Learning the Right Lessons

By Stephen M. Walt

There’s a terrific piece in the National Journal today, adding up the costs of the “war on terror” and pointing out that unlike some other costly wars in American history, this one has produced almost no economic benefits. That is, unless you think people standing in TSA lines are using those idle minutes (hours?) to dream up lots of innovative new ideas that will fire up the U.S. economy. I rather doubt it.

If we had a rational discourse on this subject, it ought to provoke two questions.  First, how did we get into this mess in the first place? Specifically, what were the U.S. policies that contributed to the rise of groups like Al Qaeda, and made it difficult-to-impossible to head them off before they hit us? (You’d think the 9/11 Commission would have tackled this question head on, but of course that proved too controversial for them). This subject hasn’t been wholly neglected since 9/11 (i.e., there was some discussion of the familiar “why do they hate us?” question), but even raising the question could get you accused of being someone who “blamed America first.” So hardly anybody asked if maybe 9/11 was also a wake-up call, and that there were some aspects of U.S. foreign policy that needed to be rethought. Of course, raising the question doesn’t necessarily mean that the policies that contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise (e.g., stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, unconditional support for Israel, propping up the Mubarak regime in Egypt, etc.) were necessarily wrong, but it does suggest that these policies were more expensive than we previously believed.

The second question would be: which responses to 9/11 have worked well, and which policies have proven to be costly failures?  Ideally, the United States ought to conduct a ruthless assessment of the post-9/11 response, in order to determine — to the extent possible — which of the post 9/11 policy changes were effective and which were not. The purpose here isn’t a witch-hunt directed at former government officials, as I assume that even the neocons who led us blindly into Iraq believed that this decision was in the best interests of the country. But now, nearly ten years later, we ought to be mature enough to recognize that some of the actions we took after 9/11 weren’t that smart, while some other responses turned out to be quite effective. And both ends of the political spectrum should be open to revising their views: some policies abhorred by liberals (such as electronic eavesdropping) may actually have been a net positive, while some actions favored by hardline conservatives (such as waterboarding and other forms of torture) should be seen as misguided failures.

That is how a mature great power would deal with the vast and costly response that began on 9/11: it would try to learn the right lessons from the past decade so that it did better the next time it faced an unexpected challenge. But in the polarized, partisan, and fact-free world of contemporary policy discourse, how likely is that?

As published in Foreign Policy on May 6, 2011. (Source: www.foreignpolicy.com )


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