Yemen and the Post-Bush Doctrine

Until last week, I was among those who didn’t believe that 9/11 had really “changed everything.” I still don’t think it irrevocably altered global geopolitics, certainly not as much as the U.S. reaction to it did.

But in the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day terrorist plot, I was struck by the degree to which 9/11 really did change America. The Yemen frenzy, which seems to be subsiding, nevertheless revealed the extent to which America’s foreign policy and defense posture has gone micro, with engagement conceived of less in terms of actors (i.e., a country’s government and military), and more in terms of fields (i.e., its society).

That’s always been the case to some degree when it comes to troubled states, and even more broadly. The difference is that now, it has become the conditioned default position.

That the nature of the Yemen debate boiled down to whether the response should be politico-military or militaro-political obviously has a great deal to do with the fact that the Christmas Day plot failed, and thatYemen is a friendly state with which we are already cooperating oncounterrorism.

But it also reveals the ways in which post-9/11 — that is, our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — “changed everything.” We’ve come to take our nation-building seriously, not to be undertaken without the sub-state-level assessment necessary for a major social engineering project.

The fact that we have not yet acted upon that instinct in no way changes the dramatic shift in how we view these problems: a whole-of-government approach for a whole-of-society intervention. Call it the post-Bush Doctrine. Thankfully, the Christmas Day plot was the Pavlovian equivalent of the bell, and not the meal. But our conditioned reaction was revealing.