The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 resulted in the United States attacking enemies in Afghanistan (where the terrorist attacks were planned, and which provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda leaders), going to war in Iraq to enforce United Nations resolutions related to suspected weapons of mass destruction and suspected ties to international terrorists, and declaring a “global war on terror” against Islamist terrorist organizations and the states that harbor and/or support them.
America, Adams cautioned, is the well-wisher of freedom to all, but the champion and vindicator only of her own.
The George W. Bush administration did a commendable job identifying, tracking down, and, in Bush’s words, “bringing to justice” some of our terrorist enemies. But the administration then got carried away with its own Wilsonian rhetoric, reminiscent of President Woodrow Wilson’s promotion of universal self-determination and democracy for all mankind during the First World War. President Bush declared to a joint session of Congress after the attacks that America’s war on terror will go on until “every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” He promised to defeat the terrorists and usher in an “age of liberty,” stating that “the advance of freedom” depends on America.
The Bush administration then attempted to promote and spread democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire Middle East. And rhetorically, Bush proclaimed that “the advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country.”
This was a fool’s errand. It ignored the wise and prudent counsel of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams who, in 1821, warned his countrymen against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Adams was responding to calls for the United States to intervene in efforts by Greek revolutionaries to break free of Ottoman rule. America, Adams cautioned, is the well-wisher of freedom to all, but the champion and vindicator only of her own.
The Bush administration’s democracy promotion and nation-building initiative was enthusiastically embraced by President Obama and rejected by President Trump. It led to 20 years of war in Afghanistan, and a wasteful occupation of Iraq. The global war on terror also distracted the United States from the growing challenge of a rising China, which may be its most harmful legacy.
CAUTION, PRUDENCE, HUMILITY
Over the past twenty years, while we were preoccupied with expending lives and treasure promoting democracy in the Arab world, China emerged as a peer competitor—America’s next geopolitical rival. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, which, combined with its growing military power, expanded China’s global reach. China has increased trade and investment in Latin America, Africa, and across central Asia, while its naval presence has increased in the Indian Ocean. And China has invested in and established ports in and around the Indian Ocean which Indian naval strategists refer to as a “String of Pearls” that threatens to strategically surround India.
A retrospective on the September 11th attacks and America’s response should counsel caution, prudence, and humility.
During that time, the CCP also initiated a strategic dialogue with Russia, resulting in a new version of the old Sino-Soviet bloc without the ideological baggage. The new Sino-Russian bloc threatens to put a huge swath of the Eurasian landmass under hostile control, creating the geopolitical nightmare for the Western democracies that Halford Mackinder warned about more than a century ago. Mackinder wrote that control of most of Eurasia by a hostile continental power or alliance of powers would threaten the security of the world’s maritime powers (Britain and the United States.
A retrospective on the September 11th attacks and America’s response should counsel caution, prudence, and humility. We were right to strike back at the enemies who attacked us on that terrible day. We were right to take steps to prevent a second attack—and the Bush administration deserves enormous credit for foiling attempted terror attacks and preventing others. But we were wrong in attempting to use our power to transform the Middle East into a land of democracies. There will always be monsters abroad, and the best we can do is to try to keep them from our shores.
America’s national security focus should be on our most dangerous long-term rivals, most especially the CCP. Our frequently mentioned “pivot to Asia” (prioritizing our strategic focus and military resources from Europe to Asia) must become a reality on the ground and in the seas of the Indo-Pacific. In the 21st century, America’s most important allies should be India, Japan, and Taiwan, and our top military priority should be strengthening the United States Navy. Our nuclear deterrent must be modernized and upgraded. Our foreign policy statesmen must seek to divide China and Russia—as Nixon and Kissinger did in the early 1970s.
Global geopolitics, not the global War on Terror, must guide our leaders. Fighting terrorism is important, but it is China that seeks to replace the United States as the leading world power, and to replace the U.S.-led liberal world order with a totalitarian-led world order, with all that would entail.
This article is part of a Human Events Opinion Special Collection released September 11th, 2021: “9/11: A Twenty Year Retrospective.”
Francis P. Sempa
Francis P. Sempa is an attorney and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics, and War.