Thursday, September 01, 2011


"Some observers have compared the impact of 9/11 on U.S. policy to the impact on U.S. policy of North Korea's attack on South Korea in June 1950. Back then, the Truman administration had also been stunned. It had been pondering new initiatives, but the president was still waffling. He had approved the National Security Council report known as NSC-68 but was not quite ready to implement it. The dimensions of a coming U.S. military buildup were uncertain; the global nature of the Cold War still unclear; the ideological crusade still somewhat inchoate. But Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, and Paul Nitze, the director of policy planning at the State Department, knew they had to reconfirm the United States' preponderance of power, recently shattered by the Soviets' first nuclear test. They knew they had to increase the United States' military capabilities, regain the country's self-confidence, and avoid being self-deterred. They knew they had to take responsibility for the operation of global free trade and the reconstruction of the West German and Japanese economies (their successful resuscitation was still uncertain). They knew the United States' supremacy was being contested by a brutal and formidable rival with an ideology that had considerable appeal to impoverished peoples beginning to yearn for autonomy, equality, independence, and nationhood. In this context, the North Korean attack not only led to the Korean War but also unleashed a major expansion of U.S. global policy more generally.

The long-term significance of 9/11 for U.S. foreign policy should not be overestimated. Whether or not one thinks that such analogies are appropriate, it is incontestable that Bush and his advisers saw themselves as being locked in a similar struggle. And they, too, sought to preserve and reassert the primacy of the United States while they struggled to thwart any follow-up attacks on U.S. citizens or U.S. territory. Like Acheson and Nitze, they were certain that they were protecting a way of life, that the configuration of power in the international arena and the mitigation of threats abroad were vital to the preservation of freedom at home.

More than Acheson and Nitze, Bush's advisers had trouble weaving the elements of their policy into a coherent strategy that could address the challenges they considered most urgent. It seems clear now that many of their foreign policy initiatives, along with their tax cuts and unwillingness to call for domestic sacrifices, undercut the very goals they were designed to achieve.

Thus, U.S. primacy was ultimately damaged by the failure to execute the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq effectively and by the anti-Americanism that these flawed enterprises helped magnify. U.S. officials might declare the universal appeal of freedom and proclaim that history has demonstrated the viability of only one form of political economy, but opinion polls throughout the Muslim world have shown that the United States' actions in Iraq and support of Israel were a toxic combination. As liberation turned into occupation and counterinsurgency, the United States and its power were thrown into disrepute.

U.S. primacy was also damaged by the unexpected cost of the protracted wars, recently estimated by the Congressional Research Service to be $1.3 trillion dollars and mounting. It was eroded by the debts that accrued as a result of tax cuts and increased domestic expenditures. Defense spending climbed from $304 billion in 2001 to $616 billion in 2008, even as the U.S. budget went from a surplus of $128 billion to a deficit of $458 billion. Federal debt as a percentage of GDP rose from 32.5 percent in 2001 to 53.5 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, the U.S. debt held by foreign governments climbed steadily, from about 13 percent at the end of the Cold War to close to 30 percent at the end of the Bush years. U.S. financial strength and flexibility had been seriously eroded".

Melvyn Leffler, "9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush's Grand Strategy, Reconsidered."
Foreign Affairs. (September / October 2011).

As the tenth anniversary approaches of the 11th of September 2001, I thought that it would be worthwhile to publish an extract from an essay by the erste-klasse, American 20th century diplomatic historian Melvyn Leffler. Leffler having written perhaps the very best book dealing with the early origins of the American national security state and its foreign policy 1. Given his background, one can only observe that unfortunately, his essay dealing with the 11th of September 2001, is less than totally inspiring from an analytical perspective. Indeed, from my (admittedly biased) perspective, his text seems to be filled with rather commonplace bien-pensant apercu:

"Americans can affirm their core values yet recognize the hubris that inheres in them. They can identify the wanton brutality of others yet acknowledge that they themselves are the source of rage in many parts of the Arab world. Americans can agree that terrorism is a threat that must be addressed but realize that it is not an existential menace akin to the military and ideological challenges posed by German Nazism and Soviet communism. They can acknowledge that the practice of projecting solutions to their problems onto the outside world means that they seek to avoid difficult choices at home, such as paying higher taxes, accepting universal conscription, or implementing a realistic energy policy. Americans can recognize that there is evil in the world, as Obama reminded his Nobel audience in December 2009, and they can admit, as he did, that force has a vital role to play in the affairs of humankind. But they can also recognize that the exercise of power can grievously injure those whom they wish to help and can undercut the very goals they seek to achieve. Americans can acknowledge the continuities in their interests and values yet wrestle with the judgments and tradeoffs that are required to design a strategy that works in a post-Cold War era, where the threats are more varied, the enemies more elusive, and power more fungible"

However, be that as it may, the larger and more pertinent point that he makes, is that rather than the policies of the Bush regime, being at variance with those of prior administrations, in point of fact there is a great deal of continuity between the general outline of said policies and those of the Clinton Administration before it. A point made ex-number of years ago, by Leffler's nemesis in the American historical profession, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University in a series of lectures that I was able to attend at the New York Public Library 3. Where the Bush regime differs significantly from its predecessors and indeed its successor is not so much in the goals that it sought, or even necessarily the means employed, merely in the persistently inept & amateurish manner that the policies were pursued. Rumsfeld et. al., in retrospect reminds one of nothing ever so much as Bethmann-Hollweg's comment about Erich Ludendorff: 'a mixture of political primitivism and old-Prussian directness'. With the end result being both the isolation that American diplomacy found itself in the Iraq War from 2003 onwards as well as the grossly incompetent fashion that the war was waged. The Iraq mis-adventure being a principal example of 'political primitivism' par excellence. Similarly the entire concept & policy the the so-called 'War on Terror' (a term which displays an infinite lack of conceptualization). Which is not to gainsay the fact that Leffler engages in the usual (as noted above) parti pris against the Bush regime and its defenders: id est., while the costs of the Iraq War were in total dollars a seemingly large amount (1.3 Trillion), per se, that does not explain the difficulties of the American economy since the so-called 'Dot-com' bust, nor does account for the devastation of the financial crisis on the American economy since. Per contra: countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Italia, Germany, et. cetera., all suffered as much as if not more than the USA, even though none of these had to deal with the costs of two foreign wars, nor tax cuts for the wealthy `a la the USA 4. Hence, to pre-suppose that the former (Iraq / Afghan War & tax cuts) resulted in the latter (economic difficulties since 2000 and especially 2007) is merely an example of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Sans partis pris, I for one would rather doubt that Leffler would engage in such a simplistic syllogism. In short, the value of Leffler's piece is that he demonstrates that au fond, the 11th of September 2001, was in the larger stream of history, what the great French historian Fernand Braudel would characterize as an 'un evenement', a mere event 5. And not a structural or conjectural change in the larger historical or geopolitical landscape. It is more akin to the earlier American mis-adventure in Indo-China, than say something equivalent to say the Great War or World War II in its effects on the world politics.

1. Melyvn Leffler, A Predominance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration and the Cold War. (1993).

2. Leffler, 9/11 in Retrospect, op. cit.

3. John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security and the American Experience. (2004).

4. Martin Wolf, "Struggling with a Great Contraction." The Financial Times. 31st August 2011, in

5. For the origins of this term, see: Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean & the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II . (1949).


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