With the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan occurring right on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we close the final chapter on a generation of foreign policy blunders conceived by the best and the brightest, and executed by the fury of the American military.
Despite some bright moments, like the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 or the rescue of the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar in 2014, the overall story hews more towards farce and tragedy. In the grief and rage following the attacks on the Twin Towers, the US collectively took leave of its senses and embarked on a generational project of warfare that entailed creating two overseas protectorates, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now that inexplicable and indefensible project is over, stillborn and incomplete, as America retreats ignominiously from its obligations, reneging on its lofty promises. After hundreds of thousands of deaths, none of the instigators or cheerleaders for this disaster has suffered any career or reputational loss for their hubris or misjudgment, and almost no one has ever expressed regret.
It began with much more bravado in the early 20th century; wars were waged on two fronts with a casual arrogance that many seem to have forgotten. On 29 May, 2003, a few months after the US invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times declared on The Charlie Rose Show: “suck on this…We could have hit Saudi Arabia…We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq, because we could. And that’s the real truth.”
Meanwhile David Frum, erstwhile speechwriter of George W. Bush, co-authored a belligerently pro-war book with the hyperbolic title An End to Evil in 2004. Before the invasion, Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of The Atlantic, wrote an article titled “The Great Terror” for The New Yorker, making the case that Saddam Hussein’s regime was engaged in genocide against the Kurds, offering a compelling humanitarian rationale for the invasion of Iraq and Hussein’s overthrow.
Goldberg wasn’t alone at that august magazine, with storied foreign correspondent George Packer also being an invasion supporter. William Kristol, arguably the most prominent turn-of-the-century neoconservative, contributed The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission in early 2003, and predicted a two-month rather than eight-year conflict. At the highest levels of the American government, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney concurred with their advisors that the best way to win the “War on Terror” against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was to invade and conquer a secular nation-state, Iraq. Leading national security lights such as Condoleezza Rice and L. Paul Bremer encouraged Bush and Cheney and then attempted to execute their imperialist vision.
Somehow, all this seemed reasonable to 72% of Americans in 2003. America was the land of promise and possibilities. At the turn of the millennium, the US budget surplus was $230 billion. America was 30% of the world economy, and Russia and China were both considered geopolitical allies. The protracted dispute over the 2000 presidential election actually convinced many that the democratic system in the United States of America was robust even under stress. America at the turn of the century was in the afterglow of Cold War victory, a hyperpower in a world where it was the singular imperial colossus.
But the world has turned sideways in a single generation. By 2020, the US had a $3-trillion-dollar budget deficit, and our share of the global economy had decreased to 25%, in large part due to the rise of China. Nearly 7,000 Americans had died in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than double the number killed on 9/11. In the 2020 election, Donald J. Trump refused to concede to Joe Biden, and on 6 January this year the US Capitol was stormed by an enraged mob. To the broader world, the American colossus was looking a lot more like an American basket case.
The results of American hubris have been mixed at best for Iraq and Afghanistan. A conservative estimate is that more than 200,000 Iraqis and 250,000 Afghans have died since 2001 as a result of the invasions. Iraq’s democracy is shaky, having undergone an existential fright with the rise of ISIS in the mid-2010s. Afghanistan is now under Taliban rule, just as it was in 2001. America came to liberate, but in the wake of imperial conquest, the natives suffered through corruption, factionalism and civil war. Due to our all-volunteer army and reflexive recourse to deficit spending, most Americans did not experience the wars in a visceral or indirect manner. All the while, viscera were being splattered across the streets of Baghdad and Kabul as young men blew themselves up, inspired by a religious fanaticism in turn aggravated by American occupation.
Notably, while the consequences for the Iraqis and Afghans have been tragic, our social, intellectual and political elite have suffered no professional repercussions for their incompetence. On 2 November, 2001 Friedman asked us to “give war a chance”. Twenty years later, he continues to opine for The New York Times, pulling down a salary of $350,000 per year at a time when journalism as a profession is collapsing.
Goldberg, whose New Yorker piece burnished the humanitarian need for the overthrow of Hussein, was appointed editor of The Atlantic in 2016. Packer wrote a book, Assassin’s Gate, where he chronicles his disillusionment with the war. This was sufficient to maintain a sinecure at The New Yorker until 2018, when he moved to The Atlantic to work under his former colleague Goldberg. Frum has had a more chequered career, but that had little to do with his position on the War on Terror, and everything to do with his scepticism of the Republican stance on healthcare reform in 2010, illustrating the true red-lines in American politics.
Frum is now more often speaking to a centre-left rather than a centre-right audience (though still identifying as a conservative), but he is still comfortably ensconced in the American establishment. Similarly, Kristol has converted into a “Never Trump” “Biden Republican,” and is a member of good standing of the “Resistance”. His publication, The Bulwark, receives funding from centre-left foundations. Even George W. Bush, who was once a hate-figure for the Left, is now being rehabilitated. The man who unleashed two disastrous wars and whose decisions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands is now celebrated for his paintings of immigrants.
Bush’s one-time viceroy in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, has also taken up painting and become a ski instructor in his leisured semi-retirement. Meanwhile, his hawkish lieutenant Dick Cheney is now well regarded for his support of gay marriage, while Cheney’s daughter, Liz, is garnering respect and accolades from Democrats for her anti-Trump views following the 2020 election. Condeleezza Rice, also an anti-Trump Republican, returned to academia, but has also become a pop culture phenomenon, and has now been tapped to make guest appearances on The View.
The soft-glow Cheney rehabilitation is emblematic of the primacy of domestic political concerns in today’s American cultural landscape. Just a decade ago, he was being pilloried for his frank defence of torture. Today his anti-Trump stance gets more weight when determining whether he’s one of the “good ones” or “bad ones”. Despite how much foreign policy dominated American politics in the early 2000’s, the rest of the world has faded from view over the past decade. The 2016 and 2020 Democrat presidential candidates were both supporters of the Iraq invasion and hailed from the party’s more hawkish wing, Hillary Clinton being a major proponent of American intervention in Libya.
Under Trump, many conventional narratives surrounding national security and foreign policy flipped. Liberals and the intelligentsia came to love the CIA and FBI, and cast a sceptical eye on foreign powers like Russia. Kristol, the architect of the neoconservative intellectual project in the 2000s, has now become an icon of the anti-Trump faction, even lauded by mainstream liberals. Establishment intellectuals even now see Bush as a bulwark of American democracy, a contrast to Trump’s strongman tendencies.
It turns out that 9/11 didn’t change everything. Despite a decade of international adventurism in the 2000s that extended at lower wattage into the 2010s, the US remained a nation apart, focused on its own concerns. The pundits and politicians whose blunders in the early 2000s had grave consequences for nations far away suffered few ill consequences for their disastrous prognostications, short-sighted decisions and uninformed arguments.
Bush is now allowed to be the pro-immigrant painter ex-president, not the executive who authorised extraordinary rendition and whose decisions pulverised two nations for a generation. Kristol’s legacy may not be as organiser of Bush’s imperial braintrust, but as the rebel against the Trump regime. Friedman remains one of the best-paid journalists in the country, while Goldberg is now editor of one of the nation’s most venerable magazines. Frum and Cheney have not changed their fundamental politics, but are now embraced by the liberal establishment thanks to their strident anti-Trump position.
Never mind that Cheney’s objection to Trumpism is rooted in the latter’s deviation from the disastrous foreign policy of the 2000s. The period in the middle of that decade when foreign policy loomed large as a polarising issue in partisan politics was the exception and not the rule, and the collateral damage abroad of American adventurism is out of sight and out of mind. The current President supported the Iraq War, while Kristol is now a Biden-defender against even the gentlest conservative criticisms.
Twenty years down the line, the American elite is somewhat chagrined to be reminded of the arrogance and ignorance they showed in the wake of 9/11. But they are the same elite that they always were, because their sinecures are ultimately yoked to the whims of domestic politics, not the horrors that American enthusiasms unleashed abroad. Once obtained, a position in the pundit and political elite is rarely subject to the vicissitudes of meritocracy. America is ruled by a soft and complacent aristocracy of error in 2021, just as it was in 2001 on the eve of the 9/11 terror attack. In that sense, it was a day that changed nothing.