Significance of 9/11's Impact Upon U.S. Foreign Policy Should Not Be Overestimated, Leffler Says

September 12, 2011

September 12, 2011 — Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the long-term significance on U.S. foreign policy should not be overestimated, University of Virginia history professor Melvyn Leffler said Friday at U.Va.'s Miller Center.

The attacks were a terrible tragedy, and a monumental act of aggression and provocation that spurred the George W. Bush administration to pivot its foreign policy and launch a "global war on terror," said Leffler, Edward Stettinius Professor of History in the College of Arts & Sciences and a faculty associate at the Miller Center.

But the attacks did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of U.S. foreign policy, said Leffler, who has written or edited seven books and dozens of articles on the history of American foreign policy.

The post-9/11 policies for which Bush received the most criticism, and which were often portrayed as ill-conceived inventions of neoconservatives – prevention, preemption, unilateralism and the promotion of democratic peace, especially after weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq – are not new, but in fact are deeply embedded in American tradition, said Leffler, whose most recent book, "In Uncertain Times: U.S. Foreign Policy After the Berlin Wall and 9/11," was co-edited with Jeffrey Legro, Compton Professor of World Politics.

Examples of preventive or preemptive U.S. military action abound from the past 50 years, including the Vietnam War and the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Leffler said.

The bulk of major foreign policy goals were unchanged by 9/11 and continue still: America's quest for primacy, a preference for an open door and free markets, a readiness for unilateralism when necessary, eclectic mergers of interests and values, and a sense of indispensability, Leffler said.

However, the 9/11 attacks did have significant impact. They highlighted the global significance of non-state actors and radical Islam. They alerted the country to the vulnerability of our way of life, and to the anger, bitterness and resentment toward the U.S. residing elsewhere in the world, especially in parts of the Islamic world.

The aftermath of the attacks – particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – also illustrated how the mobilization of U.S. power, unless disciplined, calibrated and exercised in conjunction with allies, has the potential to undermine global peace and security, Leffler said.

With the benefit of hindsight, Leffler said, it seems clear that many of the post-9/11 priorities embraced by Bush actually undercut the goals they were designed to achieve.

Rather than thwarting terrorism and radical Islam, U.S. actions encouraged them. During the war on terror, the number of terrorist incidents rose, and possibly so did the number of jihadists, he said.

A 2008 report on counterterrorism from a respected nonpartisan think tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, concluded that since 2002 the overall U.S. position in the global fight against terrorism has slipped, Leffler said. Although the United States had captured and killed terrorist leaders and operatives and disrupted terrorist networks, often through effective partnerships with foreign counterterrorist agencies, those gains were offset, the report noted, by the resurgence of Iranian regional influence, the metastasis of al Qaeda into a global movement, the spread and intensification of radical Islamist ideology and the growing worldwide influence of Islamic fundamentalist political parties. The recent killing of Osama bin Laden may reverse some of these trends, but many leading experts are skeptical, Leffler said.

The expense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – $1.3 trillion and mounting – combined with Bush's tax cuts and increased defense spending have eroded U.S. financial strength and flexibility, which hurt U.S. global primacy and empowered rivals, especially China. Rather than promoting free markets, U.S. economic woes spurred protectionist impulses at home and complicated trade negotiations abroad, Leffler said.

Rather than thwarting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regime change in Iraq gave added incentives for rogue nations to pursue such weapons – recently reinforced by Obama's intervention in Libya after that nation renounced its nuclear program, he said.

Rather than promoting liberty, the War on Terror coexisted with democratic backsliding globally, at least until the recent Arab Spring. U.S. war fighting and counterterrorism nurtured Washington's relationships with some of the world's most illiberal regimes, including those in Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. According to Freedom House's 2010 annual report on the state of global political rights and civil liberties, Leffler said, "2009 was the fourth straight year in which more countries saw declines in freedom than saw improvements, the longest continuous period of deterioration in the nearly 40-year history of the report."

Leffler's remarks at the Miller Center were drawn partly from his recent article, "9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush's Grand Strategy, Reconsidered," published in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs.

"Rather than heaping blame or casting praise on the Bush administration, 10 years after 9/11 it is time for Americans to reflect more deeply about their history and their values," Leffler said. "Americans can affirm their core values, yet recognize the hubris that inheres in them."

Americans can identify and condemn the brutality of terrorists and dictators, yet acknowledge that they themselves are the source of rage in many parts of the Arab world. Americans can recognize 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.

Americans should acknowledge that 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 adopting a realistic energy policy, Leffler said.

"The bitterness that has poisoned American public discourse in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the wars they triggered should be turned into sorrowful reflection about how fear, guilt, hubris and power can do so much harm in the quest to do good," he concluded.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications