The Real Impact of 9/11

A month is a long time in the era of online news and opinion, but I just stumbled on a Project on Defense Alternatives monograph from back in February that’s really worth a mention. Carl Conetta makes a pretty convincing argument that the major significance of 9/11 was political, not strategic, and that the true historical pivot point of our time remains the fall of the Soviet Union.

Conetta begins with the paradox of American military primacy in the post-Cold War era. This nugget is enough to make any foreign policy writer green with envy:

With Soviet collapse, America won a windfall in a currency of power that – because of Soviet collapse – was simultaneously devalued.

He also makes the good point that while the 90’s saw the birth of the liberal hawk movement, the embrace of American military intervention was far from universal, and often faded soon after the initial engagement with the enemy:

The disappearance of the Soviet threat also made it difficult to form a stable US domestic consensus on overseas military activism. During the 1990s, almost every contingency operation – Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kosovo – quickly became a point of acute contention. Outside the context of the global East-West struggle, America’s security stakes in many far-flung conflicts seemed attenuated. Neither the notion of “humanitarian interests” nor that of “important if not vital interests” were sufficient to quell dissent. . .

Conetta articulates a three-point plan for developing domestic political consensus for military activism abroad in the post-WWII era, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to the selling of the Iraq War:

— First, the national security stakes in foreign involvements must be perceived as real, present, and substantial;
— Second
, the United States must retain freedom of action abroad. In alliance or other multinational endeavors, it must possess a distinct leadership role; and,
— Third
, the modes of action must be perceived as “decisive” – that is: perceived as likely to yield clear, positive results. . . In military operations, it implies the demand for clear, invariant objectives and for using overwhelming force to win them quickly.

This gets us to the crux of Conetta’s argument, namely that 9/11 changed everything not in the world, but in American public opinion:

What made a more energetic and proactive interventionary policy broadly acceptable within the United States was the 9/11 attacks – together with the initial impression that the US armed forces would be used in ways best suited to their capabilities. What has proved far less acceptable – and, indeed, has been the Bush administration’s undoing – is the desultory occupation duties that followed the initial, conventional victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Concetta goes on to argue that the failure of the nation-building experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the fallacy of America’s post-9/11 conception of military intervention:

What the next US administration can learn from this is that the “war on terrorism” framework, together with popular fears about the spread of weapons of mass destruction, can enable greater military activism, but only of a certain type: fast and decisive. An entirely different matter are protracted campaigns of occupation and those that either seem detached from clear security threats or seem to diverge from the warfghting model. It is disconcerting, then, that the American policy “center” seems to be trending away from a recognition of this lesson. Instead, it is gravitating to a putative midpoint between the Clinton and Bush administration positions.

By this he means the kinds of “peace and stability operations” (PSO’s) that are now commonly referred to as nation-building. He wraps up by summarizing the true cost of not accurately assessing the failure of our recent military interventionism:

This failure points to a more fundamental one: seized by a sense of military primacy, we have failed to appreciate the difference and the distance between achieving military effects and achieving political-strategic ones.

This paragraph in particular jumped out at me, because it seems to encapsulate the national security debate embodied by an Obama-McCain presidential campaign:

In light of America’s misadventure in Iraq – its great costs and poor results – it seems unlikely that the US public will be easily won [over] to attempt similar experiments on a grander scale. Not even the “war on terrorism” or the notion of a “global Islamic insurgency” seem sufficient motivators.

Clearly, McCain is running on the assumption that Iraq still satisfies the three-point checklist Connetta articulates above. Obama (and, to a lesser extent, Clinton) makes the case that the predominant challenge facing America is the political-strategic aftermath of the Iraq War, rather than the (mistaken) national security threat that lead to our invasion. The national security aspect of the campaign will boil down to which of the two competing narratives the American voters embrace.

More World Politics Review