The Sooners play Florida State this afternoon, and Kansas and Georgia Tech have a shoot-out going. It’s a bright football Saturday in early fall. Being at the computer typing isn’t my top idea of a good time. But as the 9th anniversary of 9/11 passes, it seems necessary to respond to an article on 9/11 from long-time writer on strategy and geopolitics George Friedman, posted this week at Real Clear World. Friedman runs Strategic Forecasting, one of the pioneers of open-source intelligence and strategic advice patronized by businesses, think tanks, and opinion writers. I think highly of STRATFOR and always give Friedman a hearing; he has a useful perspective and often frames things in a way that resonates with me.
That’s why I was somewhat surprised to read his take on our response to 9/11, and in particular, the reasoning that produced it. Friedman’s main thesis – which I largely agree with – is that the US grand strategy was knocked off its previous course by the 9/11 attacks. But he attributes the situation in which we find ourselves today – heavily committed to a conflict in Afghanistan that has the potential to unbalance us strategically – to misperceptions about Al Qaeda and the nature of the problem back in 2001.
He also characterizes our grand strategy in a way that is too mechanistic: too focused on phenomenological interpretations and not enough on will and intention. America is, in fact, exceptional; we did not merely take over the strategy of the British Empire (as Friedman suggests); and what makes us exceptional is that we tend more, on average, toward seeking a “better peace” – B.H. Liddell-Hart’s term – than toward pragmatically keeping balances of power in perpetual tension. You can find at least half a dozen key British statesmen who spoke and wrote of tending balances of power, but that has not been the style or rhetorical focus of America’s defining diplomats. America’s unique tendency has been to seek renversement – a superb French word for which there is no elegant English equivalent – of existing, dysfunctional situations, and new conclusions from our expenditures and sweat equity.
One very unfortunate point made by Friedman must be called out up front. He states that there have been no more attacks like the 9/11 attacks, and that it was a misjudgment on our part – the president’s, the intelligence community’s, the nation’s – to suppose that there would be. This is simply invalid analysis. There have been dozens of thwarted attempts, a handful of them major attempts on a large scale (e.g., the plan to blow up multiple passenger jets over the Atlantic). There have been continued attacks in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
But two of the top three terror-sponsoring states in 2001 have been regime-changed. Equally important, no state today enjoys the latitude nations had between 1970 and 2001 to sponsor terrorism unpreempted. Much of the focus of transnational jihadism, moreover, has shifted to the battle for sovereignty over Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Somalia and, increasingly, Yemen). Meanwhile, much of the 2001-era leadership of Al Qaeda, as well as terrorists with other affiliations, has been captured or killed.
We have affected the course of Islamist terrorism. Effective terrorist leadership and organization – the agents that concentrate terrorist will – have been disrupted more successfully than most people probably expected back in 2001. And that has been achieved by precisely the operations we undertook. It’s not a random or unaccountable development, nor is it evidence that “Al Qaeda” was never the threat we supposed. It is thus true, in a very real sense – as many others have pointed out – that the lack of successful follow-on attacks, on a 9/11 scale, is due to our choice to wage the GWOT.
That point made, we will turn to the GWOT decision path first. Unfortunately for his overall thesis, Friedman misstates two important things: what George W. Bush perceived that he needed to do, and his assessment of the problem that faced him. Here’s what Friedman says about the task:
The president had to do three things: First, he had to assure the public that he knew what he was doing. Second, he had to do something that appeared decisive. Third, he had to gear up an intelligence and security apparatus to tell him what the threats actually were and what he ought to do. American policy became ready, fire, aim.
In the first two sentences, George Friedman has put on his Thomas Friedman hat, offering analysis that is unfortunately just superficial and banal. The implication that Bush was consciously focused on looking competent and decisive is, in the end, meaningless – what matters is what he decided to do. In the context of American politics and recent history, invading Afghanistan and Iraq was not a good bet for establishing an image of competence and decision. Merely advocating either course was bound, instead, to generate tremendous political opposition and accusations of incompetence – of going beyond the traditional boundaries of justifiable military action and breaching the norms of international relations.
Clintonian missile-lobbing is what presidents do when they perceive their chief tasks as looking competent and looking decisive. A concern for appearances and reassuring the public cannot justify invasion and regime-change, and there is no evidence that this was “really” what drove Bush. The evidence of what did drive him is very clear, so much so that it’s quite odd to find no reference at all to it in Friedman’s piece. Bush’s concern was not that Al Qaeda – and only Al Qaeda – might somehow acquire nuclear material, and therefore he needed to do something that looked competent and decisive because doing nothing was not an option. Bush’s concern was that state sponsorship of terrorism – the concept to which Friedman makes no reference – was a key accelerant of jihadist terror. Terrorists who were not aided by nation-states could not achieve nearly as much as terrorists who were.
Bush made this case repeatedly in the period October 2001 to March 2003. Every time he spoke about it in public, he made the point that regime-changing Afghanistan and Iraq was to be undertaken for the purpose of denying Islamist terrorism the incubators and training grounds those nations had consciously and intentionally provided under their brutal radical regimes. In the case of Iraq, he spoke repeatedly of Saddam being able to provide WMD materials to terrorists if he remained in power. Which, if he had remained in power, Saddam could be doing today: with ricin, VX, and mustard gas, all of which we found in Iraq.
It’s not quite clear what Friedman has in mind when he says there was “a profound lack of understanding of al Qaeda, particularly its capabilities and intentions.” He goes on to state that the Bush administration had a “fear that al Qaeda had acquired nuclear weapons and that they would use them against the United States.” But that is not true. Bush was concerned, due to the state-sponsorship issue, that one of the things AQ or other terrorists might be able to acquire was nuclear materials. As someone who served in Naval intelligence throughout this period, I can attest that the chief concern was that terrorists might be able to get their hands on what we could best call an improvised nuclear device: short of a fully-weaponized traditional warhead, but capable of doing damage in a major population area.
If Friedman has an argument against the basic state-sponsorship proposition – which was Bush’s overriding proposition through all the politicking prior to invading Iraq – he doesn’t make it. He simply ignores the way Bush formulated the problem, in favor of some vague references to our having misunderstood Al Qaeda. I certainly agree that there were some intelligence shortfalls, and some mistargeted collection and analytical tropes, in the entire period from the 1960s to 2001, but I’m not at ease with offering any further agreement. Friedman simply doesn’t make it clear what he thinks was wrong with the actual intel assessments (as opposed to the hostile MSM restatement of the intel assessments).
I do think that 2010 finds us in a position in which the Afghanistan commitment portends some peril to our strategic balance. On that, Friedman and I are in substantial agreement. But we didn’t invade Afghanistan because we thought we’d catch UBL red-handed with a nuke there. What Friedman seems to think was wrong with our original assessment isn’t what drove us to regime-change the Taliban. It was the more general state-sponsorship concern – the concern Friedman doesn’t address – that took us into Afghanistan. And like it or not, it’s the lingering possibility that state sponsorship would resume, if Afghanistan fell to the Taliban again, that has kept us there.
How to approach global Islamist terrorism has been a conundrum from the beginning. There are legitimate objections to the regime-changes: particularly in Afghanistan, which Friedman is correct to note is of less conventional-strategic concern to us. But it all gets back to the model you choose to overlay on the problem – not just the one you use for analysis, but the one you use to justify a course of action. Friedman’s model is the mechanistic view that certain nations adopt a pattern of tending balances of power because that works to preserve a status quo. This is a view with long acceptance in the fields of academic expertise and diplomacy, and as an aid to analysis I use it myself all the time. But it doesn’t actually explain America’s behavior all that well.
America is exceptional. When the mighty British fleet paid tribute to the Barbary pirates, because pushback against the low-level nuisance wasn’t worth the effort, we took the pirates on. From the earliest days, America’s foreign policy has been informed to a unique degree by a sense in its statesmen that what they owe the people, for the people’s blood and treasure, is not stasis but transformation. The point here is not arguing for or against that assumption, but registering its significance. An elegant pragmatist like Henry Kissinger, although he operated on an American platform, does not have the American distinctiveness of Reagan, Truman, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, or even the president he originally worked for, Richard Nixon.
Bush the Younger was in the mold of those quintessentially American, transformative foreign-policy presidents, in choosing to wage the GWOT as a transformative enterprise. His genuine objective was to transform the conditions abroad that foster and abet Islamist terrorism. It wasn’t his assessment of the nature of Al Qaeda that led him to adopt this objective; it was his prior moral-political posture. In my view, that typically American posture is frequently – perhaps always – in tension with the very ordinary human tendencies that lead most nations to favor defensive minimalism in their security policy. Certainly the domestic debate in the US always features voices vigorously making the minimalist case, from one or more perspectives.
George Friedman may well think it was wrong to adopt the transformative approach – rather than the tolerant policing approach – to terrorism. I would say that what it’s done for us is, precisely, disrupt the scions of the Muslim Brotherhood so thoroughly that they haven’t been able to mount another 9/11-type attack. Very possibly, they have at least partly been deterred from doing so, since their infrastructure paid a very high price for the first one.
The price we have paid is ending up committed in Afghanistan, a position we don’t need to occupy from a conventional geostrategic perspective, but which we now can’t extricate ourselves gracefully or cheaply. What we have reached today is a decision point. The decision before us is whether we are “all in,” when it comes to the original transformative objective of the GWOT. Do we press on to transform Afghanistan, or do we accept its eventual reversion to a safe haven for those who declare themselves our enemies?
The early nay-sayers were sure that we wouldn’t achieve even the success we have, in Iraq and Afghanistan; relentless pessimism about either situation is just pessimism, not analysis or insight. But Friedman would say that’s not even the point. The point, from his perspective, is that the transformative approach is non-pragmatic to begin with.
Do we believe that? I am not sure what Americans would say today. I don’t assume that a majority in 2010 would endorse the transformative approach, but neither do I think a majority would agree with the idea of accepting Islamist terror as a manageable nuisance, so that we can concentrate on maintaining a balance of power in Eurasia. American security policy has reverted repeatedly to a few enduring themes – like freedom of the seas and the discouragement of rival hegemonic regimes – but in the end, it can’t be classified adequately in the mechanical terms of academic analysis. This final paragraph contains the reason. To a degree unique across continents and time, American policy ultimately has to make sense to the people. That’s what Friedman – uncharacteristically for him – has missed in his 9/11 piece.