Here is a bet about the decade since Sept. 11: Historians are going to be mystified by it.
First, the U.S. won the Cold War -- or at least it appeared to. Then, like the U.K. initiating the Industrial Revolution at the height of its global dominance, the U.S. jump-started the Information Revolution. A decade after the Berlin Wall came down, the U.S. seemed poised for another century of global domination through a combination of hard and soft power. We could even afford an extended legal fight over who the next president was going to be.
Now, another 10 years on, the U.S. remains the most significant superpower -- but its position looks increasingly shaky. Its hard power took a hit through the realization that it couldn’t, in fact, take over cantankerous countries and turn them into thriving democracies, no matter how much money was spent or how many noble American lives were sacrificed. China is rising, and U.S. willingness to defend Taiwan by force of arms - - once the centerpiece of the U.S. Pacific policy -- is increasingly in doubt.
As for American soft power, forget about it (or if you prefer, fuggedaboudit). Always a subtle idea that depended upon the theory that culture follows the sword, the very notion now looks like a relic of a more confident age. Those today who preach the benefits of soft power sound very much unlike its originator: Joseph Nye. For the Harvard University professor of government and former senior Defense Department official, the theory was an adjunct to power from the barrel of a gun. Today, its expositors sound more like they think soft power is a substitute for the real thing.
What happened? The short answer is that Sept. 11 did. From the standpoint of future historians, the U.S. took its eye off the ball. (To be clear: the ball is China.) Instead of directing attention to the only fast-growing economic power that also has major geostrategic ambitions, the U.S. spent 10 years obsessed with Islam.
When it all began, U.S. President George W. Bush, on the verge of invading Iraq, didn’t know the difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Today, every minor television personality can lecture on ancient feuds in the Middle East. Journalists covering the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad note that he is an Alawi Muslim and that the Sunnis who hate him may have Salafi sympathies. A few close-reading Americans can even tell Pashtun from Tajik from Uzbek.
Islam and Democracy
As a sometime adviser to U.S. officials and to Iraqis drafting early versions of their constitution, I was one of the people trying to learn fast and apply what I was learning to make the best of a bad situation. I still believe that some of what was accomplished in Iraq was valuable. Iraqis definitively opted for democracy, with all its flaws -- making them the first large Arab state to do so. Their constitution demonstrates the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
At the time, this was innovative. Now it seems like common sense. But was all this hard-earned knowledge worth getting? Put another way, did the years spent in Iraq and Afghanistan serve the U.S. national interest?
The historians, I fear, are likely to think not. Jihadist terrorism needed to be addressed. Yet even mainstream, non-radical Islam demands self-defensive jihad against a non-Muslim invader. Given this, historians will note that it was probably not ideal to address the al-Qaeda threat by invading Muslim lands -- especially if the goal was to win hearts and minds.
Oil will always seem like a valid concern for a superpower. But the historians of the future will notice that Afghanistan has none of this commodity and that Iraq under Saddam Hussein never stopped selling the stuff at a reasonable market price. Above all, historians are going to be confused about why the U.S. was so cavalier about protecting its position of unquestioned world dominance.
Being No. 1 isn’t merely a feel-good proposition. The status of the dollar as the preferred reserve currency is a direct benefit of global hegemony. As we all now know now -- and as historians of the future will teach their wide-eyed freshmen -- printing the global reserve currency is an extraordinary financial advantage.
Some of us used to envy Saudi Arabia. Any time it seemed even slightly unstable, oil prices would rise. The increase, in turn, would strengthen the Saudi regime: a perpetual-motion machine of oil-rigged stability. Now we know the same is true (for the moment) of America. Global economic instability driven by, say, U.S. political turmoil? The result is a flight to quality that makes it cheaper for the U.S. to borrow. Top that, sons of Saud!
The question, then, on which a million future midterms will turn and a thousand pinhead dissertations will dance is how the attacks of Sept. 11 brought the U.S. foreign-policy establishment -- including the very people who persuaded George H.W. Bush not to order an attack on Baghdad during the Gulf War of 1991 -- to decide that the most important threat facing the U.S. was Islamic terrorism.
Part of the answer is that the threat was real. Osama bin Laden and his coterie were creative, effective and brutal. They showed that just a few people willing to die could wreak substantial havoc on an unprepared liberal democracy. But this won’t do to explain the breadth and depth of the U.S. response. Hardening our targets was wise. Wasting untold millions of person-hours in pointless airline-security lines (beware the 3-ounce deodorant) can be explained as an unavoidable side effect of bureaucracy and a placebo for our understandable worries.
But something more is needed to make sense of our adventures abroad. A deeper answer lies in the reality of trauma as a force that can make it hard to think clearly. I distinctly remember the post-Sept. 11 comment of a brilliant, rational and sophisticated close friend (as it happens, of Muslim origin) whose pregnant spouse worked downtown. “I feel like someone tried to kill my wife,” he said.
That painful -- and accurate -- sentiment was felt broadly. Bin Laden tried to kill the U.S. president and his family. The vice president (remember him?) was in the White House. The 3,000 Americans of all backgrounds who were murdered were stand-ins for all of our family members. New York was a stand-in for America. In the wake of this trauma, infinitely repeated on television, thinking straight was barely an option. We could have treated bin Laden as a minor figure in an obscure terrorist network. We could have gambled that, after being chased from power, the Taliban wouldn’t harbor al-Qaeda again. We might have opted to contain Saddam, an evil man whose policies we had basically helped to shape. But, moved as we were, we could hardly imagine these things.
Bin Laden’s true goal was to change the course of history. He did.
(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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