In his long war against America, Osama bin Laden has won a sweeping if posthumous victory. The U.S. reaction to the 9/11 attack he masterminded is like the cytokine storm that can occur when Covid-19 attacks us: the defensive measures our bodies mount go too far and damage the vital organs our antibodies were meant to protect. The 9/11 era began in Afghanistan, and now it has ended there, in humiliating defeat.
The United States is weaker, more divided, and less respected than it was two decades ago, and we have surrendered the unchallenged preeminence we then enjoyed. Although our response to 9/11 is not solely responsible for these negative developments, it has certainly contributed to them.
It did not have to be this way. Misjudgments by four successive Presidents led us to lose focus on the purpose of our presence in Afghanistan, invade Iraq under mistaken premises, violate our own red line in Syria, sign what amounted to a surrender agreement with the Taliban, and leave Kabul under the worst imaginable circumstances. Whom the gods would destroy, goes the proverb, they first make mad.
We had to react forcefully to al-Qaeda’s murderous assault, and we did. But counterfactual history helps us understand how badly our reaction went astray. If we had simply deposed the Taliban and accepted their surrender, which they offered and we spurned, captured Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, and stopped there, we would have been much better off than we are today. The invasion of Iraq did depose a murderous thug but at the cost of removing the key barrier to the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East. And Iran is a far greater threat to our interests and our friends than Iraq ever was. We did not have to respond to the 9/11 attack in this way, but the attack on our homeland gave our leaders the opportunity and the predicate to commit this enormous series of blunders.
At the end of the 20th century, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus. We had no military or economic peers, and our ideological victory over the antagonists of liberal democracy seemed total. September 11 changed all this. Our excessive focus on the Middle East diverted us from the geopolitical forces that were reshaping the world to our disadvantage. While America looked elsewhere, Russia recovered and China rose, with consequences stretching from Crimea to the Taiwan Strait to the factories and small towns of America’s heartland. Now we must face the consequences with a weakened hand.
America led the world, not alone, but at the head of friendships and alliances forged in the crucible of World War II. There were constant tensions within these structures, of course, but in the main, our friends and allies believed that they could count on us for stability and sound judgment. Not anymore. The misguided invasion of Iraq created deep divisions between the United States and Europe, our surrender of Syria to Russian influence made the world doubt the strength of our purpose, and our pell-mell departure from Afghanistan has infuriated and saddened even our closest supporters. It is not often—indeed it may be unprecedented—that the United States is castigated by both the government and the opposition in the House of Commons.
We were hardly a united country on September 10, 2001, but our divisions are far worse today. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which but for the actions of brave Americans likely would have included the U.S. Capitol as well, should have unified the country—and at the beginning they did. President George W. Bush’s forceful response to the terrorists garnered bipartisan praise, and his effort to prevent the demonization of Muslim Americans proved remarkably effective. For a while, Congress worked in rare harmony across party lines to pass essential measures.
But as debates over the treatment of detainees and the invasion of Iraq escalated, unity gave way to bitter recriminations that exacerbated Americans’ mistrust of government and undermined confidence in the role of foreign policy, defense, and intelligence expertise. Partisan divisions over the Islamic religion and Muslim immigrants steadily widened, laying the foundation for the controversial restrictions imposed in the opening weeks of the Trump Administration. September 11 has left us with a legacy of fear—on the right, the fear of more terrorist attacks; on the left, fear that our response to this possibility will infringe civil liberties and open the door to discrimination against Muslims and other minorities.
The opportunity costs of our post-9/11 policy choices have been enormous. Since 2001, the United States has spent about $2 trillion in direct warfighting costs in Iraq and Afghanistan. One estimate places the total cost at $4 trillion, not counting the “long tail” outlays for treating the physical and mental damage these wars have inflicted on thousands of the best men and women our country has to offer.
It would be naive to suggest that all this money would otherwise have been put to productive use in domestic public policy or the private sector. But one thing is clear: During years of fiscal restraints on discretionary spending during the past decade, our wars in the Middle East received funding from accounts to which the official budget limits did not apply.
Because domestic policy had no such safety valve, important government functions suffered, including the emergency health stockpile that was all but empty when we needed it the most in the early months of the pandemic. At the same time, our failure to raise taxes to fund our post-9/11 military engagements guaranteed steady upward pressure on the national debt. A more measured response to the attack on our homeland would have made us stronger at home, with no loss of security. This alternative course, moreover, would have given the Department of Defense more bandwidth to focus on the military modernization needed to counter the great-power threats we now face.
The manner of our withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to make all this worse. Because we are leaving behind thousands of Afghans who worked with us, we may well create another generation of American fighting men and women who doubt the morality of their government and wonder whether their sacrifices were worth it. And there is an awful symmetry: The era that began in tragedy with an attack on Americans from Afghanistan ended with an attack on Americans in Afghanistan.
This said, we cannot afford to squander our energy in endless “Who lost Kabul?” debates. We should close the book on the 9/11 era, confine our policies in the Middle East to defending our friends and our essential interests, and focus instead on the task before us: doing what is necessary at home and abroad to arrest our decline and remain fully competitive in the struggle to define world order in the 21st century.
William A. Galston, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal. This article was originally published by the Brookings Institution.
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