Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Just How Transformative was 9/11 of US Foreign Policy?

Several days ago the nation commemorated the ten year "anniversary" of the 9/11 attacks. On that day I was stuck in Orlando International Airport awaiting my flight back after having finished my third, and thankfully last, Army Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. And as I do from time to time I purchased the New York Times Sunday weekender chiefly for the NTY Bookreview and magazine but this edition also included a lengthy special insert assessing the impact of 9/11 after ten years. Not surprisingly the bulk of this section concentrated on the Iraq war. In fact out of the twelve sections or so more than half dealt with the Iraq war and its consequences. By comparison only a few sections reflected on the conflict in Afghanistan. Again, this isn't all that baffling since when most consider the impact that 9/11 has had on the world they think specifically in terms of the misguided and bungled invasion of Iraq.

But a partial result of this narrow reflection on the consequences of 9/11 has been the development of the fashionable claim among historians of American foreign policy, IR theorists, political scientists, foreign journalists, et al that 9/11 caused a fundamental shift in how the United States now conducts its foreign policy by turning from the astute and calculating realism of the 80's and 90's to the heavy handed, highly ideological and unilateralist foreign policy of the Bush administration and its, mostly, neoconservative policy advisers. As I've briefly touched on before this kind of thinking is typical of those who study American foreign policy in one degree or another, i.e., it's illustrative of a broader attempt by that establishment to isolate specific "hinge" moments in American history that changed and/or altered the direction of then US foreign relations.( Even Henry Kissinger, a former diplomat I admire, is guilty of this in his otherwise excellent monograph Diplomacy).

I think this is a deeply flawed analysis of the history of American foreign policy. For my own part I'm inclined to allot a lot more continuity in the how the US has conducted foreign policy since its inception. Additionally, I would argue that Bush's so called "preemptive" war against Saddam Hussain makes much more sense within this paradigm of thinking or rather fits squarely with how the US has acted against "perceived" national security threats before. In this sense then I don't think that 9/11 was all that transformative in regards to American foreign policy. Thankfully, I'm not alone in this belief as I discovered when I read Melvyn Leffler's excellent essay in the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs where he asserts the same idea. Since he argues his position much better than I feel I can at the moment it's worth quoting from at length to close out this post:

"Preemptive and preventive actions were not invented by Bush; his vice president, Dick Cheney; and Rumsfeld; they have a long history in the annals of US foreign policy. A century earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt's "corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine was a policy of preventive intervention in the Americas, as were the subsequent US military occupations of countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt justified his resort to anticipatory self-defense against German ships in the Atlantic prior to the United States' entry in World War II by saying, 'When you see a ratlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.' Some 20 years on, President John F. Kennedy determined that he could not allow a Soviet deployment of offensive weapons about 90 miles from US shores, and he unilaterally imposed a quarantine-essentially a blockade and an act of belligerency-around Cuba during the missle crisis...Responding to the threat of terrorism in the mid-1990's, President Bill Clinton signed a national security directive declaring that 'the United States shall pursue vigorously efforts to deter and preempt, apprehend and prosecute...individuals who perpetrate or plan to perpetrate such attacks'...The long term significance of 9/11 for US foreign policy should not be overestimated." (pp. 40, 42)

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