessons

We all like round numbers so the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is getting much more play than the ninth did or the eleventh will.  This year is distinct not just in the roundness of the number but in that it is also the year in which:

  • Bin Laden got shot in the face …. by US Special Operations Forces …. in Pakistan

  • The US is leaving Iraq and has peaked in Afghanistan, with 2014 now the target for all ISAF troop contributors as they plan their exits

  • Al Qaeda stood by while other forces brought down governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and while other governments faced lots of stress as they tried to hold things together

So this anniversary is particularly meaningful because Al Qaeda is clearly not better now than it was ten years ago.  Its leader is dead, with heaps of embarrassing materials found in his non-cave — porn, videos that demonstrate his narcissism and vanity might be greater than my own, and so on.  It has not had a major success in some time.  And one of its raisons d’etre – repressive authoritarian regimes — have declined in number with the organization playing absolutely no role .  

The next question, of course, is this: is the US is better off than it was ten years ago?  The answer to this is also clearly no.  But before I get into this, I need to go back to the week before 9/11.  It was my first day as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.  This fellowship placed me on the Bosnia desk of the Directorate of Strategic Plans and Policy (J-5) of the US Joint Staff.  The principal goal of US defense policy towards the Balkans at that time was to get out of the Balkans. The deployment of a division or two (I forget the exact numbers) in a peaceful but vigilant operation was stressing out the force.  In the language of the Pentagon, the optempo (rate of operations, how it affects equipment and units) and perstempo (rate of personnel deployments and how it affects the various folks involved) were too high.  Funny now, of course, since I am sure the US Army would trade the past several years of deployments for the “difficult days” of simultaneous stabilization operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.  

That bit of context is important. The past ten years have been enormously expensive for the US.  I remember being so frustrated in 2002-2003, in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, that the US under the Bush Administration had wasted the political capital earned in September 2001 on a war that the rest of the world did not really want. That frustration is akin to the stress the US army was facing in 2000.  It is nothing in comparison to today.  Repeated deployments to incredibly dangerous placeshave stressed out the US military. So there is a skyrocketing suicide rate.  Years of spending enormous sums on multiple wars have stressed out the US economy.  The Bush Administration cut taxes during these wars, causing the deficit problems we now face.  The Bush Administration’s abuses of power have stressed out the US political system,  Successors who either failed to change the bad polices of the past (Guantanamo) or embraced those that enhanced executive power (Patriot Act again?) haven’t helped.  There is more to the polarization of the American political system than reactions to 9/11 and to the Bush Administration’s mishandling of pretty much everything.  But the US is clearly not in a better place than it was on September 10th, 2011.  Al Qaeda could try to take credit for the challenges facing the US today, but mostly Americans are to blame for making bad choices and supporting bad policies.  

The good news is that the US does have a learning curve.  Obama supported the NATO mission in Libya but did not take the usual leadership position. This not only empowered a country, France, that often opposed NATO but gave more influence to countries – Canada, Denmark and Great Britain – that have fought hard in Afghanistan.  It is too early to know what will happen in Libya, but Obama’s embrace of multilateralism does suggest a way to burden share with those who are willing to bear the weight of it (and marginalize those who decline).  

The US has bounced back from hard times in the past, whether it was the Civil War, the difficult Reconstruction the followed it, the Great Depression, or Vietnam.  The US has a capacity to make great mistakes, but also to learn and do better the next time.  This is the best hope for an American recovery from 9/11 and the mistakes that followed.