WASHINGTON - A decade after its spectacular September 11, 2001, attacks on New
York City's twin World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and despite the
killing earlier this year of its charismatic leader, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda
appears to have largely succeeded in its hopes of accelerating the decline of
United States global power, if not bringing it to the brink of collapse.
That appears to be the strong consensus of the foreign-policy elite which, with
only a few exceptions, believes that the administration of president George W
Bush badly "over-reacted" to the attacks and that that over-reaction continues
to this day.
That over-reaction was driven in major part by a close-knit group of
neo-conservatives and other hawks who seized control of Bush's foreign policy
even before the dust had settled over Lower Manhattan and set it on a radical
course designed to consolidate Washington's dominance of the Greater Middle
East and "shock and awe" any aspiring global or regional rival powers into
acquiescing to a "unipolar" world.
Led within the administration by vice president Dick Cheney, Pentagon chief
Donald Rumsfeld and their mostly neo-conservative aides and supporters, the
hawks had four years before joined the Project for the New American Century
(PNAC). The letter-head organization was co-founded by neo-conservative
ideologues William Kristol and Robert Kagan, who, in an important 1996 article,
called for the US to preserve its post-Cold War "hegemony as far into the
future as possible".
In a series of subsequent letters and publications, they urged ever more
military spending; pre-emptive, and if necessary, unilateral military action
against possible threats; and "regime change" for rogue states, beginning with
Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
On the eve of 9/11, PNAC's notion that Washington could extend its "benevolent
global hegemony" indefinitely did not appear unreasonable. With more than 30%
of the global economy, the strongest fiscal position in a generation, and a
defense budget greater than the 20 next-most-powerful militaries combined,
Washington looked unchallengeable, a perception soon enhanced by the show of
national unity that followed the attacks and the speed and apparent ease with
which Washington orchestrated the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan later
"I've gone back in world history and never seen anything like it," exclaimed
Yale University historian Paul Kennedy, a leading exponent of the "declinist"
school of US power 15 years before, about Washington's dominance, which he
compared favorably to the British Empire in its day.
PNAC's associates were similarly impressed. "People are now coming out of the
closet on the word 'empire'," exulted the Washington Post's neo-conservative
columnist, Charles Krauthammer, a Cheney favorite and long-time advocate of a
US-led "unipolar" world. "The fact is no country has been as dominant
culturally, economically, technologically, and militarily in the history of the
world since the Roman Empire."
Such exuberance (or hubris) naturally fueled the next phase in PNAC's quest -
originally laid out in an open letter to Bush published by the group just nine
days after 9/11 - for victory in what was now called the "global war on
terror": regime change in Iraq.
"Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps
decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism," PNAC had warned,
arguing that Washington must expand its target list to include states -
particularly those hostile to Israel - that support terrorist groups, as well
as the terrorist groups themselves.
So, instead of focusing on capturing Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders and
providing the kind of security and material assistance needed to pacify and
begin rebuilding Afghanistan, Bush turned his attention - and diverted US
military and intelligence resources - to preparing for war against Iraq.
That decision is now seen universally - with the exception of Cheney and his
diehard PNAC supporters - as perhaps the single-most disastrous foreign policy
decision by a US president in the past decade, if not the past century.
Not only did it effectively set the stage for an eventual Taliban comeback in
Afghanistan (which is now costing the US some US$10 billion a month), but it
also destroyed the international support and solidarity Washington had enjoyed
immediately after the 9/11 attacks - a fact made excruciatingly clear by Bush's
failure to gain United Nations Security Council backing for his invasion of
Iraq in March 2003. It also helped persuade tens of millions of Muslims that
the US was waging war on Islam, according to dozens of public-opinion surveys.
Indeed, by invading Iraq, the US fell into a trap set by Bin Laden who,
convinced that Moscow's decade-long occupation of Afghanistan contributed
critically to the Soviet Union's eventual collapse, clearly believed that the
US was susceptible to the same kind of over-extension.
"We, alongside the mujahideen, bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt
and was forced to withdraw in defeat," he said in a 2004 video-tape describing
what he called a "war of attrition".
"We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,"
he added. "All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest
point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written 'al-Qaeda', in order
to make generals race there and to cause America to suffer human, economic and
political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some
benefits for their private corporations," he went on.
By the time Bin Laden recorded those remarks, the US forces in Iraq were
battling a growing insurgency, one that not only would result in hugely costly
abuses by US forces at Abu Ghraib that inflicted serious damage to Washington's
already-tattered moral image, but that would also push Iraq to the very brink
of civil war and lead to an even deeper and more expensive intervention by the
True to Bin Laden's prediction, Washington, goaded by PNAC associates and
alumni, also deployed forces - or drone missiles at the very least - to
virtually wherever al-Qaeda or its alleged affiliates raised its flag, often at
the cost of weakening local governments and incurring the wrath of local
populations, particularly in Somalia and Yemen.
More importantly, the same held true in nuclear-armed Pakistan, not to mention
Afghanistan, where Bush's successor, Barack Obama, more than doubled US troop
strength to 100,000 in his first two years in office, even as he withdrew an
equivalent number from Iraq.
The costs have been staggering in almost every respect. The estimated $3
trillion to $4.4 trillion Washington has incurred either directly or indirectly
in conducting the "global war on terror" account for a substantial portion of
the fiscal crisis that transformed the country's politics and brought it to the
edge of bankruptcy last month.
And while the US military remains by far the strongest in the world, its veil
of invincibility has been irreparably pierced by the success with which rag-tag
groups of guerrillas have defied and frustrated it. The result, according to
conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, has been "a steady erosion
of America's position in the world", which Obama has so far been unable to
"[F]or a long time," wrote Richard Clarke, a top national-security official
under Bush who warned the White House several months before 9/11 that al-Qaeda
was planning a major operation against the US homeland, in the dailybeast.com,
"we actually played into the hands of our opponents, doing precisely what they
had wanted us to do, responding in the ways that they had sought to provoke,
damaging our economy and alienating much of the Middle East."
And leading the charge were precisely those hawks whose fondest wish was to
extend, rather than cut short, Washington's global hegemony.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.